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Station Eleven’s depiction of theatre’s power reminds us mere survival is insufficient

Jan 25, 2022

Station Eleven was created by Patrick Somerville and based on Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling 2014 novel of the same name. IAN WATSON/HBO

The Globe and Mail
J. Kelly Nestruck
January 20, 2022

Are you a theatre creator or supporter desperately searching for something to lift your spirits while stages are shuttered for what feels like the umpteenth time? 

Believe it or not, you might find what you’re looking for in a television series about an even worse pandemic than the one we’re currently in – one where a respiratory illness has wiped out 99 per cent of the world’s population. 

Station Eleven – an HBO Max show streaming on Crave – is one of the best depictions of the power of theatre and the passion of the artists who make it that I’ve ever seen on TV. 

Created by Patrick Somerville and based on Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling 2014 novel of the same name, the series gets more things right about William Shakespeare and the value to be found in performing an old dead white guy’s words than perhaps any show since Slings and Arrows, the cult Canadian dramedy. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, artists with significant hands-on experience staging Shakespeare at Ontario’s Stratford Festival are also involved in this new show. 

Station Eleven differs greatly from so much of the dystopian television that was a hallmark of our times even before COVID-19 came along. It’s not about survivors of a civilizational collapse battling over territory or resources, or against some totalitarian force. It’s about a found family of artists choosing to face danger on a daily basis in order to perform music and theatre in front of live audiences. Who knew that would be so relevant? 

The Travelling Symphony, the troupe of performers at the centre of the series, tours to communities around Lake Michigan performing plays by Shakespeare. They do so with costumes and sets crafted out of junk, while lit by torches, candles and firepits, on mobile stages made out of old motor vehicles, now pulled from field to field by horse and human. 

Their motto is “Survival is insufficient” – which is also is the tagline and theme of Station Eleven itself. I can’t think of a more perfectly pithy encapsulation of my feelings after close to two years stripped (for the most part) of soul-fuelling stations such as museums, concert halls and theatres. 

In the year 2040, which is when much of Station Eleven takes place, the Travelling Symphony has chosen to stage Hamlet – a play with a reputation for greatness that has been maligned of late in our timeline for its toxic masculinity and underwritten female characters. (I confess, I’ve done some of the maligning.) 

However, it’s clear from the moment we first spy the troupe’s star, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), in the title role, that this tragedy about a petulant prince written more than 400 years earlier has much to offer in helping both spectators and actors work through the griefs and traumas of their postpandemic world. 

Station Eleven executive producer Jeremy Podeswa, the filmmaker who came up as part of the Toronto New Wave before working on acclaimed HBO television series including Six Feet Under and Game of Thrones, directed the two episodes that centre most around Hamlet – and they both contain persuasive performances of the play that further the intricately interwoven plot lines of the series. 

In the first, we watch Kirsten channel her own grief as she plays Hamlet, while her memories of learning of her father’s death 20 years earlier appear in flashback. (It’s an impressive illustration of how method acting works, or is supposed to work, anyway.) 

In the second, which is the final episode, Kirsten is directing Hamlet, with the lead role now played by Tyler (Daniel Zovatto), another fatherless survivor who leads a group of young people seeking to erase remnants of the beforetime through violence. This climax of the series features, astonishingly, his conflicts with his mother and an uncle-like figure being worked out through the language of Shakespeare. 

Both these episodes use the same snippet of Act I, Scene II, in which Hamlet first appears, to represent the entire play. In it the prince is interrogated about his ostentatious mourning for his dead father. 

“Why seems it so particular with thee?” his mother, Gertrude, asks, to which Hamlet replies: “Seems madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems.” 

While both Kirsten and Tyler (or perhaps Davis and Zovatto) make for riveting Hamlets, the series allows us to see how the part and and the meaning of language changes with different framing. We see how Hamlet can be about a person lost in a profound personal grief, or about one with an obsessive grievance against the older generation. 

In this, Station Eleven shows us that the power of Shakespeare is not in his words alone – but in what we layer on top of them, a constant accumulation and clearing of junk. The survival of a work of art is insufficient to give it meaning; we give it meaning through what we invest in its survival. 

All this (with no shortage of Shakespeare in-jokes) should intrigue theatre-makers and theatregoers, but there are added layers for Canadian viewers. 

Though the parts of Mandel’s novel that were set in Canada have been moved to the United States, the Travelling Symphony scenes nevertheless maintain a certain flavour of Ontario, owing to having being filmed there while real stages were shut down. 

The troupe is populated by many working actors who are familiar to Ontario theatregoers, such as Beau Dixon and Prince Amponsah (not to mention the R&B singer turned musical-theatre star Deborah Cox). 

Likewise, Chris Abraham, artistic director of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto and one of the most accomplished of the Stratford Festival’s stable of directors, was a consultant on the show; he worked on set to make sure the actors knew the context of their Hamlet scenes. 

Though Podeswa has never directed a play himself, the theatre productions he has conjured with an assist from Abraham are quite potent. The look of the Travelling Symphony hark back to medieval mystery plays staged on moving carts, and Elizabethan venues that were lit by candlelight. But the performances never feel like “original practices” productions; there’s a real freshness to their futurism. 

In an interview this week, Podeswa told me that one of his inspirations was environmental theatre he’s attended, including an outdoors production of Medea he saw staged by director Ida Carnevali and the Kensington Carnival Arts Society 30 years ago. The spectacle involved music, juggling and fire-breathing along the boardwalks of Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. 

While theatre is something Kirsten and her family of artists feel is worth risking their lives for in Station Eleven, it is never overromanticized. Unlike the silly depictions of stage actors that so often make it onto television – whenever I see an exaggerated vocal warm-up I reach for my clicker – there’s a truthfulness here that resonates. Podeswa says he’s received a flurry of positive feedback from stage actors and artisans pleased to see a series that centres in part around the idea that making theatre really matters. 

“Performance has really suffered the last couple of years and I think to see themselves reflected in a way where they’re really honoured and respected and admired, it makes people feel really good,” he says. It does.