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Sowing dissent

Review by Chantal Sundaram

April 10, 2014

The last decade has seen the flourishing of "verbatim theatre," a style of documentary theatre that uses court transcripts, interviews, and archives to reconstruct stories of actual events in the words of their participants. It is a genre that lends itself to political theatre.
Recent examples include The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project-Ten Years Later (about the murder of Matthew Shepard), My Name is Rachel Corrie, Black Watch (using interviews with Black Watch soldiers in Iraq) and The Exonerated, based on interviews with people exonerated from death row in the US.
Playwright Annabel Soutar has written and staged a number of plays in this genre with her Montreal-based company Porte Parole. The latest, Seeds, about the historic pursuit by agriculture multinational Monsanto of Saskatchewan conola farmer Percy Schmeiser over a patented herbicide-resistant conola gene, is a marriage of theatrical form and the subject explored. 
Annabel puts herself in the play to narrate how she documented this battle that made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and likens her process to that of Monsanto: she collects raw material from the real world and modifies it until it becomes something she calls her own. But whereas the jury is out on whether genetically-modified food is demonstrably dangerous or should be patentable, the verdict is in on Soutar's Seeds: it is a sharp, funny and engaging take on the Monsanto-Schmeizer case that draws the audience in through the playwright's attempt to reconstruct the many different voices involved. 
In the end, what emerges is not a simple "David and Goliath" story of a farmer attempting to fight off a patent suit for genetically-modified seeds that blew onto his field. Rather it raises complex questions about profit-driven science and the way it leaves both farmers and the public vulnerable to ignorance and manipulation.
Seeds has run in Montreal and Toronto, and will be at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until April 12. Soutar is currently on a road trip researching her new play Watershed, about the politics of water.

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