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GiveLife.ca

    

Kicking up 'some serious stuff'
Actor Simon Bradbury goes out on a limb, MICHAEL POSNER writes, with a one-man show exploring Charlie Chaplin's obsession with Hitler

By MICHAEL POSNER
August 19, 2002


TORONTO -- Charles Spencer Chaplin, arguably the 20th century's greatest comedian, was born April 16, 1889. That was just four days before the arrival of Adolf Hitler, uber-criminal of the 20th and perhaps of any century.

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Shaw Festival Theatre
Click on the links below to read play summaries provided by the festival and Globe and Mail reviews as they are published.

The House of Bernarda Alba (reviewed)

Candida (reviewed)

Caesar and Cleopatra (reviewed)

Chaplin (reviewed)

Detective Story (reviewed)

Hay Fever (reviewed)

The Old Ladies (reviewed)

His Majesty (reviewed)

The Old Lady Shows Her Medals

Merrily we roll along (reviewed)

The Return of the Prodigal
(reviewed)



Stratford Festival Theatre
Click on the links below to read play summaries provided by the festival and Globe and Mail reviews as they are published.

High-Gravel-Blind(reviewed)

Henry VI: Revenge in France (reviewed)

Henry VI: Revolt in England (reviewed)

Eternal Hydra(reviewed)

The Two Noble Kinsmen(reviewed)

My Fair Lady (reviewed)

King Lear (reviewed)

Bereav'd of Light (reviewed)

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

The Scarlet Pimpernel (reviewed)

The Fellini Radio Plays (reviewed)

Romeo and Juliet (reviewed)

Shadows (reviewed)

The Swanne: George III (The Death of Cupid)

Richard III: Reign of terror(reviewed)

The Threepenny Opera (reviewed)

Walk Right Up

All's well that ends well (reviewed)

"Providence was clearly in a pretty ironic mood," suggests actor Simon Bradbury.

Bradbury, veteran of 14 seasons at the Shaw Festival, happens to know something about the subject. After years of research, writing, editing and workshopping, his one-man show, Chaplin (The Trial of Charles Spencer Chaplin, Esq.), opened on Saturday night at the Shaw. It's set in 1940, with Chaplin embroiled in the making of his anti-Hitler satire, The Great Dictator -- his first talkie and the last appearance of his cane-carrying Little Tramp.

Among other things, the play explores Chaplin's obsession with Hitler -- born, Bradbury contends, out of personality characteristics that they shared.

Like Hitler, the actor noted in a recent interview, Chaplin had a well-developed fascist streak, adored Napoleon, and was "a complete and utter dictator of his own world. Chaplin understood Hitler because he was in many ways just like him."

He was certainly fixated. Long before the world knew the evils of Nazi concentration camps or the Final Solution, Chaplin was locking himself away for hours watching Hitler newsreels. "The play is a battle between the two sides of Chaplin's ego -- the Little Tramp, archetypal underdog beloved by millions, and the genius autocrat," reviled in America for his left-leaning politics and his relentless skirt-chasing, particularly of underage females.

The Tramp himself, argues Bradbury, is a creation rooted in violence and anarchy. " Chaplin knew the criminal side of his own nature and how close we all are to chaos and conflagration. You can't emerge from the Victorian horror show of his childhood" -- Chaplin was raised in abject poverty, abandoned by his father, lived in an orphanage, and later had to commit his mother to an insane asylum -- "without carrying scars deeply etched. As an artist, he was prepared to dig out the dirt of his own life. He understood that criminals and artists are psychologically akin because both harbour a deep sense of unlawfulness."

For Chaplin, Bradbury is convinced, it was a battle between these two sides -- the pure, savage instinct for self-survival and the more generous artistic temperament. In The Great Dictator, this split personality is reflected in the two central characters played by Chaplin, the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of Hitler, and his gentle look-alike, a Jewish barber.

Only Chaplin, among Hollywood's establishment, had the will or the power to tackle Hitler, Bradbury says. The studios' largely Jewish owners, sensitive to pro-Nazi sentiment percolating in late-1930s America, would not touch the subject. And eastern bankers and industrialists, including the grandfather of George W. Bush, were actively underwriting German economic and military development. Chaplin could not be cowed.

Even though Bradbury appears as the Tramp during the play's filmed sequences, he's convinced that "you can't really mimic Chaplin. He was a genius. He was on stage from the age of 5. He studied yoga and ballet. The dancer Vaslav Nijinksy came to the set and after watching Chaplin, told him: 'You are a dancer.' " Some of this artistry was never fully appreciated because Chaplin's silent films were shot at 16 frames per second. Slowed down to the contemporary standard, says Bradbury, "you see the grace and ballet."

Bradbury's own fascination with Chaplin dates back more than a decade, when a friend suggested he audition for Sir Richard Attenborough's film biopic, Chaplin.

"I never had a real shot at getting the part [it subsequently went to Robert Downey Jr.], but I rented all these Chaplin films and read dozens of books and ended up with all this information and enthusiasm and nowhere to put it."

It sat inside him until 1999, when he gathered up all his source notes and wrote a first draft of the play. He staged a workshop performance for a group of fellow actors and directors at the Shaw the following summer and, on the strength of it, was booked into the current season.

"I have no idea how it will be received," says Bradbury, now in his early 40s. "It's an experiment. It might be an interesting failure, but it's provocative and I've tried to go into areas that people will find challenging."

Born in Manchester to working-class parents, Bradbury spent just one year at London's Drama Centre before emigrating to Canada with his first wife. Almost immediately, he landed work at the Stratford Festival, where he spent the next four seasons under the late John Hirsch.

"I loved him, but he scared me to death for the first two years," Bradbury recalls. "He could be hard on actors, but he had a mind and a passion for the theatre. The atmosphere was almost monastic. This was the early 1980s and we did a lot of partying, and Hirsch was always checking the pubs to see who was in there."

Bradbury spent the next four years in Toronto, learning how tough the theatre life can be. Driving cab and waiting tables, he and two actor friends launched Ziggurat Theatre Co., writing and directing their own work. "We found out that none of us really wanted to run a theatre company, but it did help kick-start our careers."

Invited to Shaw in 1989, he's been comfortably ensconced there ever since, and regards his roles as Charteris in The Philanderer,Captain Bluntschli in Arms and the Man,and Thomas Mendip in The Lady's Not for Burning among his favourites. Bradbury lives in Niagara Falls with his second wife and two sons, 8 and 10.

If all goes well, he'd like to take Chaplin on the road. "It's a plug-in-and-play show," he says, alluding to the multimedia sequences. "You can throw it in a U-Haul and drag it around."

Just days before his first preview performance, Bradbury confessed to a sense of mounting curiosity about the play's reception. "Although I've written before, I don't really consider myself a writer, so I'm treading into territory without the best qualifications. It's sheer passion and willpower and determination that have gotten me through this. But I've always felt I was onto something, and we've taken some risks in the writing. I don't think anyone will come away and say it was bland. When you put Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin in the same ring, you're going to kick up some serious stuff."
Chaplin runs at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., through Sept. 22. For more information call: 1-800-511-SHAW.

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