Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.

As You Like It at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Randy Hughson as Corin and Ben Carlson as Touchstone

Next year the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will be putting on Twelfth Night, which is practically our favorite Shakespeare play. But we’re going to skip it. Till further notice, we’re not paying to see Shakespeare plays directed by Des McAnuff. There will be other shows at Stratford in 2011.

Mr. McAnuff’s As You Like It has a lot in common with his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 (see this post) and his Macbeth in 2009 (see this post): actors who don’t seem to understand their lines, speeches that can’t be heard, a jarringly uneven tone, confusing visual images, and “modern” settings that don’t work. Like most mediocre Shakespeare productions, it has all too many “dead zones” – long minutes in which the actors seem merely to be reciting, rather than acting, their lines, causing the audience to glaze over, not really understanding what’s being said.

The main culprits at our show were Paul Nolan (Orlando), Andrea Runge (Rosalind), and, to our surprise, Brent Carver (Jacques). Two years ago, Mr. McAnuff made the mistake of casting a young musical theater performer with no classical acting chops as Juliet (see this post.) He did it again this year. Mr. Nolan was superb in 2009 in West Side Story, see this post), but here, as Orlando, unaided by a microphone, he rushed uncomprehendingly through his lines, stood woodenly around the stage, and failed to project his voice.

Andrea Runge, as Rosalind, was better heard, but her volume came at the price of expression. Ms. Runge’s method of delivering a given line of Shakespeare is to pick out one syllable at random and to attack it. Each of her phrases had exactly the same dynamic shape; her voice fell off at the end of each phrase in exactly the same way.

Brent Carver, surrealistically, as Jacques

We even had trouble hearing the experienced and capable Brent Carver, as Jacques (in this show pronounced “JACK-wes,” which we didn’t understand). Mr. Carver delivered his lines with inexplicable stops and starts, and his “All the world’s a stage” speech tailed off so dramatically that we simply didn’t hear what he said about the last of the seven ages of man:

. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

At our performance, the audience sat dully on its hands through much of the first part of this comedy, showing signs of life only when Ben Carlson (as the jester Touchstone) and Lucy Peacock (as Audrey, the ignorant, goat-tending object of his lust) came on stage. I had envisioned a clownish, fumbling Touchstone; Mr. Carlson’s cynical, urbane master of wordplay was a delight. Mr. Carlson, Ms. Peacock, and Brian Tree (as Adam) accounted for nearly all the entertainment value in this show. We regret the necessity of missing Mr. Carlson as Feste in next year’s Twelfth Night.

It’s a elementary responsibility of a director to ensure that his actors are heard. It’s also his job, we’d think, to ensure that a play strikes a consistent tone.  We grant, as Mr. McAnuff observes in the program notes for this show, that the first half of As You Like It, which features threats against the lives of Orlando and Rosalind, is darker than the second half. But Mr. McAnuff evidently felt that it needed to be much darker still. Ignoring both the text and the spirit of the play, he gratuitously injected two deaths (including a murder) into its first hour of this comedy.

The first death left us genuinely puzzled. At the end of Act II of the play (as the playwright wrote it), Orlando is welcomed to Arden by Duke Senior and his band of merry men, but insists that he cannot eat or rest until his exhausted old servant Adam (an endearing Brian Tree) gets some nourishment. Orlando carries his “venerable burden” in, they feed him, and after a song (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”), Duke Senior welcomes the revived old man: “Good old man/Thou art right welcome as thy master is. Support him by the arm.”

But in this show, Mr. McAnuff has Adam expire during the song; they wrap up his corpse and carry him off. The playwright created the Forest of Arden as a place of refuge, reconciliation, and restoration. Why shouldn’t Arden have been a place of recovery and rest for Adam, as the playwright specified?

Minutes later, at the beginning of Act III, when the black-hearted Duke Frederick demands that Oliver track down his brother Orlando and bring him back dead or alive, Mr. McAnuff has the Duke show Oliver that he means business by pulling a gun and casually shooting one of his courtiers. Needless to say, the play’s text provides no warrant for this jarring bit of stage business. Why did Mr. McAnuff feel compelled to make Duke Frederick appear even more villainous than he already was — not merely a bully and an egoist, but a sociopath to boot? The stunt serves only to shock. Perhaps, in directing this scene, Mr. McAnuff was still trapped in the world of Macbeth, which he directed a year ago, in which random, paranoid murders were par for the course. Perhaps he was thinking about King Lear, in which the blinding of Gloucester and other scenes of brutal violence are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of tenderness and comic relief. But As You Like It is not that sort of play.

And Mr. McAnuff’s perverse decision to militarize this comedy ruined Emsworth’s favorite speech from As You Like It, Duke Senior’s ode to the pastoral life, which begins,

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp?

