The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Brings Newfoundland History to Life


carmen grant & colin furlong

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, now playing in Halifax at Neptune Theatre, is an adaptation by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel of the same name. It is a work of historical fiction, which imagines the real-life Joe Smallwood, sometimes called “The Last Father of Confederation,” interwoven in the life of a fictional Sheilagh Fielding, an ambitious and cutting political journalist, against the backdrop of the fall of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

There are so many beautiful layers to Chafe’s play. At its core, it is about the relationship between two very complex human beings, Fielding and Smallwood. Fielding is a pioneering, entrepreneurial woman, who is also an alcoholic battling deep secrets and intense emotional struggles. Carmen Grant creates a true force of nature in this deeply flawed woman, whose writing talent and tenacity to survive in a man’s world is, nevertheless, inspiring. Colin Furlong plays Smallwood, the scrappy underdog, as a man continually trying to do the right thing, but who often finds he’s accidentally screwed something up. There is a bit of a hapless Rick Moranis in Furlong’s portrayal of Smallwood, which ensures that even when all the odds are stacked against him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.   

Chafe’s characters also beautifully mirror the political landscape in Newfoundland in the years between 1927 and 1948. Smallwood is the perpetual idealist. He begins as a passionate Socialist advocating for Newfoundland’s poorest residents. He believes, earnestly, that he is working in the best interest of the working class, and that there is reason for hope among Depression and possibility among War, and he latches on to Confederation with Canada as a testament to that promise. Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, is the cold voice of Cynicism. As a journalist she criticizes all sides of the political spectrum. In her column hope and idealism are  sneered at and dismissed as naive. She views Newfoundland with a hard sense of fatalistic doom. Both represent a clash of two prevalent viewpoints. In a similar way, Fielding is Cosmopolitan and worldly; she writes with scathing wit and academic sophistication, catering to a certain audience, largely centred in St. John’s. Smallwood reaches a different demographic in focusing on the Island’s folklore on The Barrelman, his radio program. It then becomes clear that the future of Newfoundland’s nationhood is divided along these same geographical and economic lines.

Although this play is set in the 20th Century, it is timely to see a story of politicians being beleaguered by a free press; one might even charge Fielding with printing “Fake News.” Although, it was the scene where three men sit at a typewriter intent on destroying the career of a female journalist, to shut her up and to break her, that I found most eerily reminiscent of our own time. It reminded me of the Twitter war against Leslie Jones after Ghostbusters was released and of Donald Trump’s inexcusable treatment of Megyn Kelly. In that moment, Sheilagh Fielding was Everywoman who dares to push the boundaries for women, and who dares to express herself in print.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Furlong and Grant both give formidable, deeply nuanced and heartrending performances. Steve O’Connell and Alison Woolridge shine dramatically as Smallwood’s parents, Charlie and Minnie, embroiled in domestic troubles of their own.

Jillian Keiley directs the piece with a beautiful, continuous sense of movement, and of time, and perpetual snow, that clearly propels the audience through this truly epic era of Newfoundland history. The sets and props are minimal, which gives Keiley the freedom to take us anywhere in a moment and the stage effortlessly transitions between scenes with ten actors (large by Canadian standards), to much more intimate moments with just Fielding or just Smallwood.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know very much at all about the history of Newfoundland, beyond that she joined Canada in 1948, until I saw this play. Its history is far more dramatic than I realized, and I was truly riveted throughout, not knowing how the demise of the Dominion of Newfoundland was going to play out. It is so important that we tell these stories and also that we take them out of our Communities and share them with those who live elsewhere in the country, and beyond. I feel enriched in my new knowledge of how Newfoundland came to join the Dominion of Canada, and to learn so much while being so thoroughly entertained and moved, is really the best the theatre can ask for.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays on Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage in Halifax (1593 Argyle Street) until March 12. Show times are Tuesdays to Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $33 to $70 and are available here.     

