The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Emsworth is glad he didn’t skip The Taming of the Shrew, as originally planned. This show is a joyride, a high-spirited show with as fine a cast as the Stratford Festival can muster. It kept us laughing and entertained from beginning to end.

Evan Biulung and Irene Poole as Petruchio and Katherina; in the background, Adrienne Gould as Bianca

The dilemma in this comedy is how Baptista Minola (Stephen Ouimette) of Padua is to marry off his two daughters. For his pretty, good-humored younger daughter, Bianca (Adrienne Gould), Baptista has solid options in young Gremio (Juan Chioran) and long-in-the-tooth Hortensio (Randy Hughson).

However, for his elder daughter, Katherine (Irene Poole), an irascible, sharp-tongued girl with a limp (in this production, anyway), he has no takers. On principle, like Laban in Biblical times, Baptista will not marry his second daughter until he has found a husband for the first.

Gremio and Hortensio make common cause and agree to find a husband for Katherine so they can get on with their competition for Bianca. The situation is complicated when Lucentio (Jeff Lillico) arrives from Pisa, happens to spy Bianca, and becomes a third suitor.

Biulung and Poole

But a solution appears, and the show moves into overdrive, when Petruchio arrives in town from Verona, hoping to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” He learns from Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine and her dowry and sets out to make her his wife.

As Petruchio, Evan Buliung is a dynamic, irrepressible spirit who sweeps all before him; Irene Poole, as Katherine, is a worthy foil. The more Katherine gives him tit for tat, the more Petruchio values her and the more he revels in the tasty game of subduing her. Their scenes together are first-rate, from the saucy repartee of their opening skirmish to the hilariously cruel scenes in which Petruchio snatches sleep, food, and clothing away from his wife to reduce her to submission. (In this production, Petruchio and Katherine come to enjoy a decidedly kinky, dare we say, sado-masochistic, relationship. For Emsworth’s take on this, see this post.)

Persons considering this show should be aware that it has a good deal of disquieting and gratuitous cruelty. The people of Padua dunk Katherine in the river for her shrewish behavior. Katherine ties up her sister Bianca and whips her. And not only does Katherine strike Petruchio, but Petruchio strikes her back.

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

At any rate, we were entertained by the extravagant, brilliantly colored period costumes and by the Elizabethan songs interpolated throughout the play and performed by various members of the cast. We admired the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, as Bianca, played here as a man-tease, nearly as much as we liked her as Ophelia in this year’s Hamlet. The comic performances of Stephen Oimette as Baptista and Patrick McManus as the flamboyant Biondello were exquisite.

And we especially enjoyed the performance of Ben Carlson as Lucentio’s servant Tranio, who like Mr. Pickwick’s Sam Weller is wittier, more voluble, and more worldly-wise than his master.

So why did we hesitate to see The Taming of the Shrew? It was not that we were necessarily put off by the unenlightened sixteenth-century treatment of women in the play. Those were different times, and Emsworth has no patience for those who cannot get past the fact that sixteenth-century England was not organized on politically correct principles.

No, we hesitated because we thought The Taming of the Shrew, which we had never seen performed until now, was one of our least favorite Shakespeare plays. Reading it, we thought the prologue scene was superfluous, and we could not see how the “lord and master” speech at the end fit with the rest of the play. And seen on the page, the play’s humor was hard to appreciate.

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

We also worried, frankly, about our ability to keep everyone straight. There are plenty of characters, some with similar names (Grumio and Gremio), and to further confuse his audience, Shakespeare has many of them trade identities. Emsworth is happily accustomed to the imposters that litter the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, but there are so many imposters in The Taming of the Shrew that it is not easy to remember who is pretending to be who.

But we worried for nothing. The direction of Peter Hinton gave this production such shape and momentum that we never felt lost or confused, even at moments when we might not have been able to give an accurate account of the characters.

For Emsworth’s take on the nastiness between Petruchio and Katherine, see this post.)

For Emsworth’s review of All’s Well That Ends Well in the 2008 season of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario), see this post for the Emsworth review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post). Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Berstein’s Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).

