Adrian Chamberlain's Stage Left: Yin, yang and a vision of love in Griffin & Sabine

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A small piece of theatre history was made this week — and it happened in little old Victoria.

Many are familiar with the literary phenomenon known as Griffin & Sabine. Nick Bantock’s book series chronicling the epistolary romance between tortured artist Griffin and his mysterious muse Sabine sold millions of copies.

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Now, for the first time, the writings of Bantock (a Brit based in Victoria) have been transformed into theatre, adapted by the collaborative team of Bantock and Michael Shamata, artistic director of the Belfry Theatre.

Griffin & Sabine, running at the Belfry to Dec. 23, takes as inspiration the original trilogy (the first book was published in 1991) as well as The Pharos Gate.

Devotees of these books — fans are many and passionate — won’t be disappointed by this show. The Belfry production, sensitively directed by Shamata, is faithful to the spirit and look of Bantock’s books, which contain envelopes with removeable letters and postcards. Clever animated projections and lighting bring reproductions of the original art to life with deftness and imagination. It’s a testament to the skills of set designer Pam Johnson and lighting designer Bryan Kenney.

It is a peculiar little night at the theatre. Ostensibly set in modern times, there’s a Jane Austen-like preciousness to Bantock’s saga of two star-crossed lovers incapable of meeting up due to living in parallel universes. The impatient theatregoer might wish that the pair, to paraphrase rock band T. Rex, would just get it on and bang a gong.

Griffin & Sabine does glow with a strange beauty all its own. Bantock describes it as “a journey, a love story, a fairy tale and [a] metaphysical mystery.”

Griffin (Matthew Edison) is a lonely London artist who makes strange postcards for a living. He receives a card from Sabine (Yoshié Bancroft), a fellow artist based on a South Seas Island. Although they’ve never met, her note makes clear she can somehow see Griffin creating his artworks, despite the fact he’s alone. Sabine has been silent witness to this process for 13 years. She has now tracked him down thanks to an article in Grafica magazine featuring his art.

The pair begin a correspondence, discover they’re soulmates and fall in love. Along the way Griffin reveals himself as jangling bundle of angst, a reclusive artiste who frets about his fractured past and wonders whether he’s hit a creative brick wall. Sabine emerges as both muse and therapist, encouraging him and suggesting any struggles are merely growing pains in the quest for artistic profundity.

Despite never having met, the pair soon declare their undying affection for another. “I love you unconditionally,” writes Sabine while suggesting that Griffin (who can seem a bit of a neurotic twit) must love himself to achieve psychic wholeness.

At one point Griffin wonders whether Sabine is a figment of his imagination, a peculiar outgrowth of his loneliness. This reflects Bantock’s fascination with the yin, yang and other metaphysical shenanigans. Some will find this a bit New Agey; others will find it absolutely delightful.

Overall, there’s something curiously childlike about Bantock’s vision. At times the tale is reminiscent of English 1930s adventure books for boys and girls. Exchanging letters with Sabine constantly (why don’t they text or Skype?), Griffin sets off on a Tintin-esque global journey to Italy, Greece, Ireland and Japan. Later both he and Sabine are doggedly pursued by the villain Victor Frollati, theatrically voiced-over by actor Benedict Campbell in the manner of a Raiders of the Lost Ark baddie.

Edison, in bookish casual attire, makes Griffin suitably likable. Bancroft does the same for Sabine, although on Friday night her performance might have been more mysterious and less girl-next-door. The pair, while appealing, seem overly ordinary in some ways, given the singularity of their adventures.

Adapting epistolary books for stage (another example is A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters) presents specific challenges. The main characters don’t interact in a conventional manner. With Griffin & Sabine, the actors face the audience rather than one another, each taking turns declaiming as letters are read. Happily, Shamata and company have created an intimate world that almost compensates for this.

We leave the theatre haunted by powerful images that linger. One is the sight of Griffin, high up on a ladder in darkness, his spot-lit face appearing to magically float as waves of handwriting ripple through the air.

In this moment, the singular power of the old-fashioned letter seems to have magically come to life.

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