November 10, 2008

Janet Munsil’s play about the Marbles

Posted at 1:46 pm in Elgin Marbles

More coverage of Influence, Janet Munsil’s play who’s plot revolves around the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.

Vancouver Sun

Gods of Greece must be pleased with Influence
Peter Birnie, Vancouver Sun
Published: Sunday, November 09, 2008

Review: A delicious trip into history awaits with the world premiere of Influence. Janet Munsil has written a winner, one which is sure to have a healthy future when it’s tidied up just a titch.

Just as John Keats was obsessed with the gods of ancient Greece, Munsil wraps herself up in an intoxicatingly self-conscious study of what drove the romantic poet, and indeed drives all great artists, to become beholden to their muses. Katrina Dunn does a terrific job of directing this fast-paced romp ’round artistic licence, drawing precise and near-perfect performances from her talented cast.

Daniel Arnold is Keats, a young and confused apothecary dragged to the British Museum in 1817 by his friend and mentor, Benjamin Robert Haydon. Later to be honoured by Keats in the poem On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time, Haydon must first convince his pale young pal that a poet does indeed lie within him.

It’s thanks to Haydon that the statuary stolen by Lord Elgin (his lordship would have labelled the act of vandalism a rescue effort) from the Parthenon in Athens was dusted off and given proper placement in the museum. Profoundly pompous, Haydon is not unaware of his gifts as both a patron of the arts and a painter of enormous classical canvases; Mike Stack makes mincemeat of this pretentious twit in a howlingly funny study of self-delusion.

The cast is complete with arrival of three Greek gods. Only slowly will we learn that squabbling siblings Athena and Apollo are here with Hephaestus, god of the forge, in a metaphysical mix-up of past and present ultimately aimed at lighting a fire under Keats.

Colleen Wheeler plays aggrieved goddess Athena with all the fury this powerful actress can muster. Already angry about the pilfered marbles, watch out when she dons warrior’s breastplate, helmet and spear (part of Sheila White’s thorough costume conception) to become a second-act wrath of Britannia – it’s almost superfluous to have a microphone hidden in Athena’s hat so her voice booms even more.

Frank Zotter’s Apollo is a cute counterpoint, the beardless youth battling with his sister about what happens when the gods of old are usurped by a brand-new age of invention. Enter Donald Adams as sly Hephaestus, the clubfooted slave to Athena who’s hiding his own agenda in sacred keys forged for use, not by Zeus, but neither by his brawling children.

This concept-heavy and yet exceedingly ethereal play is driven by Munsil’s keen appreciation of rich language. She hands her characters so much clever discourse to deal with that there is, in fact, too much of it – we are carried so far into the conceit that a riot of references to this Keats poem or that Haydon painting tend toward the twee.

But only slightly, and on a David Roberts set true to the feel of the British Museum (with exquisitely specific lighting by Jonathan Ryder to complete the effect), what might have become in lesser hands just an intellectual exercise in academia is here rendered quite compelling. I can’t wait for the day that Janet Munsil’s Influence will extend across the seas to be presented where it’s set, in London.

Influence is at Performance Works, 1218 Cartwright on Granville Island, to Nov. 15; Tickets $20 to $26, go to or call 604-687-2787.

Sun Theatre Critic

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