Hamlet (and Ophelia) on canvas

John William Waterhouse's "Ophelia"

Seeing Hamlet recently at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) reminded this art museum junkie that he has also seen a good deal of Hamlet, Ophelia, and other Hamlet characters on the walls of art museums. (See the Emsworth review of the Stratford’s Hamlet, in the summer of 2008, which starred Ben Carlson in the title role and the bodacious Adrienne Gould as Ophelia, in this post.) We checked our notes from our museum travels and did a little research.

From the late 18th century through the nineteenth, the urge to paint Hamlet was epidemic. Here, for instance, the noted British portrait artist Thomas Lawrence painted the actor J. P. Kemble as Hamlet. In a portrait of St. Peter, keys to the kingdom would dangle from the saint’s belt; in a portrait of St. Sebastian, arrows would pierce the saint’s breast. For Hamlet, apparently, a skull in the hand identifies the melancholy Dane.

The Hamlet painted in 1866 by Edouard Manet, on the other hand, has a sword at his feet, presumably in anticipation of the fatal fencing contest Manet - The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (Natl Gall DC 1866)he is about to have with Laertes. Manet’s picture, entitled “The Tragic Actor,” is a portrait of the 19th-century French actor Philibert Rouvière delivering one of the soliloquies from Hamlet. According to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to which the painting belongs, Rouvière was noted for his “highly pitched, emotional performances” in Hamlet.

Painters tended to paint the moments of high melodrama in the play, as played by the celebrated Shakespeare actors and actresses of the day. The French romanticist Eugene Delacroix, for instance, portrayed Hamlet with his mother at the moment when Hamlet is about to stab Polonius through the curtain behind which Polonius is hiding. Another Delacroix painting shows Hamlet, seconds later, contemplating the corpse of Ophelia’s unfortunate father.

Ophelia was the most popular Hamlet subject, especially among the pre-Raphaelites. Edwin Austin Abbey painted the dramatic moment during the “play scene” in which the players act out the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius:

Hamlet: Lady shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

The best-known pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted Ophelia in the company of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia’s concerned brother, Laertes, who exclaims, “Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! O heavens! Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?” Ophelia sprinkles herbs and flowers on the ground, saying, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died, they say a’ made a good end.” The picture is titled The First Madness of Ophelia.

Ophelias on canvas tend to be limpid, dazed-looking fantastics, like the John William Waterhouse painting at the top of this post. Another pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, painted Ophelia as a corpse, floating down the river, covered with garlands, looking much like a drowned peacock. This picture is at the Tate Gallery (Britain) in London; Elizabeth Siddal was Millais’s model.

The gravedigging scene was also an attractive subject for Hamlet painters. Delacroix painted more than one version of the gravedigger holding up to Hamlet and Horatio the skull of the jester Yorick, the fellow of infinite jest and of most excellent fancy, who, Hamlet reflects, had played with him when he was a boy: “Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft; where be your gibes now? Not one now to mock your own grinning, quite chop-fallen.”

What about King Lear, the Fool, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia on canvas? See this post.

Hamlet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

(July 2008) This year’s Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) really surprised us, from the casting to the pacing to unexpected moments of humor.  But this show really works.

The ghost of King Hamlet (James Blendick) and Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson)

We knew we were in for something different from the opening scene.  Everyone knows, of course, the opening of Hamlet: jittery guards pacing over the foggy, ghost-infested ramparts of Elsinore Castle, folklore about supernatural visitations, debating how to let Prince Hamlet know that they have seen the shade of his late father. Like the ominous themes at the beginning of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the opening scene of Hamlet sets the mood for an evening of gloom. There’s only one way to play it.

Or so we thought. In this production, this opening scene went by in a flash. The ghost of the late King Hamlet (James Blendick) had given Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson) his marching orders (“Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder!”) and retreated to purgatory almost before we had settled into our seats and staked our claim to the armrest.  Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio popped up through the trapdoor, whipped through their lines, and made their exits.  The scene changed, and Claudius and Gertrude, the happy newlyweds, were leading a promenade at a castle ball.

