Torquil Campbell blurs reality with one-man production True Crime, a timely tale for the age of Trump

You’ll pardon Torquil Campbell if, should you shake his hand, he heads immediately for a sanitizer pump.

You might want to do the same.

You see, the cold-and-flu season settled into the Campbell home for much of the holidays and decided it liked it so much, it would stick around for an extended stay.

“It’s like being The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn in my family. It’s relentless, it’s like Vimy Ridge. It’s just a battlefield of fallen soldiers,” he says and laughs. “But we managed to have a good time.”

And him? Finally healthy for the start of the year, which finds him in Calgary to help close out the High Performance Rodeo with his one-man production True Crime?

“I’m 45,” he says with another laugh, “so in general I just basically feel like shit, so it’s hard to tell when I’m sick or just alive at this point.”

That blurring of lines, actually, is something of a theme when it comes to True Crime, an important and rather personal project for the artist who’s also frontman for Canpop act Stars.

It’s a production he, co-writer Chris Abraham and musician Julian Brown have been working on for the past few years, even workshopping it at the 2016 Rodeo and later in the summer at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, when the title of the piece was actually The Rockefeller Project.

“Banff was really the turning point for the show working,” says the artist, while also noting he returned to the Rocky Mountain oasis later with a “semi-finished version of the show.”

“Man is that place ever incredible. One of the things you realize is … the reason Charles Dickens wrote 30 novels is because he had servants. Like three hours a day is taken up hunting for, gathering, cooking and cleaning up food and if you don’t have to do that you suddenly have all this time in your day to think and explore. Because it’s so focussed and everyone at Banff is working all day, it’s just an amazing place to get work done.

“So that was really the catalyst for us pushing this to the finish line in a way.”

And to a production that has already earned a great deal of acclaim, thanks to a run last year in Toronto and at the Stratford Festival, with it also now being in development for a feature-length film.

But back to the blurring and back to what the self-described “complicated” and “strange” and “weird” story is about.

In a nutshell it’s about Campbell’s fascination with real-life convicted conman and murderer Christian Gerhartsreiter, who emigrated from Germany at a young age and spent many years pretending to be other people, eventually settling on the persona of Clark Rockefeller, passing himself off as a member of the famed Rockefeller family.

In True Crime, Campbell also tells his own life story, mixing that in with details of Gerhartsreiter’s tale, drawing similarities and, yes, blurring the line between the two men and reality itself.

But as for the other specifics about True Crime, here Campbell gets a little cagey.

In fact, asked to confirm that he actually interviewed Gerhartsreiter in the California prison where he now resides, the artist shuts that down with pointed vagueness.

“My policy in regards to that kind of question is: it certainly seems that way,” he says.

“Why would I lie about it really? To confirm or deny those things would be — every thing I say about the play is a spoiler in a way: if I talk about my life it’s a spoiler; if I talk about his life it’s a spoiler; if I talk about our lives it’s a spoiler.”

He continues. “Once you’re involved with someone who lies like that — and this is what Trump’s doing to the world — once you live in the logic it’s very difficult to know whether or not you ever told the truth yourself. That to me is what the show is about.

“We are now officially living in an age when people just randomly decide what the truth is and what a lie is. And it’s quite terrifying.”

Actually, despite the fact it’s an obvious and easy parallel that audiences are making, Campbell admits that when he first started down the path of True Crime it was never intended to be a play with a timely, Trumpy message.

Campbell says it only changed and “took on a political meaning as we were creating it, because he came along.”

“This ultimate charlatan, this ultimate conman came along and really pulled off what Clark Rockefeller was always trying to do,” he says. “It became a much more timely play then when we started it.”

He thinks it’s made even more timely by the rise of social media — how we portray ourselves online, how we see ourselves, how others see us, and what is the reality of who we are or is there a reality of who we are?

It’s all rather heady stuff that makes for what should be a pretty intense and thought-provoking evening for any Calgary theatregoer who catches the last few shows of True Crime at the Rodeo.

“Tell people if they’re looking for something less dark they should wait until the Stars next concert,” Campbell laughs again before teasing a local show perhaps sometime in the summer.

“We’re going to be doing lots of touring, so, busy year for me.

“Hopefully I’ll only get the flu five times. I’ll keep you updated.”

(Photo courtesy Dahlia Katz.)

True Crime runs Thursday and Friday at The Studio in the Vertigo Theatre Centre as part of the High Performance Rodeo. For tickets please go to