Stratford July 2009 Reviews

Last week took me up to Stratford for the first of this year’s visits. Although some may think otherwise, I do not go to Stratford just as an excuse to perform inspection tours of the Georgetown/Kitchener corridor. The trains were on time both ways.

Reviewed here:

Julius Caesar (*)
Ever Yours, Oscar (**½)
Bartholemew Fair (****)
The Three Sisters (**½)
Macbeth (***)

I will return to Stratford in August for another five plays.

Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare

Directed by James MacDonald

Thanks to change in the VIA schedule and a two-for-one ticket promotion at Stratford, I went up a day early to see a production that had not been in my original selection for this season. Reviews and word-of-mouth had not been kind, and I approached Julius Caesar with caution, willing to be convinced.

MacDonald sets the play in a vague mix of modern and ancient times with a costume mix from sandals-and-togas all the way to Star Wars. This sort of approach is bothersome at the best of times because the concept can interfere with the actual story, and the performance becomes more one of a director’s vision than of the author’s. According to the Director’s Note in the program, political spin has always been with us and violent acts are explained with dubious excuses.

Fortunately for MacDonald, “Caesar” sounds more like “Saddam” than “Bush”, and we get the point fairly early on. However, ancient Rome is no match for 9/11. In retrospect, this production suffers by comparison to the “Scottish play”, also shifted to modern times, but much more coherently (see review later in this article).

When in doubt, open with a bunch of noise — in this case, the crowd celebrating Lupercalia — to get the audience’s attention. Enter Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davies) onto a square hung with banners showing his portrait. Caesar has his entourage and appears to be firmly in control.

The action moves to the senators who plot to overthrow Caesar for the supposed guilt of ambition to be emperor, but that’s just an excuse. Cassius (Tom Rooney) is the instigator, but sounds here like kvetching back bencher. Why anyone, especially a pivotal, important figure like Brutus, would any listen to him is a mystery.

Brutus (Ben Carlson) is the man who must be convinced, who must be brought in to make the plot work, and he is not one to make up his mind quickly. At this point I couldn’t help thinking of Carlson’s appalling Hamlet from last season, and thought this performance was going to be a reprise. The whole gang of plotters wouldn’t last five minutes against a decent journalist, let alone the sort of intelligence network someone like Caesar must have had.

At this point I have to talk about performances generally. Many of the actors are young, and they speak in a manner that isn’t the least bit patrician even though they are senators. This gives little separation between them and the rabble they represent. This might be an o-so-clever comment on modern politicians, but I think it’s just insensitivity to the text and to proper characterization.

The plotters convince Brutus to join in, they convince themselves that Caesar wants to be emperor even though he has already refused the crown three times, and Cassius complains about some friend who was exiled. Do we care?
On the Ides of March, Julie gets killed. Et tu, Brute and all that. The daggers are credible although the mechanics of the assassination looked a bit hokey even from the front of the Avon Theatre’s balcony. They will appear later.

Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad) shows up and feigns belief in what has been done, enough, at least, to con Brutus into letting him give a funeral oration for Caesar. Brutus is not too bright, and Cassius is upset that Antony will turn the crowd against them.

Alas for the plotters, Goad is the first actor to appear who speaks convincingly as an actor with a sense of the text. This makes the pair of funeral speeches a slam dunk for Antony who could have recited the phone book to much the same effect.

Carlson/Brutus throws away his speech, text meant to rouse Romans against incipient slavery, but delivered with little conviction. There’s a rhetorical structure, but it’s almost like a politician who didn’t bother to preview the teleprompter text and doesn’t know where the drama will come in it. The crowd not only listens, but wants to make Brutus the new Caesar. They have very low standards. (To be fair to Carlson, Shakespeare set the first part of Brutus’ speech in prose so that it cannot have the same oratorical ring as the poetry of Marc Antony’s famous lines.)

Again, I could be cynical and look on this as a commentary on how easily modern audiences seem duped to accept half-baked oratory only to be astounded when a gifted speaker appears on the scene. If that’s the intent, the analogy to present day is even more strained. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen …” rings through the mob’s shouting voices, a mob dispersed through the house so that Goad must work all the harder to be heard over them. Marc Antony turns the mob to his side, and things quickly run downhill.

