smART x Stratford Pt.3: Casey and Diana
A theatrical exercise in compassion that represents the very best of Stratford 2023
REVIEW BY STEPHEN LOW | STRATFORD | FOURTH WALL
JUL 04, 2023 | ISSUE 12
Sean Arbuckle (left) as Thomas and Krystin Pellerin as Diana in Casey and Diana. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Laura Condlln as Pauline in Casey and Diana. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Contemporary theatre has directly engaged the human suffering caused by a pandemic in the past. In the 80s and 90s, many plays and musicals were written and staged that dramatised the HIV/AIDs epidemic, including well-known works like Rent (also at the Stratford Festival this year), Angels in America, and The Normal Heart. Casey and Diana, also a play that deals with AIDs, follows in the footsteps of these important texts but in the shadow of the most recent global health crisis─the COVID 19 pandemic.
Casey and Diana tells the story of the clients and the caregivers at Casey House, Canada’s first HIV/AIDs Hospice, as they wait seven days for the visit from Princess Diana. Everyone at Casey House is understandably excited for the opportunity to meet the Princess of Wales, but the patients are especially thrilled because Diana has shown people with AIDS compassion and tenderness. This simple kindness shown by “the People’s Princess” came by way of her fearless advocacy exhibited in something as simple as being in the same room with patients. Often touching those suffering, an act that was considered dangerous because of the ignorance concerning the virus at the time.
A play that deals with disease, loss, and mortality can be difficult and depressing for an audience to endure, but the masterfully crafted script by Nick Green — brought to the stage with the sensitive, tender, loving direction of Andrew Kushnir — presents this material with humour and compassion.
Despite how the play features characters who must confront the fact that they are close to death (treatment to fight the virus to keep a person alive was not yet available), it is life and the time they have to live that is centerstage in the production. As Kushnir notes in the program, “AIDS is not the antagonist of this play.” Rather, the urgency of the play comes from the desire of the clients, particularly Thomas — who is the play’s greatest fan of Princess Diana — to live long enough to be able to speak with Diana. The swift passage of time itself is made theatrically present by Debashis Sinha’s sound design — of note is a whooshing effect that is effectively placed at select moments of the play — reminding us all of how quickly our time on this earth can last.
The play also captures the sense of hope and humour of the characters as they prepare for the Princess’s visit. Sean Arbuckle’s virtuosic performance of Thomas is saturated with sarcastic wit that has, since Oscar Wilde, been common in gay culture. Marjorie, a volunteer who is a heterosexual member of the Gay Village community and who lost a dear friend from AIDS, learns over the course of the play to respond to Thomas’s biting quips with a biting and clever response.
Davinder Malhi (left) as Malhi and Linda Kash as Marjorie in Casey and Diana. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
A play about Princess Diana risks shifting the focus from those who are suffering from a deadly virus to a very privileged, rich, white woman. But once again, this play avoids that pitfall. Diana herself, though present physically throughout the play, is a soft glowing background to the action of the play.
The focus is not just on the clients of Casey House, but also their caregivers, who were essential, brave, and compassionate frontline workers who both saved many lives and helped those who were dying die with dignity. In this production, Linda Cash plays the cheerful volunteer, Marjorie, with depth, complexity, and humour. Vera, played by Sophia Walker, has been hardened by her time nursing those who have HIV/AIDS but gradually reveals her humanity and deep love for her patients. These two performances, in contrast to Diana and Thomas and Andre (who is also suffering from AIDS), could otherwise have been one dimensional functionaries, but Green’s script, Kushnir’s direction, and the capacity of these strong performers give them the attention that they are due, first and foremost as human beings and secondly as the caregivers.