Review: “Splendour” at the University of Calgary

Vicki Trask

  • Calgary Critic

I so hate leaving a theatre with an empty feeling inside when there is dissatisfaction behind it. It’s one thing to feel emotionally drained and thus empty and numb but to have a feeling of hollowness because of a lack of connection is frustrating. I understand, it’s difficult to critique a piece of art performed by students – especially when you are a student yourself – but I will endeavor to articulate my thoughts and reactions to the University of Calgary’s “Splendour” by Abi Morgan which I saw on Saturday November 5th to the best of my ability. 

The plot seemed simple enough from its synopsis. In the presidential home on the day of a revolutionary overthrow, the president’s wife, her so-called best friend, a photographer, and her translator wait for the absent dictator to arrive. The four women drink, shout, eat, ignore the sound of bombs and gunshots outside, and generally act like caged animals for the hour and forty-five minute show. What complicated the story was the manner in which it was told in plot and action. Once I understood what was going on, I really liked the character interactions and the plot, and the twists. However that “lightbulb” moment came very slowly and took a while to even flicker. For the first twenty minutes, it just felt like a jumble of words with no context. Try as I might, I couldn’t understand the repetitive scene work that dotted the script. It kept piling on the same text, demonstrating the character’s growing openness – revealing their true selves – but it just didn’t resonate with me. 

I wanted so desperately to love these characters. In the end I liked them; maybe. I didn’t see an arc, or an emotional journey. I saw the result of big truths being revealed and the stakes reaching high levels but I didn’t feel it. I found the connection between the audience and the characters to be, well, disconnected. There were some moments of clarity from each of the actors but it wasn’t enough to hold me. 

President’s wife Micheleine, played by Vanessa Wenzel, probably gave me the most to work with. Her character was that of the doting wife standing behind her husband; charming and shallow, yet utterly broken inside. While I understood the character she was portraying, I didn’t see it. Everything still felt very surface. I loved her costume and her monologues revealed the most but I still feel it was missing something.

The same can be said of her best friend Genevieve. Marisa Roggeveen played a veiled, grieving woman with jumbled words and a backstory that I would have cared deeply about if it had been written in a less disjointed manner. I saw the frustration and I saw her inner thoughts but her energy didn’t reach past the first two rows. I wanted to see her open out more as she delivered her heart-broken tales. I felt a little cut off.

Sydney Knapp’s portrayal of foreign photographer Kathryn was well rehearsed – if a little stiff – but offered as much character insight as the script allowed, which was very slight. I think she played her part to the best of her ability with only a small amount of material to support her.

Kathryn seemed to be there as the rough, bold foil for the otherwise refined and elegant women. While I could see what the writer was going for, it felt forced – both in text and action. It felt too much like a gimmick for her to swear and drink the way she did; it didn’t seem natural.

The character of Gilma (played by Pryscil Daigle) was possibly the least engaging character who happened to produced the most laughs and audience participation. Her personality traits were very active but there was no depth, even in the end. I barely followed her story let alone cared about her. I didn’t understand what she was saying half the time and I’m not sure if I should attribute that to the actor or the text she was given to work with. I can agree that Gilma brought a lot action and energy but it didn’t make any sense. 

I don’t know enough about the process of creating a show in the School of Creative and Performing Arts to tell you if what I saw is a representation of the actors, the teaching, or the material. 

The only conclusion I’ve come to is that “Splendour” doesn’t know what it wants to be. The story – four women caught in the middle of a political revolution with different goals, agendas, and secrets – absolutely grabbed my attention. The kaleidoscope manner in which the story was presented didn’t help or hinder my understanding, it just delayed everything; jumbled the plot. The repetition gave no further meaning than if I had been watching a linear plot. Herein lies my dissatisfaction. I just felt lost. 

The actors were fine, the plot was interesting, the set was gorgeous – though I didn’t feel it matched the lighting very well – but everything felt incomplete. 

In the end, I thank the University of Calgary for their performance but would decline an invitation to another performance of “Splendour”.