The plotters flee Rome with their respective armies while the mob turns on anyone who might have been associated with the killers. The first half closes with the murder of Cinna, a poet whose only crime was to have the same name as a hated senator.

After the intermission, there’s not much to do but work through the traitors’ defeat, and that’s brought about as much by despondency as by prowess. The production design goes completely off the rails here. First, we have a scene with a map of Europe, carved in three, Lear-like, on the floor and, inexplicably, projected by video screen. This is the only video in the production, but someone gets a credit for this, and I hate to think whether there was more that was cut along the way.

The battles are done with mostly modern dress and armour including automatic weapons and Death Star storm troopers. In the midst of this, battles with those daggers from Act I are hopelessly out of place, not to mention the repeated reference to “sword” in the text. When the actors discard their guns to fight with those little snickersnees, the battle just gets silly.

Finally, we have the tragedy of Brutus, a good man gone to a bad end. Again, I couldn’t help thinking of Hamlet (Carlson died in that one, too).

The responsibility for this mess clearly lies with the director, aided by the designers. We see a mixed bag of ideas, ill conceived but all thrown in because they sounded good at the time, while the play and its tragedy are lost.

Ever Yours, Oscar

Letters of Oscar Wilde compiled by Peter Wylde; directed and performed by Brian Bedford

Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer and a great wit, and his letters allow us to hear him with one voice over time. That voice went through a remarkable change during and after Wilde’s imprisonment, and the balance of Ever Yours, Oscar rests more heavily on the serious, older voice.

Brian Bedford is a great admirer of Wilde, and he presents the letters in a simple setting — a reader at a lectern much as Simon Callow did with the Shakespearean Sonnets last season. This lets the author do most of the talking, but it depends on the actor’s presence and delivery for the real effect.

Bedford begins with youthful letters with Oscar at school complaining that mummy didn’t send his coloured shirts along in a hamper of goodies. Later we find Oscar on his speaking trip to America where the locals were less than receptive to his addresses on aesthetics. Throughout this section, Bedford seemed distracted. The material was interesting enough, although familiar from other readings, but it didn’t hold my attention.

One long letter finds Oscar, badly in need of cash, writing to his publisher with an outline of a new play, a work that will come to be known as The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s amusing to find that only one of the character names survived (Miss Prism), but the plot is all there in this early outline. If only Bedford had made it sound less like a shopping list — once started, it had to get all the way from one side of the supermarket to the other, through the checkout and finally to the parking lot — this might have been more intriguing than tedious.

Now we come to the affair with “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s great infatuation. A short sequence of passionate letters leads straight to Wilde’s hopeless libel lawsuit against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, and Wilde’s subsequent prosecution for gross indecency. Now we hear of children imprisoned in Reading Gaol, a setting they cannot understand and cannot possible survive. Both Wilde and Bedford came alive at this point with real passion, a side of the author we don’t hear in the ever so witty comedies.

Oscar leaves prison a changed man and soon discovers that Bosie is only interested in him for possible financial support, not as a lover. Disappointed in love and in poor health, Oscar Wilde dies.

We are left with a sense that Wilde’s later life had potential for far greater work and social engagement, much more important than the writing for which Wilde is best known, and writings we will never hear.

I hope that the unevenness of this performance was just an off-day for Brian Bedford. The arc of the script is important and a stronger beginning would lead to a greater, if tragic, end.

Ever Yours, Oscar runs until August 29 at the Patterson Theatre.

Bartholemew Fair, by Ben Jonson

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Bartholemew Fair, written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Jonson, has its North American debut at Stratford, and this is a show not to be missed.

The premise is simple: take the gentry who are too foolish, too stuck up, too full of themselves off to a fair populated by a band of carnies, thieves and ladies of dubious virtue. Sit back. Watch the upper crust make fools of themselves. We have self-important Puritans, lovers, gallants, hawkers, Ursla the Pig Woman and a Justice who, playing the fool, hopes to catch out all the fair’s evils. In the end, the widow and the maid each winds up with the right man, the foolish but (formerly) rich squire loses his money and his fiancée, and the judge learns humility and compassion.

