'My death is now eagerly awaited'

70 characters. 52 horses. 70 cows. James Reaney thinks big for a small name.
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"Don't say that I laughed in this interview," James Reaney warns. "One interviewer counted the number of times that I laughed. I sounded like an idiot..." He starts giggling. There is a childishness about this 68-year-old playwright which is both endearing and faintly alarming. One minute he's sitting primly upright, all best behaviour, a grey-haired academic blinking behind little round specs, the next he's helpless with laughter. Perhaps it's disbelief at suddenly being taken seriously outside his native land. You see, James Reaney is Canadian. He's pretty big in London, Ontario but it's taken 21 years for Sticks and Stones, the first part of the trilogy with which he made his name, to be produced professionally in London, England.

It's not hard to see why Reaney is one of Canada's most improbable exports. You can probably count the number of Canadian dramatists who have fought their way on to the world stage on one hand, and they're chiefly French- Canadian: Robert Lepage, Michel Tremblay to name two. Reaney is too gentle, his output too modest (he spends more time writing opera librettos and poems than plays) and his subject matter too parochial to have commanded much international interest. And yet, if contemporary Canadian theatre, and English-Canadian theatre in particular, has finally acquired self- confidence, that owes much to Reaney's unfunded attempts, from the Sixties on, to imbue it with a national identity.

He is responsible, he notes quietly, for a species of Canadian drama called Canuki - "There's a PhD in that for at least 10 people." He borrowed techniques such as mime and game-playing from the Peking Opera and Japanese Kabuki and applied them to the conventional, realist, small-town drama of his day to create dense, non-linear, almost cinematic narratives. In Sticks and Stones, 11 actors portray 70 characters, 52 horses and 70 cows.

"You don't know how inarticulate Canada was and still is," he says. "It must be the climate [giggles]. It has taken a long while for Canadians to stop imitating other cultures. Take the town of Stratford - all its schools are named after Shakespeare - King Lear, for example. We haven't got a Titus Andronicus school yet but I'm sure it's on its way. We've only just begun to do our own stories."

The story he heard as a boy, and stood on its head as a writer, was that of the Donnellys, a family of Irish Catholic settlers in Ontario, who were massacred in 1880 by vigilantes. They were demonised in folklore as thieves and drunkards yet Reaney's years of research led him to believe they were victimised by their fellow Catholics for refusing to join a secret society. "It was though a piece of Tipperary was brought over in a petri-dish: 60 per cent Protestant, 40 per cent Catholic and a few Scots. It exploded and the Donnellys were caught in the middle of it."

While Reaney admits that one could apply a contemporary reading, matching Northern Ireland terrorists to the factions involved, it is the latent violence in Canadian farming communities that fascinates him. "The theory is that we're non-violent. We're not like the States, where violence is out in the open, we're much more reserved, but you get sudden outbreaks." Reaney believes that, like fellow dramatist Thomson Highway, who exposed the abuse of native Indian children in schools, he blew the whistle on the transplanted viciousness of the Old World, and encouraged Canada to confront its past by dramatic rather than political means.

"I don't want to imply that I'm Willie Shakespeare," he says in a camp, amused way, "but I've got to the end of the Wars of the Roses, so to speak. In early Elizabethan theatre they seemed to do a lot of historical things. Then they get that over with and move on to romantic spectacles. Well, I've written so many historical plays you could teach Canadian history from it. Now we've reached the period where we can do The Rivals and Fanny by Gaslight," he sighs, "but I'm of an older generation and my death is now eagerly awaited." He looks serious for a moment. Then the corners of his mouth start to twitch.

n 'Sticks and Stones', 7.30pm, to 2 September, Old Red Lion, London EC1. Tel: 0171-837 7816.