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His Greatness: Channelling Tennessee Williams

Daniel MacIvor as the "Assistant" and Richard Donat as the "Playwright" in a scene from "His Greatness"

Seán Baker

3 out of 4 stars

It was 31 years ago this fall that a young Richard Donat starred in a Vancouver Playhouse revival of Tennessee Williams's late play The Red Devil Battery Sign, in a production attended by Williams himself.

I don't know if Donat secretly took notes during his meeting with the legendary American playwright, or if he just has one amazing memory for detail. Whatever the case, he gives a remarkable interpretation of Williams at that time in Daniel MacIvor's play His Greatness.

MacIvor's tragicomedy – now onstage at Factory Theatre's studio space – is set in Vancouver in 1980 and imagines what went on in Williams's hotel room in the hours leading up to and after the opening of the Playhouse show. By then, the 69-year-old Williams was well past his creative prime, labouring over plays that were mere shadows of such earlier masterpieces as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. He was also addicted to booze, pills and casual sex with (hopefully, kind) strangers.

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When we first see him, as brilliantly embodied by Donat, he's a mess: Bulky, florid, afflicted with incontinence and gout, he limps about the room like some spectacular shipwreck wrapped in a silk dressing gown. But before long, with a little bourbon for lubrication, this glorious old drama queen is back in full sail, crafting vivid metaphors, weaving delicate poetic images and deftly parrying insults in the lilting tones of a Southern gentleman – and, sometimes, belle.

The insults come in a relentless volley from his assistant, a fussy little martinet seething with resentment. A former lover of the playwright's, who has been with him for 15 years, he now maintains a semi-sadomasochistic relationship with his employer. He bullies the great man, who in turn playfully wheedles and cajoles until the assistant agrees to procure him an escort for the opening night.

His Greatness premiered to acclaim at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre in 2007, and for this belated Toronto debut, MacIvor and director Ed Roy have pulled out the stops. Not only do they offer the inspired casting of Donat, but actor-writer MacIvor gives us one of his rare non-solo performances in the role of the assistant.

Appearing trim and tidy, with a military mustache, MacIvor's middle-aged factotum is amusingly bitchy and bitter in the early scenes, jealous and pathetic later on as the playwright becomes enamoured of the young hustler (Greg Gale) hired for the night. In the end, though, MacIvor fails to make us care much for the plight of his character.

It's Donat who keeps us spellbound. Looking very much like the elder Williams – especially when wearing those chunky, black-rimmed glasses – he gives a performance of infinite variety. He seems to catch every aspect of the playwright's personality –by turns he's jovial, charming, eloquent, pedantic, irritable, impulsive, thin-skinned, cruel and, finally, fragile and lonely.

MacIvor has given him lines that could have been lifted from Williams's writings. And there are also sly echoes of the plays, both in the script and in Roy's evocative staging on Kimberly Purtell's blandly elegant hotel-room set.

Ultimately, His Greatness is a dark rumination on the burden of fame and the pain of failure. But I don't think Williams, who died in 1983, is rolling in his grave over this unflattering portrait of his twilight years. After all, he set the standard for biographical candour – especially in sexual matters – with his 1975 Memoirs. If anything, his corpse might sit up and applaud this play for its honesty.

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His Greatness runs until Oct. 23.

Special to The Globe and Mail

His Greatness

  • Written by Daniel MacIvor
  • Directed by Ed Roy
  • Starring Richard Donat, Greg Gale and Daniel MacIvor
  • At Factory Theatre in Toronto

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