Night, A Human Cargo, National Arts Centre English Theatre Co-production

Night, A Human Cargo, National Arts Centre English Theatre Co-production

I had high expectations for this play, and they were met. This play was developed in the Canadian North (particularly Pond Inlet, Nunavut) and in Iceland, over the course of three Arctic winters. I don’t know what the temperature in the room was, but I literally felt like I was freezing, which I never do. The staging, the darkness, the fake snow, and the full moon all gave a stark impression.

The play is based on some real characters, tragic and brutal real-life events, and a very real geographical place. It’s a world where Inuit people were assigned coded tags like EC-10575, and where Inuit children were subject to painful “scientific” experiments. A world where cold, and boredom, and darkness, and alcohol are overlaid over trauma and pain. You can lose your grandfather’s bones to a museum down south, which stores these bones in a suitcase in the basement.

It’s also a world with a community radio station where people phone up about lost items, to wish their friends a happy birthday, and to warn about roaming polar bears. For me, this radio station was interesting, because I saw a very similar radio station in a Mexican film a few years ago, which was about an Aboriginal community in a remote location.

The talkback that Margo Kane (a prolific and respected Aboriginal theatre artist), the playwright and director Christopher Morris, and the four actors did after the show illuminated the play further. The two young women actors (Reneltta Arluk and Tiffany Ayalik) had grown up in the Arctic, but had more exposure to Dene culture than Inuit prior to the play. Jonathan Fisher, who is Ojibway from Ontario, played all of the male roles, and his switches between these characters were so convincing that I did not even realize until the talkback that he was doing all of them. Linnea Swann plays the white woman anthropologist Daniella who stumbles into a situation she does not comprehend, and clumsily attempts to fix deep historical wrongs.

I am particularly interested in multilingual theatre, so I was curious how this play would handle the Inuktitut and English together. It felt very natural, and an inobtrusive screen at stage right showed the English surtitles. As is often the case, the timing was often a split-second off, but this was a trivial issue. The actors described the difficulties of learning how to speak Inuktitut. They would go to sleep listening to recordings, and practiced and practiced, and finally they could do it. The musical soundtrack, which featured a variety of genres in Inuktitut and English, complemented the play very well.

This is a play that is haunting and painful and gripping, but not hopeless. The audience was very engaged in talkback, as has also been the case with the previous productions in the North. The play is next going to Baffin Island and Greenland and Iceland. I strongly recommend this play, and particularly if you can attend a performance that includes a talkback.