Stratford Theatre Festival

August 31, 2013

Theatre Festival, 2013

We began going to the Theatre Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario in 1999, a short visit that first time. We fell in love with the experience and afterwards planned to stay for a week in order to get the most out of each stay. The performances are delightful in many ways, even though we have not liked them all or equally. Part of the attraction is also the ambience of Stratford as a place developed around an appreciation of theater and theater-going. The buoyant atmosphere rides on irresistible bookstores, concert variety, unique dining, art-in-the-park, and forum presentations. Over the years, we worshiped with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. At first we flew to Toronto, another wonderful place, and rented a car. Mostly we have driven and discovered spots along the way or visited nearby places in Ontario. Our trips coincide with our August wedding anniversary, an excellent way to celebrate. Stratford has become for us a total aesthetic experience.

We did not attend the year Pat had chemotherapy or the year we could not find enough plays we wanted to see, and the year we had our Red Wing house to sell, nor the year of our 50th anniversary. So this year was our 11th visit and perhaps our last depending on future claims for our attention.

We see many of the same plays together and a few separately. Pat is more attracted to musicals than I am. However, I did see Three Penny Opera, a pallid English rendition of the more klezmer-styled and robust Dei Dreigroschenoper, and Evita – too much screaming for me. Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris remains the major exception for the most engaging musical production I have seen. I prefer seeing plays that I have not seen performed before or else my favorites – Euripides’ Medea, The Tempest, Much Ado about Nothing. I am fussy and have walked out of Comedy of Errors (2007) Molière’s Don Juan (2006), and one of Jonson’s comedies (Every Man Out of His Humor?) each because it was done with too much farce, slapstick, and ribaldry for my tastes.

I endeavor to familiarize myself with each play by reading or viewing a video in advance. Of course, some performances are new and not available in advance copy. Here follows this year’s lineup in the order I rank them.

1st: Schiller, Mary Stuart (1800) in a new version by Peter Oswald, seen August 11, Patterson Theatre. Two of Stratford’s most accomplished and popular repertory players carry the two strong-willed leads – Lucy Peacock as Mary Queen of Scots and Seana McKenna as Elizabeth I. Schiller’s play posits these two queens meeting as a confrontational hinge in the plot. No such meeting happened, but otherwise the framework of the tragedy is historical. Mary, the daughter of James V, had a French Catholic mother and wed as a child to Francis II in France. She returned to Scotland childless upon his death. Though Scotland had gone Presbyterian, courtesy of John Knox, she would not abandon her Catholicism. Mary mismanaged her hold on the Scottish throne. Soon forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James VI, she fled into England for support. Instead the English held her under house arrest for 19 years. The play recapitulates this history through the few days between a sentence of death against Mary for her complicity in Catholic attacks on Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s anxiety over approving the execution of another queen, her cousin, and possible heir, and the execution that follows offstage. Relationships between queens and courtiers are intricate and the results that follow become dressed in denial. The performance received an immediate standing ovation. Extended three times through the season, it is sold out for its whole run.

2nd: John Murrell, Taking Shakespeare, a contemporary play, seen August 14, Studio Theatre. What we knew about this new play, not yet in print, was sketchy, but we went because Martha Henry had the lead. This season, her 39th, began in 1962 when she was Miranda in Tempest. We had seen her as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and I had marveled at her role as the Chorus in The Trojan Women. Here she plays an older English prof, idiosyncratic and strong willed but with high standards that cannot be compromised with the everyday requirements of academic life. Luke Humphrey, also D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers this season, plays Murph, age 24 and still finding himself. Murph is struggling with his Shakespeare class and the Dean, who happens to be his mother, has asked the prof to take him on and get him through Magnusson’s class. She will not coddle him and he will not settle for the ordinary. Though they seem at a dead end from the beginning, she has the wit to keep him challenged and thinking for himself, and Murph – for seeming a slacker – knows an amazing amount and can make the connection  between the classic memes and the contemporary issues that echo them. Surprisingly, the play’s focus turns on reading Othello and making exegetical meaning out of it. Their contacts last over five sessions, once a week. They end suddenly when the Dean agrees that the prof is taking too much time, and the administration fires her from her position termed  “conditional tenure.” Even though she can turn a rebellious student around so that he is as passionate about Shakespeare as she is, she does not follow the requirements and traditions that academia requires in these days of cost-cutting competition.

