I saw something brand-new, from the 12th century. It’s one of the ironies of theatre or music that sometimes recent works give you comparatively little room for invention, every page stipulating how it must be interpreted. If you want real freedom you have to go back. Generally, the earlier you go, the less specific the text will be about how it must be done.
Tonight, the Toronto Consort premiered a new version of Danielis ludus, aka The Play of Daniel, a very old play that requires music. David Fallis, the artistic director of Toronto Consort wrote a new English verse translation in couplets, except for the occasional passage in Latin, and arranged the music for the Consort players: Alison Melville, Terry McKenna, Ben Grossman and Kirk Elliott. I’d heard rumblings for months that this was the big project capturing everyone’s imagination, and no wonder. The Play of Daniel resembles an opera with a medieval sound. Bringing it to the stage was a huge undertaking, including the participation of over a dozen adult stage performers and the 22 members of Viva! Youth singers of Toronto.
As a frequent viewer of medieval drama with PLS at the University of Toronto—including a couple of acting roles I undertook—I knew that this would be enjoyable. But I didn’t realize just how remarkable this text is, especially the way it was presented.
We were sitting in Trinity St Paul’s on Bloor Street. Yes it’s a concert venue but first and foremost it’s a church. As the program notes explain, it’s a liturgical drama, which means it would normally be presented in a church, employing a text that’s profoundly different from what we usually expect in theatre. As Director Alex Fallis put it in his notes:
“From a dramatic point of view The Play of Daniel is one of the great texts from the Medieval theatre. It is also a sprawling piece that includes a wide variety of episodes, dramatic techniques, moods, and musical colours. It defies our contemporary ideas of genre, and dramatic progression—choruses tell of events before they happen onstage, and very different styles of music are used moment by moment. We have chosen not to try to “smooth” out the sudden shifts, but in fact to celebrate these rapid changes, and I believe that this creates a real sense of surprise and wonder when watching the piece that I hope is very appropriate. “
Because it doesn’t employ predictable devices the effects can surprise you. Perhaps more importantly is how it feels from a spiritual or religious point of view. I felt as though I was encountering a purer form of religion, without any of the modern moralistic overlay.
At roughly an hour in length with continuous music it resembles an opera. The last five or ten minutes (I couldn’t gauge because I was so mesmerized) consists of a Te Deum sung a capella, performers processing around the church, as we seem to segue into a genuine service, albeit one from a different world. This is a piece of great simplicity & directness, beautifully costumed by Michelle Bailey, with a set from Glenn Davidson that complements the sanctuary.
There were no weak spots anywhere in the cast. Kevin Skelton was a youthful Daniel, bringing a light agile voice to the portrayal. Olivier Laquerre, familiar to Toronto audiences for his work with Opera Atelier, was a strong-voiced King Belshazzar. David Fallis and Bud Roach were the jealous rascals from Darius’s Court who end up exiting (spoiler alert), running up the aisle, pursued by lions. It’s a solemn place which might have held some back from laughing at what is a very funny text, especially Fallis & Roach.
I was going to say “there’s nothing like it in town” but in fact the PLS are celebrating half a century, which is one pretense for the upcoming Festival of Early Drama, where you might see something similar. But as good or better? I don’t think you’d be able to surpass what the Toronto Consort achieved on this occasion, between their brilliant musicianship, the wit of the text and the beauty of the presentation. You must see it if you can, the two remaining performances coming May 23rd & 24th at the Trinity St Paul’s Centre.