Act II, Scene I. No doubt there are many ways to stage this scene; we had imagined Duke Senior and his brothers in exile sitting around a roaring campfire to keep off the chill autumn air, toasting one another with hijacked ale, singing songs, and telling bawdy jokes and stories. But Mr. McAnuff had Tom Rooney, as Duke Senior, shout out his lines, not to friends in a close, convivial circle, but to half a dozen armed comrades scattered among the audience in the large Festival Theater in the posture of lookouts and sharpshooters. Not surprisingly, the effect of the speech was lost.  Mr. Rooney was delivering his toast to friends who were barely within earshot, off in six different directions.

We found even more objectionable the image of Arden as an armed, fearful camp of rebels. That’s the opposite of the playwright’s image. The men in the forest are happy and content; Duke Senior observes complacently to his friends, “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?”, and a few scenes later, when Orlando blunders into the camp with his sword drawn (Act II, Scene 7), ready to fight for food, he is welcomed with a joke from Jacques, a “welcome to our table,” and a rebuke from Duke Senior for coming into their peaceful place with a show of force.

A Magritte-like set

Then there was Mr. McAnuff’s head-scratching decision to “set” this Shakespeare comedy in the 1920s, based on his observation (in the program) that communism, anarchism and fascism were all repressive movements opposed to modern art. To be fair, we rather enjoyed the colorful, surrealistic images from which the set and the props were constructed. What we didn’t fathom was the director’s apparently sincere belief that there was some meaningful connection between the pre-modern, pre-ideological world of As You Like It and the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism and communism challenged the humanism of the Renaissance and the Reformation. What had these worlds to do with one another?

We understand that every Shakespeare director feels driven to do “something new” with a familiar play. (We understand, even if we don’t like it.)  But they shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that “setting” a Shakespeare play in fascist pre-World War II Europe — what a stale, over-used concept, especially at Stratford! — will actually help audiences understand the play better.

It won’t.  As the wife of our bosom commented as we were driving away from Stratford, if this sort of approach confounds adults who are familiar with Shakespeare, how much more must it baffle children and youths who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?

The Winter’s Tale at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Yanna McIntosh and Ben Carlson as Hermione and Leontes

This one’s really good, too good to miss. The Stratford Festival’s 2010 presentation of The Winter’s Tale is wonderful theater, full of warmth and humor, beautifully acted — and refreshingly free from distractions. It’s so intelligently and lovingly directed that we’re nearly convinced this supposedly “minor” Shakespeare play is in fact one of the Bard’s masterpieces.

Just from reading the play — and we had not seen it on stage until now — you might think The Winter’s Tale has a convoluted story, too many improbable turns, and too many characters. In this show, though, the tale unfolds naturally and the improbabilities are passed off with easy good humor.

It’s the story of Leontes, king of Sicilia (Ben Carlson), who becomes insanely jealous when his pregnant wife Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has unexpected success in persuading his best-friend-for-life Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Dan Chameroy), to prolong a visit. Hermione is shattered by his accusations of infidelity and gives premature birth to a baby girl. Polixenes flees for his life.

In a memorable scene in which tension alternates with tenderness, Hermione’s fearless friend Paulina (Seana McKenna) brings the little girl to Leontes in order to bring him to his senses, but he rejects the baby as a bastard and orders Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Randy Hughson) to take the baby out into the wilds and abandon her. Too late to save Hermione, who (apparently) dies of grief, Leontes realizes his folly.

Cara Rickets and Ian Lake as Perdita (pronounced to our surprise with the accent on the first syllable) and Florizel

Meanwhile, in Bohemia, the abandoned baby, Perdita (Cara Rickets) survives, is found and adopted by a shepherd (Brian Tree), and grows up to become, seventeen years later, mistress of a sheep-shearing festival that is visited by Polixenes in disguise. Back in Sicilia, in a mesmerizing and melodramatic climax that left few dry eyes in our audience, things come right again.

We were already fond of The Winter’s Tale for its gorgeous poetry and memorable characters (especially Paulina and Autolycus). But the one thing that kept it off our list of favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post) is that we couldn’t figure out why its characters behave the way they do:

Why would such trifling evidence make a well-regarded king like Leontes suddenly conclude that his affectionate and pregnant wife Hermione was canoodling with Polixenes?

And if the tender-hearted Antigonus is brave enough to defy Leontes when he orders that Hermione’s newborn infant be burned, why does he then meekly agree instead to leave the baby to the mercies of the wolves and vultures?

And if Hermione is not really dead, why does she punish herself by keeping herself a prisoner for sixteen years, especially after Leontes has come to his senses and repented?

