A Fine Bromance: Michael Ondaatje returns to the stage after more than 20 years, in a collaboration with an untested star

A Fine Bromance: Michael Ondaatje returns to the stage after more than 20 years, in a collaboration with an untested star

Adapting any novel for the stage is a tricky thing, a task the British writer Sebastian Faulks recently likened to “trying to turn a painting into a sculpture.” Stories that unfold over hundreds of pages must be recreated in just a slim script; whole worlds must be confined to a patch of boards. Adapting the 2007 Governor General’s Award winner Divisadero—a meandering book that abruptly leaves main characters midway through their narratives and appears unconcerned with dramatic thrust—would seem a maddening, impossible job, but it’s what Michael Ondaatje has chosen to do with his first theatre project in more than two decades. Divisadero: A Performance is produced by the ambitious company Necessary Angel, directed by Daniel Brooks, and stars film actor Liane Balaban and the excellent Tom McCamus and Maggie Huculak. The piece’s success, however, hangs on the chemistry between Ondaatje and Justin Rutledge, the young singer-songwriter who will be making his theatrical debut when the play opens this month.

The story of how their collaboration began reads a bit like one of the fortuitous romantic encounters that fill Ondaatje’s novels, a kind of highbrow meet-cute between unlikely creative partners. In December 2007, Rutledge was part of a group of pop musicians playing songs inspired by Schumann’s piano quintet at the Harbourfront Centre. Rutledge, who grew up in the Junction, specializes in quiet and introspective alt country–tinged folk rock, and his lyrics are unabashedly literary (his album Man Descending is named after a collection of Guy Vanderhaeghe stories). Over the past few years, he has attracted a dedicated audience with compositions full of rural Canadian imagery and stories about yearning to escape the city and “be part of the heart of a river.” At the concert that night, Rutledge performed “Snowmen” for the first time, a 6/8 ballad that builds to a crescendo in the chorus, with Rutledge earnestly repeating the refrain: “We were cold, but now we’re freezing.”

On the page, the words are a little flat—an expression of anguish wrapped in a clichéd Canadian metaphor—but one of the advantages music has over literature is the way it finds shortcuts to emotion, making the most seemingly banal sentiments soar (just think of all the mileage James Brown got out of simply howling “please”). Before the Harbourfront show, Ondaatje hadn’t planned on putting his latest novel onstage, but something about Rutledge’s performance of that song—tough yet vulnerable—reminded him of Coop, a taciturn gambler and one of the three main characters at the centre of Divisadero whose lives are torn apart by a terrible moment of violence. A few weeks after the concert, Ondaatje took the singer out to lunch and asked him to write some music for a possible play. Not a score, but a collection of songs from the perspective of Coop; he wanted Rutledge to deliver the character via his music.

When we watch most adaptations of novels, we’re seeing someone else’s vision of an author’s character—film directors and studio producers decide that Robert Redford is the perfect Gatsby, or that Keira Knightley (of all people) makes a credible Elizabeth Bennet. It’s less common to see an author handpick the performer himself, essentially recognizing a flesh-and-blood correlative for a character that’s existed only in his imagination. Over the next two years, Ondaatje and Rutledge worked on their collaboration, coming up with songs for Coop. They began a long conversation, sending one another mix CDs, sharing favourite songs, and trading comments on the collection of tunes that Rutledge was slowly creating.

Some of the songs eventually found their way onto Rutledge’s 2010 album The Early Widows. The lead single, “Be a Man,” lists Ondaatje as co-writer (he contributed the perfectly Ondaatjian phrase “I am a pause in a storm on a dark stair whenever your name is spoken”). When Brooks and the actors began workshopping the play, Rutledge became more involved. Originally, McCamus was playing all the male parts while Rutledge sang. “At one point,” says Rutledge, “Daniel turned to me and said, ‘I wish we had another male actor.’ ” After agreeing to an informal audition, Rutledge suddenly found himself playing Coop.

Divisadero is a rich, affecting novel, but much of its pleasure comes from Ondaatje’s lyrical narration, its ever-shifting perspective moving fluidly from one character’s thoughts to the next. The book contains little dialogue (in my paperback edition, the first spoken word doesn’t come until page 15), and even when characters do speak it’s without quotation marks, leaving the distinction between thoughts and words intentionally vague. Following the novel’s lead, the play doesn’t build its plot through dialogue. It depends on dramatic storytelling, and, of course, Rutledge’s music.

Ondaatje is an intuitive writer. He’s said that when he begins a novel, he doesn’t have a structure mapped out in his mind; he simply moves through it hoping the characters will somehow help him shape the story. This current foray into theatre is no different: “No dramaturgical or structural decisions were made at the outset,” says Brooks. “The theatre piece has developed by feel. And at the centre of this whole project are two people who really like each other and want to work with each other.” Ondaatje has continued to follow his gut, creating a scenario more common in his novels than in real life: a three-year relationship, an album, and a play all hinging on one moment and one person’s reaction to the chorus of a song.

Divisadero: A Performance
Feb. 8 to 20, Theatre Passe Muraille

(Illustration: James Carey)