A Weekend in Stratford

The past weekend took me on the first of several planned jaunts to Stratford and much theatre.  For more information about the Stratford Festival including detailed information about all of the plays, click here.

Herewith, brief reviews.

Henry IV, Part I (Shakespeare)

This is the first of a trilogy in the History plays to trace the life of King Henry V.  In Henry IV, Part I, we meet the young Prince Hal who spends his time with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, of which Sir John Falstaff is best known.  Meanwhile, his father, Henry IV, despairs of his ever taking over the crown and fears that Hotspur, son of the King’s rival Northumberland, has the mettle to sieze the throne.The trilogy is a joy to see as a series of linked productions, but here we get only one third, and a weak third at that.  Gone is most of the political intrigue, the plotting against the King and his son who will, as Henry V, make his true mark in English history.

David Snelgrove is Prince Hal, and he is no match for Adam O’Byrne’s Hotspur.  Two critical scenes are wasted — an early soliloquy where Hal shows his true colours, and the vital scene where the Prince tells Falstaff that, as King, he will disavow his former friendship and banish the fat knight.

FALSTAFF

… but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

PRINCE HENRY

I do, I will.

After Falstaff’s long plea spoken in jest, those four words should come in measured silence.  There should be a cold shudder in the audience as we catch a glimpse of what Hal will become, but the line is lost in the shuffle.

Henry IV has been boiled down to be about Falstaff, played with great fun by James Blendick who winds up as the star rather than Prince Hal or Hotspur.  Richard Monette’s direction, I fear, must take the blame for this very unsatisfying production.

Continuing at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24.

London Assurance (Dion Boucicault, 1841)

This production is a delight!  Brian Bedford directs and stars as Sir Harcourt Courtly, a man who is, don’t you know, the epitome of fashion in Victorian London.  Adam O’Byrne, in a complete change from Hotspur [see previous review], plays his son Charles, a man of the world whose father knows nothing of his nightly excursions.  Sir Harcourt plans to marry, for money of course, a young lady, Grace Harkaway (Sara Topham), whom he met only as a child.  Her uncle Max (James Blendick) is an old friend.

Other marvellous characters include Lady Gay Spanker (Seana McKenna) and Cool (Keith Dinicol), a servant to the Courtly household.

This is Victorian theatre where the actors and the audience are all in the game together, and the lead actor (Bedford) is expected to go over the top.  What works so enjoyably here is that the comedy is not played for broad, easy laughs, there is no mugging even though some of the characters are sketches of fools.  Everyone on stage is having a grand time, and nothing is out of balance.  A gem of a production.

Special mention must go to the sets and costumes designed by Desmond Heeley — this is his 36th Stratford production.  As the faux fire curtain emblazoned with VR and the Royal Coat of Arms goes up, the opening set and every one that follows get well-deserved applause.

Continuing at the Avon Theatre until October 21.

Coriolanus (Shakespeare)

Colm Feore stars as Coriolanus, a Roman general with a small ego problem.  He is a great hero, but he refuses to play politics with the masses or, more importantly, with the Tribunes whose self-serving plots care little for true Roman democracy.  The mob is an animal to be led.

When the play begins, he is only Caius Martius, but his defeat of Rome’s enemies and the capture of their city Corioles gives him and the play their title.  The Senate names him Consul, but the Tribunes quickly plot his overthrow and eventual banishment.

Revenge comes by an alliance with his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (Graham Abbey) who has a deep regard for Coriolanus as a man and as a soldier.  Indeed, as played here, Aufidius has more than a passing affection for Coriolanus.  They join forces to attack Rome and are on the verge of taking the city when Coriolanus, responding to his mother’s pleas, decides to spare the city.  Aufidius, already upset at playing second fiddle to his new general, is horrified at this betrayal, and Coriolanus meets a brutal end soon after.

This is an excellent production where the overlapping plot lines and political schemes are clear for the audience.  The action moves quickly and scene transitions often overlap on the stage.  The actors are well-matched to their characters and to each other, with both Feore and Abbey as standouts.  Bernard Hopkins is particularly slimy as the Tribune Brutus whose only regard for “the people” is to use their power for his own ends.

This play is rarely produced, but definitely worth seeing if you can get a ticket.  It continues at the Festival Theatre until September 23.

The Duchess of Malfi (John Webster, first performed between 1612-14)

This was my day for seeing rarely performed theatre!  Webster’s plays don’t show up often partly due to their violence and partly because they do not have the elegance and complexity of Shakespeare.  Also, looking at this production, I would say they are not easy to mount for a modern audience.

Director Peter Hinton (also known at Stratford for his Swanne trilogy and last year’s production of Into The Woods) gives us a Duchess where every move, every prop, every character supports and enhances our experience of the play.  The costumes are all black, many cut from the same cloth, with only a few touches of red including a Cardinal’s robes and the red blankets on the cribs of two murdered infants.

Like the production of Coriolanus which I saw earlier, the actions, motivations and entanglements of the characters are very clear, and this leaves us free to soak up the atmosphere and events without confusion.

The situation itself is straightforward:  The Duchess is a widow and, as such has wealth and power that a single woman or wife could not have in the Jacobean period.  Her brothers Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and “The Cardinal” (both truly evil men played by Paul Essiembre and Peter Donaldson respectively) want to prevent a remarriage so that they can eventually claim the Duchy for themselves.  They are not very nice about this at all.  Initially they try to drive her mad, but she’s too strong for that and marries Antonio in secret.  Three children follow, although the youngest two don’t survive the final curtain.

The play is interesting for the level of intrigue it portrays, clearly something the Jacobean audiences thrived on, and also as a contrast to the more refined Shakespeare we are so used to seeing.  Hinton gives us a careful, thoughtfully directed production that doesn’t just run through the lines for the sake of mounting a little-seen drama.  Some of the other directors at Stratford could do well to pay as much attention to their work with the Bard himself.

Continues at the Tom Patterson theatre to September 23.

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare)

I attended the first preview of this production and, as such, it really should be immune from reviews until opening night.

All that I will say is that I have rarely been delighted by any of director Leon Rubin’s work at Stratford, and this production gave me no reason to change my mind.  There is some good acting here (Malvolio — Brian Bedford, Sir Andrew Aguecheek — Don Carrier, Maria — Diane D’Aquila, Viola — Dana Green) and a detestable Feste (Andrew Massingham), but the play is caught in a concept (colonial India) that just gets in the way.

Opens August 10 and continues to October 28 at the Festival Theatre.