This Hamlet reminded me of nothing more than fast-paced thriller motion pictures from the 1930s and 1940s like The Big Sleep and Foreign Correspondent, filled with snappy repartee and action sequences. The movie connection was reinforced by the military-looking costumes worn and the rifles carried by many of the male characters (props not mentioned in my edition of Hamlet), and also by the use of blinding spotlights at different points in the play, meant, no doubt, to suggest the play’s probing into the dark recesses of the souls of Claudius, Gertrude, and Prince Hamlet.

Ben Carlson

Ben Carlson

We know Ben Carlson well from his work at the Shaw Festival. Several years ago, we saw him as Jack Tanner in a full-length version of Man and Superman, in which he had an almost impossibly long part to learn, compared to which memorizing his lines for Hamlet must have seemed like child’s play.

It is now clear that his talents are as well fitted for Shakespeare as for Shaw. Like the very best actors we have seen at Stratford, Carlson manages to make Elizabethan English intelligible to twenty-first century audiences, even when delivered, as here, at hyperspeed. (Instead of a melancholy Dane, this production of Hamlet features a manic Dane; the manic effect is exaggerated by stage lighting that leaves Carlson’s eyes mostly in shadow, not unlike a raccoon.) Best of all, Carlson showed us that Hamlet includes a healthy share of witty lines. I doubt that audiences at Stratford have ever laughed so much during performances of Hamlet.

The casting of this production defied all my preconceptions. In my mind’s eye, I see the Danish prince as a tall, slim, brooding teenager with an introspective, romantic bent. But Ben Carlson is a stocky man of medium height at best, decidedly older than what one might expect from a student at the University of Wittenberg (granted, the character is actually thirty, according to the gravedigger), thoroughly extroverted, with just a hint of incipient middle-age paunch. He’s no heartthrob.

Maria Ricossa as Gertrude

The same went for other characters.  I imagine Gertrude as a full-figured, vaguely sensuous woman approaching middle age, but Maria Ricossa, a trim, brisk Gertrude, is fully satisfactory.  I think of Ophelia as a barely adolescent flower girl who mopes around Elsinore; Adrienne Gould gives us a spunky Ophelia who knows her mind.  We liked her a lot, all the more because our expectations for Ophelias are so low.

Mercifully, this Hamlet spares us overlays of Freudian psychology.  Gertrude has no incestuous designs on Hamlet, and Oedipus does not rear his head. However, this Hamlet was systematically stripped of melodrama, which many theater lovers will miss. The show never slows down, even for dramatic effect, not in the scene in which Hamlet flinches from dispatching the conscience-ridden Claudius as he prays, not even when it is finally time for Horatio to say, over Hamlet’s corpse,

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Laertes and Claudius

Laertes and Claudius

(Act V, Scene 2.) Claudius (Scott Wentworth) and Laertes (Bruce Godfree) keep up a brisk dialogue even as they play billiards (badly) and plot the murder of Prince Hamlet during Act IV, Scene 7. (The large billiard table on which they played was another distracting prop not indicated in my edition of the play.) To my surprise, by the end of the play the rapid dialogue seemed natural; we’d gotten used to it.

The Players

This was still a long play, a little over three hours; not much seemed to be cut. Fortinbras and his army, left out in some modern productions, duly appeared, and the play was better for their presence. The same for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Best of all, we saw and heard much from a marvelous troup of traveling players, who endured Hamlet’s gratuitous advice about how to act their parts with as good a humor as Laertes tolerated Polonius’s advice to be true to his own self.

Hamlet and Ophelia as conceived by Eugene Delacroix and Dante Gabriel Rossetti? See this Emsworth post on painters who’ve done scenes from Hamlet.

Seeing Hamlet reminded Emsworth of how J. K. Rowling lost her nerve in the final volume of the Harry Potter saga. See this post on what Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet and other Shakespearean tragedies.

For Emsworth’s review of the Stratford’s Festival All’s Well That Ends Well, see this post.  For Emsworth’s review of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival, see this post.

Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this post); Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).

Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.