Another Stratford Visit

Last weekend took me to Stratford again for four productions:  Fanny Kemble, The Glass Menagerie, The Liar and Don Juan. 

The first three are reviewed below, while Don Juan is in a separate following post comparing it to the opera Don Giovanni.  A friend of mine saw Twelfth Night which I reviewed a while back, and I have some comments to add on that play at the end.

Fanny Kemble

Peter Hinton wrote and directed Fanny Kemble, a one-woman tour-de-force starring Domini Blythe.  I’ve liked everything Hinton has done before at Stratford, and that plus the chance to see Blythe in a solo performance drew me to this production.  Even with minor flaws, it’s well worth seeing.

Fanny Kemble was a real person, a daughter in an English theatrical family whose real love lay in writing.  Reluctantly she turned to acting when the lead in Romeo & Juliet fell ill.  It became a signature role, so much so that during a tour of the US, a southern gentleman admirer, Pierce Butler, attended many performances, proposed and married her in 1834.  Some time later, by inheritance, Butler came to be the second-largest slave owner in Georgia, a situation that appalled Kemble who was an abolitionist.  This led to divorce and Kemble’s new career as a writer and lecturer.

The play is told as a memory piece with trunks scattered around the stage as Fanny’s somewhat disorganized dressing room in a theatre.  The trunks hold bits and pieces of her life, and as the story moves from one time and character to another, Blythe opens and closes them to change the scene.  Her voice is not just Kemble’s, but also that of her husband Pierce and her black servant Psyche.  Fanny’s constant problem as an actor/lecturer is “Who will I be now?”.

A linking thread in the story is ownership of people and the role of women.  Juliet has little else to do than fall in love with Romeo, marry him and die tragically.  Fanny learns that her own family was paid off for their losses when she left the theatre through a stipend arranged by her husband’s relatives.  The Butlers, of course, are slave owners.

Hinton plays with the classic literary problem of voice appropriation in an interesting and challenging way.  Psyche had told Fanny the personal story of friends and family who were separated as slaves, bought and sold without regard for their relationships.  This story made its way into Fanny’s journal, and Psyche was appalled to find a white woman, in effect, stealing her story just as Domini Blythe takes on the role of Psyche.  The irony here is that Kemble’s writings were a major force against slavery by undermining political support for the Southern Confederacy.

This production has many of Hinton’s hallmarks:  carefully studied and detailed characters, staging and design that draw in the audience and invite us to sketch the details we cannot see, and a sense that nothing on stage or in the text is superfluous (something other Stratford directors would do well to emulate).  My one quibble was the interpolation of the Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice by Fanny Kemble as she criticizes her husband’s treatment of a slave.  This felt like a contrived moment in an otherwise excellent story.

Fanny Kemble continues at the Studio Theatre until September 23.

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams)

Most people will know this play from the film version with Katherine Hepburn, but it’s a story I have always preferred in its original theatrical form.  Actually, it’s my favourite Tennessee Williams play, moreso even than Streetcar, and I am thrilled to say that the current Stratford production is superb.  Miles Potter, the director, deserves much praise along with a fine quartet of actors.

Steven Sutcliffe plays Tom Wingfield, our narrator, and Williams’ voice.  Tom looks back into the past unable to shake the memory of his sister Laura (Sara Topham) and his domineering mother Amanda (Seana McKenna).  Through Tom, we experience something common to each of the characters — the longing for something in their past that cannot be reclaimed. 

Amanda once lived in a genteel Southern family, a beautiful girl whose endless string of “gentlemen callers” of a Sunday afternoon grows in her memory with each telling.  Now, in depression-era St. Louis, she struggles to earn what she can to support her family.  Laura, a painfully shy girl, was sweet on a boy in high school, but her plain looks and chronic limp made her a prisoner of her own sense of inadequacy.  Tom is now out on his own, but longs for his sister who is only a memory lit by candle light.

Into this mix comes Jim O’Connor, a gentleman caller for Laura, who was invited to visit by Tom.  Both work at a nearby warehouse and were school friends.  Indeed, Jim was the object of Laura’s affection, but was always popular, successful and beyond her grasp.  This role is crucial because of the long second act scene with Jim and Laura, and in some productions is the weak link, an actor whose presence is pivotal.  We must believe not just that Laura had a crush on him, but that he has the sensitivity and inspiration to make her believe, for a time, that she could mean something in a man’s life.

I had the fortune of sitting near the stage where I had a clear view of Sara Topham’s face during Jim’s long speech.  The arc from a withdrawn girl through tentative acceptance then brilliant happiness were astounding, and her fall back to disappointment all the more tender because of it.  Just for this scene, Ms. Topham has gone up another notch in my estimation of young Stratford actors.

Seana McKenna is excellent as Amanda, supremely confident while hiding the pain of her vainshed husband, the “gentleman caller” she married but lost.  She is utterly unaware of the pain she causes Tom and Laura through her forced cheer, just as they don’t recognize the emptiness of her life.

Theatre doesn’t get much better, and this production deserves a remount in Toronto next year, just as the 2005 production of Orpheus Descending is part of the 2006/7 Toronto season.  The Glass Menagerie continues at the Avon Theatre to October 22.

The Liar (Pierre Corneille, 1643)

Director Matthew Jocelyn gives us a very different take on 17th century French theatre by contrast with the Don Juan reviewed elsewhere.  This is a very modern performance where the actors are totally aware of the audience in a small performance space (The Studio Theatre) and spend a good deal of their time off of the stage and in the aisles.  Each actor carries a script much as they would in rehearsal, although some clearly didn’t need it.

When they come onstage, the actors don’t know which part they will play — there are three young men, three young women, and two older men, and they draw their parts randomly from those available for their group.  This device appeared fake in the performance I saw (look at the play’s title, after all), but comparing notes with people who saw another performance, the actors really do take different roles.

We get most of the story intact.  Dorante, a liar par excellence, is in love with Clarice, or was it her friend Lucrece?  He concocts tale after tale of his mythical exploits, and almost loses the girl he wants by telling his father that he’s already married.  Daddy even likes the girl he really wants, but the confusion of characters keeps the plot running along.

The real challenge of this production is all of the business that the actors do as actors.  They criticize the text (bad translations and rhyme schemes in places), they ask audience members to read their lines, one-upsmanship leads to pranks including a live cell phone call (“Mom!  Dad!  You’re onstage at Stratford!).  All of this business is quite funny but the plot almost disappears.

I saw the final preview performance which, strictly speaking, is off limits for reviews, but am happy to report that the cast has this play well in hand.  Their challenge will be to keep from adding bits, from going too far and turning the whole thing into a theatrical in joke.  If they stay at the level of that preview, they’ll do fine.  Go over the top and a good joke will be ruined by overuse.

The Liar continues at the Studio Theatre to September 23.

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare)

My theatre companion went off to Twelfth Night while I was at Don Juan.  The production is now a bit over a week past opening (I saw the first preview), and some things have developed over time.  Notably, Brian Bedford as Malvolio is now playing much more to the audience than he did before, I suspect to make up for some of the shortcomings of Leon Rubin’s direction.  It’s still Bollywood on the Avon.

The audience likes the play, it’s a competent production, but Stratford can do (and has done) so much better.