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article imageReview: Intense ‘Breathing Corpses’ shocks, stuns in Canadian debut Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Oct 28, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - Everybody dies, but how does the cycle of mortality affect those still living? That’s the theme that confronts audiences in British playwright Laura Wade’s uncomfortable 2005 drama, “Breathing Corpses”, which opened in Toronto on Wednesday.
It’s strange that this eleven-year-old play has never been produced in Canada before, especially considering that it won a major U.K. theatre award for Wade as most promising playwright and has since been staged throughout the U.S. But there’s no better time of year than the Halloween season to see it – especially with the zombie imagery that the Sophocles-inspired title suggests. A dark series of stories interconnected by chance discoveries of dead bodies in London, Breathing Corpses is like an unpaved highway with death as the rest stops.
Directed by David Ferry at the Coal Mine Theatre, Corpses follows a nonlinear storyline, bookended with morbidly funny scenes about Amy (Erin Humphry), a young hotel maid who has stumbled into an unfortunate habit of finding guests dead in their rooms. “The manager says I’m the Angel of Death,” she tells the corpse of Jim (Richard Sheridan Willis), her latest discovery.
The play takes us backwards in time to meet Jim in better days, when he runs a storage facility with his chatty wife, Elaine (Severn Thompson), and their slow-witted son (Simon Bracken). A strange odour and maggots coming from one of the lockers leads to another macabre discovery, which traumatizes Jim – and also takes us further back in time to visit dysfunctional couple Kate (Kim Nelson) and Ben (Benjamin Sutherland), the day after the latter’s dog finds a murdered girl underneath a bush.
It’s during this lengthy, violent middle scene when Corpses is at its most riveting and disturbing. Nelson is intense and frightening as a physically abusive woman who has been driven over the edge by the body’s discovery and the current heat wave, and Sutherland matches her as a bruised partner who wants to love her, but can’t take any more of her hurtful actions. “You can’t behave like that poor dead girl existed only to f—k up your weekend,” he screams at her, with good reason.
Corpses ends up as an examination of how different people respond to strangers’ deaths – and, more importantly, what that reveals about their true selves. Jim, who starts off as a quiet, low-key dreamer with moments of light sarcasm, is driven close to madness – removing all the doors from the family home, sitting on the garage floor and desperately trying to blow a smell out of his nose, the body stench that he still imagines lingers in there. Amy, meanwhile, seems more worried about losing her job than freaked out about finding Jim’s body, but her quirky “conversation” with him reveals her to be sensitive and compassionate too. “I bet you were lovely. I bet you were really kind,” she tells him when she sees his eyes.
Mixing suspense, black comedy and introspective drama, Ferry’s staging of this play has a sharp physical impact, partly because of the intensity of the performances, but also because of the Coal Mine’s cramped layout. Now in its third season, this small theatre space holds fewer than a hundred audience members, surrounding the stage area in close proximity, so you feel virtually trapped in a dark room with some truly unnerving characters – whether that’s Nelson’s perpetually angry Kate or Johnathan Sousa’s creepy, knife-obsessed hotel guest. The only time that’s really off-putting is during the scene transitions, when the players change the set while yelling incoherently at the audience and each other for no apparent reason — the loud hip-hop music doesn’t help much.
The performances are mostly excellent – especially that of Willis, who puts on a convincing transformation as a man whose good-humoured façade is shattered by trauma and misplaced guilt, and Nelson and Sutherland, who attack each other so ferociously (with words as well as physical assault) that you brace for them to tear each other apart literally. Thompson manages to overcome the stereotype of the nosy, flaky suburban wife, and Humphry is charming and very sympathetic. Steve Lucas’ set full of greys and blacks is practical, offering little more or less than required, although it could have done without the redundant London map on the back wall; I don’t see how the specific city setting is essential to the play’s themes.
This isn’t a play that will appeal to everybody. It will shock and unnerve some, while mystifying others who don’t immediately grasp a connection between the different stories. But it shines with Wade’s blunt, uncompromising dialogue and confident understanding of her characters, and Ferry maintains an even balance between tension, tragedy and humour all the way through. For a play that’s obsessed with death, this production is more alive than a lot of theatre you’ll see.
Breathing Corpses runs at the Coal Mine Theatre until November 13.
More about Laura Wade, Theatre, coal mine theatre, breathing corpses, Toronto
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