Ottawa theatre direc-tor Kate Hurman remembers fondly her first exposure to the queer world.
While staying at a farm owned by a lesbian couple, she developed a decidedly positive vision of same-sex love. “I had never seen such a strong, complementary, beautiful relationship in my life,” says Hurman. She brings that vision to the task of directing the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Swollen Tongues, a playfully queer comedy about love, poetry and self-discovery.
Swollen Tongues, by Vancouver playwright Kathleen Oliver, is written in rhyming couplets and set in Restoration-era England. It centres on a brother and sister’s intense love for the same beautiful and free-spirited young dressmaker. The noble siblings are budding poets under the tutelage of literary master Dr Wise, and they compete with their pens to win the attention of the saucy seamstress. The play features poetic duels, witty wordplay and cross-dressing galore. At its core, however, Swollen Tongues is also a journey of self-revelation for Catherine, the sister.
“The play is about learning to speak your truth in spite of fear or repression, so in many ways it’s an elaborately playful coming-out story,” says Oliver. “Most of all, though, I think the play is a very fun ride, and can appeal to a broad audience on that basis.”
England’s Restoration period, spanning the late 17th and early 18th centuries, was one of the great eras for English language theatre. There was a general movement away from political and theological repression. The public theatres, which had been shut down by the Puritans for almost 20 years during the mid-17th century, were back and as popular as ever. Women were taking their place on the English public stage for the first time; until then boys or young men had played the female roles. The Restoration theatre was also a place of ribald sexuality, razor-sharp wit and rapid-fire repartee. It’s a fitting setting for Swollen Tongues.
“I think it would be tricky to have people speaking in verse in a contemporary setting; the heightened style of a period piece is a little more forgiving,” explains Oliver. “I remember being surprised, as an undergraduate, to discover how hilarious Restoration comedies were, and I guess I wanted to pay them tribute.”
True to the literary and theatrical conventions of the Restoration, Swollen Tongues places wordplay in the fore.
“The characters believe poetry is the be-all and end-all of who they are,” says Hurman. “The ownership of literature and words was hugely important for moving forward in that society. There was a feeling among the gentry that one had to be worthy of the land and title they received.”
With its emphasis on quickness of tongue, Oliver’s play fits into a comedic tradition that follows from Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, but that shouldn’t scare off modern audiences.
“The difference here is that the language is not 400 years old but seven. It’s more accessible — there’s an immediacy of language for the audience,” says Hurman. “Kathleen is embracing the tradition, but at the same time she’s thumbing her nose at it. It’s how we move forward in art.”
Oliver’s characters speak modern Canadian English in a traditional verse form. This anachronism provides endless humour, but it’s also thematic.
“Writing in rhyming couplets was constraint enough; I think I would have gone mad if I’d tried to stay faithful to the language of the period as well,” says Oliver. “The story of the play is all about busting free from constraints, so the contemporary language echoes that idea.”
For Hurman, the Restoration setting conveyed those continuing constraints, particularly for women, but with new glimmers of hope and possibility. That makes Swollen Tongues’ setting important thematically. “It’s Catherine’s story. It’s about someone owning all of herself, which is hard to do in a repressive time. Today we can take certain things for granted intellectually,” says Hurman. “In a true [Restoration] scenario, how would these characters have survived?”
And although Swollen Tongues promises to be a raucous romp that emphasizes entertainment over education, Hurman believes the play’s valorization of same-sex love packs a political punch as well. She recounts with sadness what happened when one of the women from the farm she visited died.
“Her mother came to take things from the farm. She could not recognize the value of their relationship. This was repelling to me,” says Hurman. “There are reasons things still need to be made clear politically. I’ve always thought of theatre as a tool for political change.”