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Ice melts but the tunniit persists. Must see photos from The Breathing Hole.

By Janine Marley, Sept. 11, 2017

In a season built on identity and perception, “The Breathing Hole,” a new play commissioned by The Stratford Festival showcases not only Inuit identity, but Canadian identities and our place as global citizens. “The Breathing Hole” is described by author Coleen Murphy as “the life and death of a 500-year-old polar bear,” but truly it is so much more than that. It’s the life and death of a people, being told by those people.

The breathing Hole, Stratford Festival

Members of the company. photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

It’s an inspiring yet disquieting exploration of Inuit identity past and future.

The physical aspects of the play help to situate the audience in terms of place; you literally walk out onto the tundra as you enter the theatre space.

The icy floor that seems to go on as far as the eye can see, and the ice flows scattered all over the stage; it makes you feel cold just looking at it.

Gordon Patrick White as Higguk and Bruce Hunter as Angu'juaq., the breathing Hole, Stratford, puppets

Gordon Patrick White as Higguk and Bruce Hunter as Angu’juaq.
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

The costuming further solidifies the characters in their identity and location. From their fur lined hoods to their mukluks, the costumes look like they’re meant to withstand the harsh surroundings of the characters.

What caught my attention almost immediately once the actors were on stage was the beautiful markings on the faces of the women, the tunniit which is part of ancient tradition. While the ice melts and the clothing changes, the tunniit persists, adorning the face of one of the Inuit woman in 2028.


Jani Lauzon in The Breathing Hole
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Another element that manages to withstand the test of time is the Inuit language of Inuktitut.

Even before the play begins, the audience is addressed in Inuktitut, which is then translated into English. But during the play, especially once the British explorers arrive, some of the Inuktitut is not translated, leaving the audience feeling just as alienated as the explorers do.

Randy Hughson , The breathing Hole Stratford festival

Randy Hughson (centre) as Sir John Franklin with members of the company.
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

This firm definition of identity via language continues into the future, where there is a certain understanding amongst those who can still speak Inuktitut; a shared history connects them on a deeper level through their beautiful, ancient language.

However, the most used and certainly the most visually stunning piece of Inuit culture in “The Breathing Hole” is the puppetry.

Stratford Festival, Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq in The Breathing Hole. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Jani Lauzon in The Breathing Hole
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

An element of Inuit theatre, still used to this day, is puppetry. Watching the integration of the puppets develop through the ages is truly a marvel.

Each time period starts with children making shadow puppets on the wall of the set. The Inuit children of Act I use the firelight to make their puppets, while the young explorer of Act II uses a gas lantern.

The young lady in the final act uses a flashlight, and a pamphlet about the Inuit territory, to create the shadows; even though the land and people might be gone, their mode of story telling is still used to showcase the culture that once was.

The physical puppets used for “The Breathing Hole” are exquisite pieces of art which are expertly brought to life. Angu’juaq, the polar bear whose life we follow, starts out as a hand puppet when he’s young. The face of the bear puppet is able to be so expressive that it’s not hard to immediately fall in love with the little orphaned bear.

The breathing Hole, Stratford Festival, Bruce Hunter (left) as Angu'juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq

Bruce Hunter (left) as Angu’juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq.
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Once he grows, a large man-operated puppet roams the stage, his wire frame covered with fabric making him a truly beautiful sight. Once he finds a mate, Panik, they both have such an incredible presence on stage. It’s like seeing a magical Inuit sculpture come to life before your eyes, and it makes the inevitable ending all the more difficult to watch.

In her interview on CBC radio, director Reneltta Arluk said that she took the story to Nunavut to be workshopped because the “region should hear that story.”

Director Reneltta Arluk on CBC Q,with Tom Power, The breathing Hole, Stratford Festival

Director Reneltta Arluk with Tom Power. photo: Melody Lau.

Since the Canadian Inuit people are at the heart of the story, both she and Coleen Murphy spoke to elders and members of the Inuit community to bring truth and honesty to the stage. In doing so they have created a unique theatrical experience; “The Breathing Hole” makes the audience reflect on their lives and how everyone has an impact on our globe and how we all contribute to the sea of black that Huumittuq foresees at the beginning of the play.

Our identity is not defined by where we’re from locally or by country, but by our place as a citizen of Earth and the fact that we do all share this one beautiful planet. This moving, beautiful play is not one to be missed.

“The Breathing Hole” has been playing to sold out houses, but new performance have just been added.

The Breathing Hole:
See all the reviews
Friday, September 29, at 8 p.m.
Sunday, October 1, at 2 p.m.
Friday, October 6, at 8 p.m.

Janine Marley, kingsvilleJanine Marley
Janine Marley is an actor, director, and reviewer from Kingsville. Her lifelong passion for theatre and its studies took her through her Masters Degree in English Literature and taken her on many exciting theatrical adventures. When she’s not making theatre, she’s watching it and can be found in the audience at the Stratford Festival any given weekend during the summer.
Follow Janine on Twitter: @thetheatregirl

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