Goodness - Morality in an Anonymous Country


It wasn’t lightly that I walked into Performance Works Theatre, knowing I was attending a performance about genocide. I tried to be good humored about it: “Ta-tah, off to see a little play about human atrocity – see you tomorrow!” I exclaimed to my colleagues as I left the office.

However, I was drawn to Goodness as soon as I read about it - morality is the principal theme broached in this production by Toronto-based company Volcano, with genocide used as a narrative to discuss this weighty subject. As a person generally inquisitive about the human condition, I instantly gravitated towards it.

Redhill has written himself in as the lead character and antihero in Goodness. His role is performed with great skill by Gord Rand. The play opens with Redhill telling the audience about his wife’s infidelity and his consequent divorce. The cast weaves on and off stage to reenact his story, questioning him (as they do throughout the play) about his perspective as he narrates it.

To remedy the depression caused by the end of his marriage, Redhill decides to visit his Jewish ancestors’ village in Poland where his family was murdered during the Nazi regime. Redhill is unsuccessful in his attempts at research into the atrocity. At the core, he grapples with the question: “What leads a good person to do evil?” During a stopover in London on his way back to Canada, he poses this question to a man in a bar. To help Redhill in his quest for an answer, the man suggests he visit a woman, Althea, who has her own story to tell.

Althea is from an unnamed country that has also experienced genocide. The story she tells, which is subsequently reenacted by the cast, is of her experience as a prison guard to Mathias Todd, a man accused of inciting his country to violence and to orchestrating genocide. The problem is that Todd appears to have Alzheimer’s, a disease that ravages its victims’ memories, leaving them living in the past. No one, including the audience, is ever certain that Todd is actually suffering from the disease, as it has conveniently stripped him of all memory of the genocide. His disputed affliction not only questions his ability to stand trial, but also questions whether or not it is acceptable to accuse someone of a crime that they no longer recall.

Redhill’s reciting of the story as it unfolds is a narrative device that doesn’t always work - like when he begins describing Althea physically, even though she is sitting right next to him. What the narration does best, however, is provide a brechtian narrative, removing the audience from emotional engagement to better analyze the events as they unfold, furthering director Ross Manson’s objective of provoking a philosophical discussion of morality. Goodness directly asks its audience several thought-provoking questions, leading us to ponder over human nature, good and evil, and whether or not humans are intrinsically murderous beings.

The fact that Goodness takes place in an unnamed country, accompanied by the cast’s a cappella renditions of songs from the Balkans to Zimbabwe, is meant to convey that genocide can happen any where, at any time. The story begins with a specific genocide (World War II), and leads us to an anonymous one, reminding us along the way that “Holocausts happen all the time. They’re very popular.”

In the Artists’ Notes of the program, Ross Manson explains that he sourced his material from accounts of the Rwandan genocide. Fourteen years after its occurrence, the Rwandan genocide is still discussed in Canadian mainstream media, mostly due to Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s gruesome account of it in his book Shake Hands with the Devil, which has been made into a documentary film directed by Peter Raymont and, more recently, into a feature film starring Roy Dupuis. Dallaire’s unfathomable descriptions of the genocide and the lack of international action over this horrific event have settled uncomfortably into our national consciousness.

Indeed, the fictional genocide in Goodness and the very real genocide in Rwanda are very similar – inciting the public to violence through public radio, the use of machetes as weapons, the incident of the pastor who led his entire congregation to be murdered in their church, the fact that there was very little difference, if any, between the rival ethnicities… Granted, these are atrocities that could happen any where, at any time. They did, nonetheless, all happen in a very real place at a very real time. Unfortunately, the genocide in Goodness was so very much like the Rwandan genocide that I found the lack of specific reference to it frustrating.

It has taken me days to write this short review – I have been thinking and rethinking about Goodness since I walked out of the theatre, rolling all the different thoughts about in my head. Despite my dislike of the anonymity Redhill employs in reference to the genocide, the fact that four days later I am still thinking about his play is, to me, an indication of thought-provoking theatre that merits the accolades Goodness has garnered.

_A Magnetic North production, Goodness is performed by Layne Coleman, Lili Francks, Tara Hughes, Ross Manson, Gord Rand and Amy Rutherford. Direction: Ross Manson; Music coach: Waleed Abdulhamid; Stage Manager: Maria Costa; Sound designer: John Gzowski; Music director: Brenna MacCrimmon; Music coach: Teddy Masaku; Lighting designer: Rebecca Picherack; Set/costume designer: Teresa Przybyiski; Music coach/ Assistant director(Vancouver tour): Sarah Sanford_

By Maryse Zeidler