The challenge, wonderfully met by director Cimolino and his cast, is to make sense of it all while drawing the audience into the hurly-burly of the fair. On the Patterson’s long thrust stage, not to mention in the aisles around the theatre, the action is everywhere. Characters come and go, cross and recross, and yet we never have a sense of needless motion, traffic congestion or confusion in the action. One moment, a crowd. The next, the stage is bare. Every prop, every bit of business fits somewhere.

The performances are too numerous to mention, but I have to include a few favourites.

The play begins, simply enough, in the Puritan-in-name-only household of John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), an amateur with an uncanny resemblance to our director. He is writing a play, The Touchstone of True Love, to be performed at the fair in Lantern’s Puppet Booth, handbills for which are given to lucky members of the audience.

Brian Tree is Humphrey Wasp, a servant to Squire Bartholemew Coakes (Trent Pardy). Wasp, dressed appropriately in black and gold, sneers at almost everyone he meets, but with little effect. Tom McCamus plays Justice Overdo, an odd and transparent fool carrying a notepad to record the fair’s every indiscretion. Juan Chioran has an over-the-top name and role of Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan elder whose rather long nose gets into everyone else’s business.

Two gallants, Winwife (Christopher Prentice) and Quarlous (Jonathan Goad), float through the action midway between the gentry and the denizens of the fair who, of course, are all working together to fleece any visitors.

Lucy Peacock, as Ursla the Pig Lady, not only runs a tent serving roast boar, but other delights for the gentlemen on the side. She has great fun with this broad role, a complete contrast to what I saw one day later in The Three Sisters (below).

After the train wreck that was Julius Caesar, this production was a sterling antidote. Once again, I could rejoice that Stratford actors can still act, directors can direct, and audiences can enjoy a wildly entertaining, brilliantly staged and performed evening at the theatre. A real jewel!

Bartholemew Fair runs until October 2 at the Patterson Theatre.

The Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov

Directed by Martha Henry from an adaptation by Susan Coyne

The Three Sisters of the title — Olga, Masha and Irina — are trapped in the social backwater of small town, an army outpost to which their late father was transferred before the action begins. They yearn for a return to their home, Moscow that could give new breadth to their lives, but by the end of the play, we see the trap is as much in themselves and their society as in their locale.

Three military men are their primary visitors. Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick) knows that he is a failure in his profession, but has only a year to go before collecting an army pension. He drinks his way through the day hoping the world will not intrude too much on his life.

Irina (Dalal Badr), the youngest of the three, is the object of attention, if not affection, from Baron Tuzenbach (Sean Arbuckle). He may be a way out of a rural misery, but would she merely exchange one empty, cloistered life for another?

Lt. Colonel Vershinin, certainly the most experienced and rather weary of his life, loves Masha, but both are married. Vershinin’s wife has an unstable medical and mental condition, while Masha’s husband, Kulygin (Peter Hutt) is as ineffective a partner as one could imagine. The would-be lovers, played so well and sympathetically by Tom McCamus and Lucy Peacock, are at the heart of the drama. As Vershinin says near the end of the first half, “we can’t be happy, we just long to be so”.

Only the eldest, Olga (Irene Poole), accepts her fate and attains the modest status and independence of a schoolmistress.

They live with their brother Andrei Prozorov and his wife Natasha. Andrei is their great hope, the man whose success and the value of their country house could take them back to the big city. Meanwhile, Andrei gambles away not only his money, but a mortgage on the house itself. Natasha, unlike the sisters, maintains an imperious relationship to servants and visitors who are not of her standing. They are standins for a nobility that wastes its birthright, but demands unwavering social status and authority. An elderly servant, Anfisa (Joyce Campion), is especially the target of her scorn, an old woman ready to be tossed on the town’s scrap heap.

The first half of this production sets all of the relationships in motion, although with Chekhov, “motion” isn’t quite the right word. Everyone is caught in their world while hoping to change it in just the right way. The thrust stage is fully used by parts of the Prozorov house, and I found the action engaged the audience. In the second half, the stage is completely reset with the household now confined to a small space far upstage, and the remainder occupied by an almost unused open space we will eventually see as the grounds outside.