3rd: Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953) in his English version, seen August 17, Patterson Theatre. I read Godot in 1959 when existentialism was a philosophy to be explored and Beckett rode high among college intellectuals. I found it difficult, tedious actually, and could find no sense in it. I could not get with the rage and questioned why Beckett was so intentionally irrational. Was he deliberately obfuscated? An oft-quoted summation of Godot is that it is a play in which “nothing happens, twice.” Actually a lot happens, i.e., transpires; but we do not detect progress. I have to agree that the play has its difficulties, but my second attempt with it has become qualitatively different from my first. Between times, I have matured, grown tolerant toward ideas different from my own, and become adept at holding myself against a rush to closure. Further, seeing something excellently performed is far superior to reading it once. One way I observed Godot this time is how it runs contrary to traditions of plot and patterns of communication. So much of what is said and shown is outside of temporal sequence and ordinary speech. The audience laughed at these departures, seemingly embarrassed as to what to do, how to respond. One woman giggled at nearly every line. About 20 people left at the intermission. As for me, I wonder now if what Beckett puts forth is a call to all humanity to wake up to its possibilities. In Act 2, Vladimir says

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have a chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) – Grove Press c1982, p.90

4th: Shakespeare, Measure for Measure (1604) seen, as directed by Martha Henry, August 14, Patterson Theatre. I have discovered from Stratford attendance that even Shakespeare’s lesser or minor works are superior to most available literature. I did not know Measure and watched, via Netflix, a 1979 production from the BBC series of Shakespeare’s complete works. What I saw at Stratford was superior to what I had viewed at home, mostly due to the acting of Geraint Wyn Davies as the Duke and the more convincing use of disguise in that role. The theme includes issues of what constitutes justice and mercy along with Shakespeare’s recurrent interest in responsible government and good order. The problem in Measure is how to save the life of Claudio who is to be executed for fornication outside of wedlock when his marriage went afoul of dowry settlements and the prospective bride is pregnant. The Duke of Vienna has taken on the guise of a friar in order to view what is actually going on in the city. He has left it to a minister to exercise authority in his absence, one Angelo. Isabella, about to enter a religious order, attempts to gain her brother’s pardon from the death sentence, but Angelo is firm.

We must not make a scarecrow of the law, / Setting it up to fear the birds of prey, / And let it keep one shape, till custom make it / Their perch and not their terror. – II,i,1

Angelo, is himself in lust with Isabella and bargains to free Claudio if she will submit to him. Isabella is horrified at the idea on moral grounds.

Better it were a brother died at once, / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die forever. – II,iv,6

Then, Isabel live chaste, and brother, die: / More than our brother is our chastity. – II,iv,183

The Duke, still working behind the scenes, counsels Isabella to pretend meeting Angelo’s demands, but request a darkened room. He then supplies Mariana, whom Angelo once agreed to marry. Returning as the Duke, he calls the principals before him. A pirate’s head substitutes for Claudio’s, and there will be marriages all around: Claudio to Juliet, Angelo to Mariana, and the Duke offering himself to Isabella.

The very mercy of the law cries out / Most audible, even from his roper tongue: / ‘An Angelo for Claudio; death for death. / Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.’ – V,i,406

Compare Measure’s conclusion with“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” – Matt. 7.1-2 KJV. This play deserves more attention and recognition.

5th: Shakespeare, Othello (1604?), seen at the Avon Theatre, August 13. I have never seen Othello, nor read it since high school, junior year, I think. Yet, because so many references are made to it in our culture, the play seemed imagistic and vivid to me. I had high expectations of seeing it the first time. Though the stage was a tilted rhombus, rotated to various uses that seemed stark and abstract, the costumes plunged us into the opulent Venetian renaissance, not only of the Doge and Senators, but of all principals. Graham Abbey led the way in convincingly portraying the divine devil of Iago. Dione Johnston looked the part of Othello, but the “foreign” accent he adopted masked his delivery of many lines: he showed the necessary range of emotions without always conveying what he meant. The result was that this impassioned husband jumped to jealousy, particularly over the lost handkerchief, thereby failing to convey the verity of what this token meant to him. Contrast these failings with the utter horror of Othello strangling and smothering Desdemona and you will realize the tragedy of what could have been. We saw a pre-opening performance. The opening the next day received rave reviews in the Toronto Star.

