Presented by Diamond Heart Productions
Playwright Steven Elliot Jackson continues his meditation on culturally intriguing historical figures with this immersive, site-specific portrait of Elizabeth Bethune Campbell. With a utilitarian staging by director Shan Fernando, the limited audience follows the actors through the atmospheric Spadina Museum as The Will of a Woman unfolds.
The will in question refers to both a contentious legal document and the fiery gumption of our heroine. The first woman to defend herself before the Privy Council in England, her case originated in Canada in the early 1900s where she spent over a decade battling the legal system over the fraudulent handling of her mother’s will.
Though encouraged by her supportive minister husband Thomas and a progressive-minded attorney, Arthur Slaght (both played by a very sympathetic Jim Armstrong), the plucky Elizabeth (Madryn McCabe) must contend with an old boy’s club of legal gatekeepers represented by her mother’s dubious trustee, William Hogg (Thomas Gough), and a series of dismissive judges played by Gregory Watts. Jade Dunlop figures in two roles—her snarky relation Cora and Susan, a wealthy benefactor subsidizing her case.
The script is structured like a routine procedural drama with scenes providing context and a general timeline for her case. Campbell’s story is undeniably compelling, yet this depiction doesn’t delve very deep. Neither the characterizations nor the conflict are particularly nuanced.
The performance I attended was a preview, which may have contributed to some stilted delivery, though I imagine it is likely by design—to accommodate a travelling, briefly participatory audience—that the cast veers into pantomime. They are effectively earnest and engaging, but the standout for me was Gough, as the unscrupulous and condescending Hogg, who gives the most layered and naturalistic performance.
It’s a charming experience overall. The luxurious venue combined with Andra Bradish and Tracy Gorman’s elegant costumes maintain a sense of period detail and authenticity. The appalling misogyny Elizabeth endures summons our righteous indignation and the storyline builds to a satisfying enough catharsis.