Going To St. Ives has two women verbally ‘duking it out’ about a fictitious post-colonial African country
In a quiet living room located in the serene countryside of St. Ives, England two women, each with her own hidden agenda, meet for tea. The conversation quickly diverges from the usual afternoon pleasantries and reveals the dark and complex intricacies of a modern unnamed African country. This is the backdrop for Lee Blessing’s Going To St. Ives, a production that will be the third and last play of the Varscona Theatre Ensemble’s first season.
Belinda Cornish takes the role of Dr. Cora Gage, a world-renowned surgeon who recently became aware of four doctors who are to be executed in the unnamed African country, while Patricia Darbasie plays May N’Kame, a women suffering from acute close-angle glaucoma and the mother of the ruthless African dictator who has sentenced these doctors to death.
“The comparison we make of this dictator, let’s call him President N’Kame, is Idi Amin,” Cornish says. “May’s son is not actually Idi Amin, but somebody like that. A profoundly violent, and unstable dictator.”
The foundation of the play is a classic versus motivation arc where two characters want something from each other. We know early on that Cora plans to convince May to intervene in her son’s affairs, but May’s true intentions are somewhat left in the dark until later on.
“There’s an interesting bi-play of the play, which is discovering what May’s position really is and what she’s caught between,” Cornish says. “They (the two women) are quite civil with each other, but it’s never just friendly. There are layers going on underneath everything they say to each other because there is so much at stake.”
The play may seem bleak, and it is to an extent, but the fact that both women are quite astute and charismatic allows the conversation to stray into the realm of dark humour.
“It gets fiery and pretty feisty,” Cornish says. “I’d call it emotional brass knuckles. We have these two strong and intelligent women duking it out through words.”
At its deep, dark, and twisted heart, Going To St. Ives is about the fallout and repercussions of African colonialism by the hands of the English.
“It wasn’t just England of course. It was the French, the Belgians, the Portuguese, all of them marched into Africa and carved it up with no respect for the traditional territories,” Cornish says.
This is the third run of Going To St. Ives. The initial independent run debuted more than seven years ago and then ran again during 2012’s Fringe Festival. While both runs received local acclaim, Cornish believes this production will be the “deepest.”
“It’s kind of a luxury because the last two productions we did, they were a bit of a rush and there’s a lot in this play,” she says.
To prepare for this run, both the cast and director had the opportunity to workshop this iteration and really discover its many cultural facets.
Director Julien Arnold actually met with Innocent Madawo, a local Zimbabwean journalist who is notably known for writing about the political turmoil in his home country and various others on the continent.
“He kind of gave perspective on what it’s like to live in one of these countries that are torn by civil war and he gave a balanced view,” Arnold says. “He said that from the West, we have a Eurocentric viewpoint. The journalists show up and say: ‘Show me the worst things in your country,’ and they paint a really bleak picture of these countries, when in fact it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
This ties into Cora, who starts off with this Eurocentric bias, believing she has the power to save these four political prisoners from a war-torn Africa, but eventually realizes the situation is more complex. The second act has her travelling to Africa to learn the profound truth.
“This is a classic western attitude—there may be hundreds of political prisoners in jail, but as soon as there’s a famous poet or something, then westerners sweep in with petitions,” Cornish says. “It’s not a bad thing to get a political prisoner out of jail, it’s just that we as westerners—and I’m speaking very generally of course—we are not involved unless it’s something that sexy or sensational.”
Madawo will be hosting a talkback after the play’s opening night to discuss the real situation in Africa and the many cultural aspects of Going To St. Ives.
Thu., Apr. 5 – Sat., Apr. 14
Going To St. Ives