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Court House Theatre
By Simon Bradbury, 2002
Directed by Neil Munro

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

The play takes place in Charlie Chaplin's private quarters at his studios in Los Angeles. Around the room are pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac that suggest that he spends a lot of time here. There is a movie screen on which he can view his "rushes," and a projector and an easy chair facing it. Film canisters and pieces of film are everywhere. As the play begins, an intercom buzzes and Chaplin's secretary begins to speak to him.

The time of the play is 1940, and Chaplin is in production for The Great Dictator. For this film, as for all his most famous films, Chaplin is producer, screenwriter, director and star. But although he is used to sustaining these multiple responsibilities, this project has some unique pressures. For one, Chaplin had made only three movies in the past decade, though he once made a dozen or more annually. For another, it is his first talking film, having stuck to pantomime even in the age of sound. And finally, he is playing two roles in the movie: a Jewish barber in Hitler's Germany, and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, an obvious parody of Hitler himself. In the present political climate of America - largely anti-Semitic and isolationist - he could be headed for financial and artistic ruin.

The Globe and Mail's review

The Little Tramp in the limelight again
Monday, August 19, 2002 Print Edition, Page R3

Rating: **

At about the midpoint of Simon Bradbury's new one-man show about Charlie Chaplin and the making of The Great Dictator, the Hitler-like figure shimmering on the film screen at the back of the stage stops what he's doing, stares out at the live actor and begins to harangue him directly. Oh, thank goodness, all the technology in this 90-minute play is there for a purpose: It was starting to look like a cheap and unreliable replacement for real actors.

Chaplin: The Trial of Spencer Chaplin Esq., which opened at the Shaw Festival on Saturday, is set in the actor's office during the filming of The Great Dictator, his 1940 satire of Nazism and also his first real talkie. The great comic is under extreme pressure: Off-screen, right-wing fanatics are threatening him for criticizing Hitler, and American isolationists are outraged that he would publicly rebuke U.S. neutrality, while on-screen the villainous dictator to whom he has given voice is duking it out with his once-silent Little Tramp.

At first, Bradbury, who wrote this script and plays Chaplin both on the stage and in the film clips, tells us this story through the rather feeble device of conversations over the office intercom. You see Bradbury's dilemma: This play is about Chaplin's relationship with his art not with his producer, his secretary or his brother, but the unseen voices inevitably sound stilted as the actor must time his cues to a soundtrack instead of a colleague.

The awkwardness of the technology was sadly underlined on opening night when some glitch left Bradbury responding three times to the same line before stopping the show and apologizing to the audience. The delay was brief, however, and as the screening of yesterday's rushes gives way to some fevered film fantasy in which the Hitler-like figure of Hynkel has taken control, Chaplin begins increasingly to interact not with the intercom but with the character, and the play gets much more interesting.

Seems there's an artistic argument between Hynkel and his creator over the big speech extolling freedom that Chaplin plans to put in the mouth of his heretofore silent Tramp, hero of the movie. (This much of Chaplin is biographical: The Great Dictator does end with the barber, played by his Tramp character, making an unprecedented speech, which denounces fascism.) Hynkel argues that the Tramp is by nature silent; he, Hynkel, is the orator, the one who can sway with words, and his words will celebrate rampant individuality rather than equality.

The discussion of the relationship between form and content in Chaplin's art is fascinating, and the way Bradbury and his inventive director Neil Munro have crafted this into a seamless spectacle incorporating both film and mime is impressive. Bradbury is an excellent mimic and his Chaplin is convincing, especially in the moments where he reproduces his balletic clowning.

What goes off the rails in the second half of this show is not the technology but the script, as Bradbury rather unconvincingly tries to trace the downtrodden Tramp's silence back to the traumas of Chaplin's own childhood. The idea that the talkie, and the retirement of the Tramp, will mark Chaplin's maturity is engrossing, but the execution -- by means of a muddled and underdeveloped fantasy trial of both the five-year-old Chaplin and the adult -- is simultaneously confusing and simplistic.

A world premiere of a Canadian script, this production marks a first for the Shaw Festival, which in 2000 expanded its mandate to include not only plays written during Bernard Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950) but also plays about the period. It is both delightfully promising and painfully misshapen.
Chaplin: The Trial of Spencer Chaplin Esq. continues at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to Oct. 6. For information: 1-800-511-7429.

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