Stratford Reviewed 2008 (5):

Astute readers will have noticed the lack of activity here recently due to my three-day trip up to Stratford.  I won’t put long reviews here for the most part (you can read far more about the productions on the festival’s own website), but will give a feeling for what I saw and what’s worth your attention.  Three more reviews will come in the next article in this series.

What really shone out at Stratford was the sense of company, the sense that this was a group of actors working (with one notable exception) together.  Seasoned veterans and stars shared the stage with young actors and they worked as one.  Even the solo performances concentrated on the character and the story, not on “look at me” trickery.

This post includes reviews of:

  • Hughie
  • Krapp’s Last Tape
  • Caesar & Cleopatra
  • Hamlet

Hughie by Eugene O’Neil

Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett

This double bill is more or less sold out to the end of its run on August 31, but you might get lucky and pick up a ticket on a rush basis. 

You will see Brian Dennehy as a pair of characters, one an ever optimistic gambler with tales of his brilliant past, the other a bleak pessimist with only himself and his tape recorder for an audience. 

In Hughie, we meet Erie Smith, a gambler who’s down on his luck most of the time.  He’s a regular in a decidely second-string hotel where, until now, Hughie, the desk clerk was an audience for Erie’s stories of better days.  Hughie died recently, the new the Night Clerk is an unknown.  Will he listen?  Does he care?

Joe Grifasi has the difficult role of the Night Clerk who must spend his time reacting as little as possible to his odd guest.  Just be vaguely polite, but not engaging, and watch as Dennehy acts up a storm around him.

More than once, Erie starts up to his room, but if he doesn’t have an audience, what is there?  In one last try, he pulls a few dollars in loose change from his pockets, and stakes both of them to play.  Erie is alive again.

Krapp also needs an audience, but he’s been alone for years.  Each year, on his birthday, he records a tape of his thoughts and this, on his 69th, will probably be his last.

For 10 mins, Krapp doesn’t speak (who would hear) as he goes about his ritual preparations.  He eats a banana, then another.  The dropped peel on the floor is almost a challenge.  He positions it just so then … a pratfall. He has a weakness for bananas, and the fall is part of his routine.

Finally he starts the tape to record his bitter thoughts, but suddenly stops and throws the tape away.  What he really wants to hear is the story 30 years ago, the day he almost became someone.  He could have love, or he could become a writer, and on that triumphal day he chose his book.  It sold 17 copies.

Krapp at 69 sees the fool he was at 39, but his life clearly has been stuck at that point, at that wrong turn, and it is the focus of what remains.

Two very different men, both living in the past.  One wonderful actor.  These two performances show what acting is about, and all without a “look at me” star syndrome.

Caesar & Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw

The story of the title characters doesn’t need retelling beyond a very brief synopsis.  Caesar, a crusty old soldier, encounters a very young Cleopatra who is terrified that, as a Roman, he is going to eat her.  This quickly passes, and Caesar schools the young Queen in what being “royal” is all about.  She’s a quick study.

Shaw’s comedy starts off with the ridiculous fantasies of a 16-year old, but quickly turns to the dynamics among the Romans.  Here, Stratford’s production really shines.  Christopher Plummer is Caesar, but he’s one of many fine actors on the Festival Stage.  Nicki James holds her own as Cleopatra and shares a well-deserved final bow.  Peter Donaldson is Rufio, Caesar’s right hand man who will eventually be left behind as Caesar’s viceroy despite his rough, soldierly ways.  Stephen Sutcliffe is a delight as Britannus, Caesar’s too moral, pompous secretary who tries to keep order and protocol where things are better left alone.

This production has well-deserved raves elsewhere, and I don’t need to write ten more paragraphs urging you to see it.  Runs to November 8.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Ham is the operative word here.  I must admit to walking out the interval and, in fairness, have to assume that the rave reviews are somehow connected to brilliant business in Acts IV and V of the play.  I will take this on faith.

Ben Calson is completely over the top in the title role.  I could hardly use the phrase “melancholy Dane” to describe him since every speech is delivered bellowing to the audience.  Somewhere, there is a Hamlet torn by introspection, but not in this production.  By playing at one shrill level, Carlson leaves no room for any emotional scope from the other actors all of whom seem to be just getting through their roles like the worst of chores.

Carlson’s readings are anti-poetical and overplayed.  Where there is a dramatic pause (such as at “aye, there’s the rub”), it feels staged, not a natural revelation.

Ger Wyn Davies’ Polonius should be interesting, a less fussy dunderhead than we usually see and a father with a real care for his daughter.  However, his restrained readings simply fade behind Hamlet’s bluster.  The classic speech to Laertes (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be …”) passes by completely without interest.  With an essentially empty character, Polonius loses the pathos that would normally attend his death.

Scott Wentworth’s Claudius telegraphs his guilt as the murderer of Hamlet’s father with his every move rather than giving the audience pause, a real sense that Hamlet (and his father’s ghost) may be wrong. 

The director, Adrian Noble, must be held to account for this odd production.  Direct textual references are ignored.  Hamlet meets Ophelia in her bedroom, not a palace corridor, for “Get thee to a nunnery”.  What were Polonius and Claudius doing there in the first place plotting to overhear the exchange?  Hamlet says that he has a rapier, and yet he stabs Polonius with a much larger sword that quite noticeably does not penetrate the “arras” behind which the old man is hiding.  It’s the sort of problem one expects in a burlesque, not a serious production.

The first half ended with an often-cut scene of Fortinbras and an army from Norway enroute to a battle by way of Denmark.  We have music of Elgarian majesty and a sense of event, of happening, that has been absent for three acts.  Alas, it is in aid of a minor bit of plot and a device for a big first half close.

I left the theatre and my fellow audience members to Ophelia’s coming death, Hamlet’s offstage voyage to England, the Gravedigger’s scene, and the final duel leaving the Danish court dead at our feet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern died without my assistance.

The production runs to October 26, but, please, find something else to see.

Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang by Mordechai Richler

As a one-time fundraiser, Christopher Plummer got up early (for him) for an 11 am reading at the Avon Theatre.  This is the sort of storytelling anyone, big child or little, would love to have — a master actor reading a delightful story and taking all of the roles himself.  The audience settled into the story with a mixture of delight for the text and admiration for Plummer’s delivery.

A huge treat!