6th: Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit (1941), seen at the Avon Theatre, August 16. I was most eager to see the play because of a delightful memory of having seen it before on television. That would have been in 1966 on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Actually, I remembered nothing specific except that Ruth Gordon played Madame Arcati, the idiosyncratic medium, and she was sprightly, unique, and of pure ingenuity as an actress. When the curtain went up, the audience – as it sometimes does – applauded the set, an elegant and spacious living room in a grand country house. Brian Bedford, who seems to specialize in Coward, had been the director. He retained credit though he was convalescing with cancer treatments. We had seen him Private Lives, a more subtle and enjoyable play. Coward is a most clever wit, who delights in targeting ordinary domestic life, specifically marriage. He subtitled this play “an improbable farce,” and so it most definitely is. Charles Condomine is a successful author. He and his wife, Ruth, invite another couple to a dinner, which is to be followed by a séance with the local eccentric, a medium. Pre-dinner conversation is about Elvira, Charles’ first wife, deceased seven years before. Thus introduced, Elvira arrives through the séance from the other side, but is visible only to Charles. Charles finally convinces Ruth of her presence, and Ruth becomes all the more jealous of the first wife. Elvira desires Charles to join her among those who have passed over and fixes the car so that Charles will be killed, but Ruth drives off and becomes the victim. Endeavoring to get rid of Elvira, Charles calls Madame Arcati back to return Elvira. However, the madness increases as the ghost of Ruth now appears and the two wives join up in pestering Charles, who flees from the house as it falls apart. I found the play and its performance loud, crass, stupid, and brutal – all contrary to my memories of it. I was especially disappointed with Seana McKenna’s role as Madame Arcati who had nothing of the bounce and delight of the Ruth Gordon portrayal I so dearly remember (or have reconstructed in my own mind).

Addditional to seeing these plays, I also attended on Thursday of that week, a 9:30 a.m. Stratford Forum on “Faith and Religion in Shakespeare.” Many forums during most weeks provide background on the plays, some for an additional charge. This one was free, and the 480-seat Patterson was nearly full. The hosts – Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director, and Paul Edmondson – led a question and answer session. Cimolino’s comments were precise and brief. Edmondson had much more to say: after all, he is the Head of Knowledge and Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He began with a prepared paper on religious connotations in the plays and the background of Shakespeare’s time. The Act of Uniformity, establishing the Book of Common Prayer and the administration of the sacraments, had been undergoing change since Edward VI as England and Wales moved towards Protestantism. Still the Church of England retained a number of Catholic “hooks” to appease and retain the population. Under Elizabeth I, church attendance was required. The flux of the times meant that artists had to steer a non-commital course on faith issues. Shakespeare, (once thought to be a Catholic) in order to avoid state censorship, is carefully non-sectarian, but spiritual or medieval in his religious references. Questioners in the audience sought specific answers. Edmondson’s usual response was that Shakespeare presents situations that are exploratory and questioning in themselves and do not answer with specifics. Instead he shows the relevant currency of events happening through the dramatic conflicts portrayed. Romeo and Juliet choose suicide (hell) rather than being apart (keeping love out). Shylock the Jew, asks ‘is not a Jew a man?’ At this point, Edmondson recited Shylock’s speech from memory, as he did with many other spontaneous references. His conclusion is that Christianity is vibrant in Shakespeare’s plays.

Much more on the Stratford Festival exists online, including excerpts from some of the forums.

After a week of seven plays – we saw five together and I saw Measure while Pat saw Fiddler on the Roof – we made our way home, stopping in Kalamazoo MI and Madison WI on the way. This could be our last trip to Stratford, depending on other interests and commitments. We find it difficult to break away.

Copyright © 2013 by Roger Sween.

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