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Creative team behind Russell Williams play seeks to 'reflect on endemic misogyny'

Last Updated Mar 1, 2017 at 2:00 pm PDT

Kim Nelson, left, and Deborah Drakeford, right, take to the stage with Lynette Gillis sitting behind the drums during rehearsals of the production of Smyth/Williams at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, on Tuesday, February 28, 2017. The performance is a staging of a police transcript of an interview between Detective Jim Smyth and convicted murderer, rapist, and former air force Colonel Russell Williams. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – The creative team behind a controversial new play based on the police interrogation of convicted sex killer Russell Williams says they’re coming from a place of empathy.

“Smyth/Williams,” which debuts Friday in Toronto, is a reinterpretation of the lengthy, intense 2010 interview between Williams and Ontario Provincial Police Det. Sgt. Jim Smyth, in which the disgraced former military commander confessed to his crimes, including the murders of 37-year-old Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd.

The 90-minute play features an all-female cast, with Kim Nelson and Deborah Drakeford alternating roles during the show.

The actors stand behind microphones at opposite ends of a sparsely decorated set while they read from the interview transcript. A folded military jacket and combat boots sit centre stage as a dividing line.

“We feel so much for these (victims’) families and what they’ve gone through, but we aren’t trying to sensationalize,” says Nelson.

“That’s kind of the reason of sticking to the transcript and not bringing a lot of drama and (our) own interpretation to it.

“What we were hoping to do is create an empathic space where this material could be dealt with, and to help us all reflect on the endemic misogyny right now that exists in our culture — the sexualized culture we live in.”

Joining the duo onstage is Lynette Gillis, whose role as a live drummer is to play through the swaths of text redacted from the police transcript, says director Adam Seelig.

“From the very beginning of conceptualizing this production, it was very important that women’s voices be at the centre of it; that women’s voices subvert the male voices that are being represented here and start to control them,” he says.

“Just maybe having women speak it, it’s a more safe space for the audience to hear the words and to be able to more openly reflect on the piece,” adds Nelson, “and on the underlying causes of this misogyny and this violence against women.”

Once a rising star in the Canadian Forces, Williams was sentenced to life in prison in October 2010 after pleading guilty to the murders and 82 fetish break-and-enters and thefts, as well as two sexual assaults.

The production has faced sharp criticism and calls for its cancellation.

Kirsten Walkom, a close friend of Lloyd and her family, told The Canadian Press in a January interview: “We need to stop sensationalizing violence against women and we’re not doing ourselves any favours in pretending this is entertainment.”

An online petition, which has garnered more than 2,100 signatures, argues the production forces families and friends to relive the horror of their loss publicly and calls for One Little Goat Theatre Company to reconsider staging the play.

The show’s venue, Theatre Passe Muraille, said in a statement that its role is to “provide a space where artists can freely express their opinions and explore the subject matter that compels them.”

Seelig says the creative team feels “a tremendous amount of responsibility” in telling the story onstage.

“We’re doing our very best with it, and really, we do understand that it is difficult material,” he says.

“We’re hoping through the theatre that we can find a way rather than to not talk about it, to talk about it emphatically. Rather than, let’s say, the way that the media will present facts dispassionately, to try to present these facts as compassionately as possible.”

“Smyth/Williams” runs until March 12.

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