There is a fire nearby, and a street-full of people have taken refuge in the house, much to Natasha’s disgust. The army saves the day, but soon we learn that the regiment is to be moved to Poland. At this point, the production and the play become mired in working out the fates of each character. Restlessness sets in along with glances at my wristwatch to see how much time was left.

In its time, The Three Sisters violated the 19th century conventions of a drama that neatly gives everyone what they should have, but I couldn’t help feeling that working through every character was necessary to a modern audience accustomed to figuring things out for itself. Masha’s grief at parting from Vershinin, her last chance to throw away caution publicly is, necessarily, the worst tragedy, but this suffered with so many other little scenes around it.
The final scene of the sisters dancing with a forced happiness just does not fit, although it might have worked better without the music. Let them fade into the darkness. Martha Henry and I will just have to disagree.

The Three Sisters was written in 1901 and shares with other plays by Chekhov the despair of an old order passing away. At a “meet the festival” chat with Executive Director Antoni Cimolino only hours before I saw this production, the topic of the relevance of old plays and social situations came up. Some texts contain references that cannot be understood out of the context of their time, or social conventions that are now offensive. (Think of The Taming of the Shrew, for example, or the line “finger of blaspheming Jew” that was cut from the weird sisters’ brew in Macbeth.)

Unlike much of Shakespeare or even Jonson’s Bartholemew Fair, I could not help wondering how relevant the fin-de-siècle world of The Three Sisters will speak to audiences over a century remote from its context. The story doesn’t travel easily in place or time, and we don’t yet have a modern historical context for a world coming completely apart.

The Three Sisters runs at the Patterson Theatre until October 3.

Macbeth, by Shakespeare

Directed by Des McAnuff

“The Scottish Play”, as it is known in theatrical circles, is fraught with problems and not just of the superstitious kind.  The text contains so many well-known speeches and turns of phrase that a production must grab our attention as something worth watching lest it die by comparison to other versions.

I must confess that my own two personal favourites at Stratford were Nicholas Pennell in the title role, and Mervyn Blake as the Porter, both late and much missed on that stage.  Pennell really was haunted as his ambitious life collapsed, and Blake gave the most hilarious, perfectly timed version of the Porter’s speech (comic relief after Duncan’s murder) I have ever heard.

Like the production of Julius Caesar, Macbeth is transported to a different time (the 1960s).  Scotland has shifted to Africa, possibly a colony we never heard of, with whites in all the top-tier positions and blacks looking on wondering when their turn will come.  King Duncan and his family are white, the evil Macbeths are half-and-half, while the trusted supporters Banquo and Macduff are black.

Colm Feore plays Macbeth, but this is an oddly distant reading.  All the expected emotions are there, but they didn’t connect for me.  Lady Macbeth (Yanna MacIntosh) leaps at the opportunity for her husband to become King, but soon after Duncan’s murder is driven mad.  Both performances seemed simplistic for me, and I sense neither actor had much chance to develop character beyond the most obvious gestures.

Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) and Macduff (Dion Johnstone) have real presence and dedication to their king and country, but Johnstone is easily the strongest actor in the company.  I could not help feeling Macbeth was already outmatched long before their final battle, but this should be a surprise born out of the weird sisters’ prophecy.  Macbeth should survive so long because he is a good warrior, not just from a charmed life.  Only when the prophecy’s true meaning is evident should he be rattled and forced to use all his skill in a losing fight.  

Tom Rooney (who appeared as a dubious Cassius in Julius Caesar) shows up here as the Porter.  He gets a few easy laughs with his turn while bringing nothing new to his scene.

The fights in Macbeth are good (at least the “swords” are machetes, not letter openers), and Macbeth falls in the end with his head chopped off into a bucket.

In the final tableau, the new white king has all the trappings of colonial state including a Union Jack thanks to Seward’s (Earl of Northumberland) help.  Black remains of other families look on while the weird sisters survey all from just off stage.  We know from their prophecy that white rule will end with this generation.

The African colonial context is an interesting conceit, but I felt it didn’t add anything to the production.  Indeed, the pyrotechnics of some battles just got in the way and, like some war movies, took precedence from the actors.  Shakespeare is about character, but too little of that is on display.