Gruff Love: the ups and downs of Nicholas Campbell (a.k.a. Da Vinci)

Gruff Love: the ups and downs of Nicholas Campbell (a.k.a. Da Vinci)
(Image: Anthony Hare)

Nicholas Campbell was deep in debt and floundering after the cancellation of his TV series. Now one small, brilliant theatre company is putting him centre stage

It’s hard to escape the role that made you famous. For seven seasons on CBC, Nicholas Campbell, one of the best actors on Canadian TV, played Dominic Da Vinci, the testy, hard-living, hunch-shouldered Vancouver coroner. Da Vinci’s Inquest ended in 2005, and the character moved from the morgue to the mayor’s office for Da Vinci’s City Hall. But the second series was killed after a year, launching a low point for Campbell. Fifty-four years old and three times divorced, he was frittering his life away, smoking pot, gambling on racehorses and deep in debt to Revenue Canada. His prospects were grim in Vancouver, so he settled into a furnished apartment in Toronto.

At the time, he said he was ready for a return to theatre (while in his 20s, after graduating from London’s Drama Studio, he’d toured the U.K. for a year with a repertory company). It was a move seemingly dictated by pragmatism, not romance: there are frequently more parts for an aging actor onstage. His first stage role in decades was in Fabuloso, a chaotic comedy by the American playwright John Kolvenbach at the Summerworks theatre festival, and Campbell hoped it would be his calling card to the majors: Stratford, Shaw and Soul­pepper. But the play flopped, and the big three didn’t bite.

So he filled the next few years with a Da Vinci made-for-TV movie and small roles (on Flashpoint, The Border, Republic of Doyle and, most recently, Haven), and continued to search for something in theatre that would exploit his gruff charms. Then he landed a part in Festen, a Danish play about the worst family dinner ever. It was being produced by the Company Theatre, an upstart organization run by actors Allan Hawco (the co-creator and star of Republic of Doyle) and Philip Riccio. TCT had a smash success in 2005 with its first production, Tom Murphy’s vicious Irish drama, A Whistle in the Dark. It’s the kind of company that actors love: plays are barely, if ever, choreographed, so there’s a lot of room for spontaneity—it’s a high-wire performance every night.

Against-type casting is also a significant part of its winning formula. When actors play the same kinds of characters over and over, they hedge our expectations and limit their inspiration. The outcome is solid, but predictable and often boring. Casting against type is risky, of course, and can yield atrocious results (Tom Cruise in Interview With the Vampire springs to mind). But it also has the potential to draw out surprising and explosively good performances (Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder).

Festen is an exhilaratingly unnerving play about a messed-up family gathered to cele­brate the patriarch’s 60th birthday. The festivities take a twisted turn when the eldest son, having waited a lifetime to deliver the big reveal, accuses his father of sexually abusing him and his twin sister (who recently committed suicide). The predictable part for glowering Campbell in Festen would have been the manipulative and pathetic dad. Instead, the company put Eric Peterson, the daffy windbag on Corner Gas, in that role, and made Campbell the comic relief. It was an inspired choice.

Campbell played Poul, a manic-depressive family friend prone to stream-of-consciousness blathering and driven by an obsessive need to locate his confiscated car keys at the height of the action. He turned Poul’s absurd, seemingly throwaway dialogue (“It was baking in the car on the way up here. I was sweating like a French rapist. I had to take my shirt off”) into lines you want to print on T-shirts. It was only a secondary role, but his performance captured the audience’s attention in a setting where brutish sex, bursts of song, racial taunting and Peterson’s bravado took up most of the stage.

He was so good, in fact, that the Company Theatre decided to build its new production around him. Through the Leaves is another bleak, big-in-Europe offering, this time by Franz Xaver Kroetz, a card-carrying member of the West German communist party when he wrote the play over the course of six years, between 1970 and 1976. It’s a stinging, oppressive drama about the toxic relationship between two middle-aged lonely hearts. The woman, the owner of a butcher shop specializing in organ meats, stubbornly craves romance at all costs. Campbell plays Otto, the freeloading factory worker with commitment issues who relentlessly harangues and debases her.

The morally ambiguous anti-hero is a tricky role to pull off; it could quickly descend into mustache-twirling caricature. But Campbell has always excelled at edge. There’s something in the way his characters speak, in a manner at once clipped and drawling. The way they move so deliberately. The way they make you believe danger can’t be very far away. His onscreen success has always hinged on his ability to crawl deep inside his subjects, imbuing them with his own natural complexity. Through the Leaves is his chance to prove his great­ness extends to the stage.

THEATRE Through the Leaves Sept. 10 to Oct. 3 Tarragon Theatre


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