Yes, B’y: Republic of Doyle’s Got Promise

allan hawco and sean mcginley
Do you feel like Allan Hawco is following you? Do his mysterious, brooding blue eyes appear to gaze after you as you walk down the street? If you’ve waited for the street car or bus lately in Toronto, your answer is likely to be “yes!” since Allan Hawco appears to be on every bus shelter in Toronto in a publicity campaign for his television series Republic of Doyle (2010), for which The Way I See It gives the CBC two enthusiastic and impressed thumbs up!
The best part is that Republic of Doyle deserves all the publicity that it can get because it is a really great new Canadian television program filmed in St. John’s, Newfoundland headed by a talented and almost uniformly Canadian cast and creative team. The show is a nice mixture of Magnum P.I and CSI: Newfoundland, centering on Jake Doyle (played by Hawco), a true Maverick ex-police officer who works as a Private Investigator with his father Malachy (played by Sean McGinley). What is interesting, and creates an added dynamic of conflict and tension, is that while Doyle attempts to solve the crimes he has been hired to investigate, he is working in opposition (and facing much resistance) from the local police, headed by the feisty Leslie Bennett (played by Krystin Pellerin). It is akin to when, on Law and Order (1990), the work of the police officers ends up being sabotaged by the lawyers of the defence; there is always the possibility on Republic of Doyle, that one side could ruin the case for the other.
Much of Law and Order’s appeal is that it is so strongly rooted in its community and New York City, and its sights, sounds and attitudes, has always played just as strong a character as Lennie Briscoe, Jack McCoy or Ed Green. Republic of Doyle is just as tied to the location of St. John’s and it is extremely refreshing to see a Canadian city being depicted not as a weak representation of some distant place, or some fictional town, but as the real community out of which this particular story has emerged, and all the culture, the traditions, conventions and fun accents remain nicely intact. It’s sad that we keep needing to legitimize ourselves, but I think that many Canadians still have difficulty in embracing their own image being reflected back at them on TV without feeling like it is somehow inferior. I hope the more Canadian stories are told, as these programs continue to put their best actors, writers and directors forward, in time, we will all be able to watch ourselves and feel proud and confident that we are just as interesting as anyone else anywhere in the world.
I found the pilot episode of Republic of Doyle had engaging dialogue and that the relationships between the characters were interesting, but also held a strong element of realism that I really appreciated. Marthe Bernard, who I was so impressed with in Sex, the Rules Of at the 2009 Atlantic Fringe Festival, plays Jake’s teenaged niece, Tinny Doyle, and she and Hawco have a nice mix of banter and protectiveness that feels safe and homey. Rachel Wilson plays Jake’s estranged wife, Nikki Renholds, with whom Jake still has an explosive relationship and indecisive future. She is erratic and passionate, which I hope provides more humour in the upcoming episodes. Krystin Pellerin’s Leslie Bennett seems young and overwhelmed, a strong, smart young woman who tends to overcompensate for both her age and (perhaps) her gender within her position of power as a police officer. This dynamic is really interesting, and I hope that her character will continue to show such inner tension, strength and wry perceptions and not simply act as an object for Jake Doyle’s charms. As Toronto theatre audiences know, Krystin Pellerin is far too talented for that! Allan Hawco is the ultimate in charming in his role as Jake, which works wonders to captivate audiences. He has a brilliant mixture of daring pluck and sense of justice and a delightfully coy sense of mischief. Thankfully for the show, Hawco not only has great presence, but when he says his lines, you actually believe them.
Republic of Doyle is one of the most promising primetime Canadian television programs that I have seen in a long time. I hope that the writers will continue to create imaginative and fresh storylines, ones that relate strongly to the community of St. John’s but also connect easily to the world beyond its shores. The writing could be a little sharper, with some tightening of the humour and some weeding out of anything trite or clichéd. The cast is strong and filled with many veteran performers of stage and screen, so I think it is likely that their characters will only find more depth as the season continues. It takes honing and care to create a hit TV show. I hope the CBC will nurture and tender this one so it can rise to its potential and grow to the best it is capable of and then thrive.

Republic of Doyle airs Wednesdays at 9pm (9:30 NT) on CBC Television. Check local listings and visit this fun website.