And is there any good explanation for the Jekyll-and-Hyde act Polixenes puts on at the sheep-shearing festival? What kind of heel would go in disguise to the festival, have a friendly talk with Perdita and her adopted father, then turn on them, accuse them of plotting to ensnare the prince, and threaten to hang them all?

It seems to Leontes that Hermione (Yanna McIntosh) has gotten too friendly with Polixenes (Dan Chameroy). Given the large cast, it was helpful of the designer to clothe the Sicilians in grays and the Bohemians in bright colors.

We always worry that a director, faced with plot problems like these, will contrive solutions and impose them on her audience. Would director Marti Maraden try, for example, to explain Leontes’s extreme jealousy by suggesting a same-sex attraction to Polixenes? (After all, Polixenes tells Hermione early in the play that when he and Leontes were boys, they were “pretty lordlings” who thought, like Peter Pan, “to be boy eternal” and who “knew not the doctrine of ill-doing.”)  Interpretations of classic plays involving sexual identity issues seem, sadly, to be in vogue these days.

But solutions like that are never satisfactory (nor did the playwright ever see Peter Pan). Fortunately, Ms. Maraden has wisely chosen to simply to tell the Bard’s story, with no attempts to hide or explain away its unlikely twists. The result couldn’t be better.

Ms. Maraden does not attempt, for example, the impossible task of suggesting how Hermione, who dies at the end of the second act, can be alive at the play’s end. And so when Seana McKenna (as Paulina) announces to Leontes that Hermione is dead, her passion and bitter anger convince us that it is so. And when, in the final scene, a living Hermione tells her daughter Perdita that she’d been hoping to see her someday, we are equally convinced of that.

Tom Rooney as Autolycus

There’s marvelous acting from the whole ensemble, even for such minor characters as Hermione’s jailer (Skye Brandon) and Emilia (Ginette Mohr). Not surprisingly, Tom Rooney is mesmerizing as the crowd-pleasing song-peddler and pickpocket Autolycus.

Seana McKenna

But the standout performances are from Ben Carlson, as Leontes, and Seana McKenna, who, as Paulina, sets a standard for “speaking truth to power” that no one is likely to match on stage or off. We hope never to be the target of such a savage, pitiless summary of our shortcomings as the one Paulina delivers to Leontes.

In this show we witness a battle for the heart of Leontes, fought by Paulina, Camillo (Sean Arbuckle), and other members of his court, who defend Hermione’s virtue with hard logic. In Mr. Carlson’s portrayal, Leontes stakes everything on his conviction that Hermione has cuckolded him. But on how firm a foundation is he standing? We see Leontes begin to doubt himself:

If I mistake
In those foundations which I build upon,
The centre is not big enough to bear
A schoolboy’s top.

Leontes is furious with Paulina for telling him that “the root of his opinion” is “rotten as ever oak or stone was sound,” and he blusters that his own convictions are enough for him:

I am satisfied and need no more
Than what I know

But Paulina is right; when he hears that Hermione is dead, Leontes realizes that he has been standing on air. The king’s internal struggle is what we all feel when we find ourselves believing something that can’t be reconciled with what we know. Like Leontes, we dare not acknowledge the possibility that we might not be standing on solid ground.

An 1836 imagining of Autolycus by British artist Charles Robert Leslie

With The Winter’s Tale you don’t hear “famous lines” every minute or two as you do with, say, Macbeth. But there are marvelous flights of rhetoric in The Winter’s Tale, and this cast makes them memorable. We won’t quickly forget the paranoia on the face of Mr. Carlson as Leontes indicts his queen for allegedly playing footsie with Polixenes in a speech that, ironically, removes any remaining doubt that there is “nothing” to Leontes’s suspicions:

Leontes: Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
. . . Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Camillo: Good my lord, be cured

Seana McKenna, as Paulina, calls Leontes to account in a no less powerful “nothing” speech of her own:

That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful . . . .

This Winter’s Tale is easily among the best Shakespeare we’ve ever seen.

We wonder if anyone else noticed, among the modest props, the basin of translucent spears at the corner of the stage in the final scene. With a start, we realized, at the same moment as our daughter, seated right behind us, that they looked exactly like the life-restoring crystals in Superman’s “fortress of solitude” — just the thing to remind us that Hermione too had retreated to a solitary refuge.  We like the designer’s sense of humor.

Bartholomew Fair at the Stratford Festival

Bartholomew Fair

Cliff Saunders as Leatherhead, the peddler and puppeteer

Bartholomew Fair deserved a fair shot. And we’re not really complaining. We got to see a play by another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we saw a snapshot of life in London in Shakespeare’s own time. But this play by Ben Jonson at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) takes more effort than it’s worth.

In fairness, director Antoni Cimolino and the big cast did their best to make Bartholomew Fair as lively as possible. The actors scurried here and there, scolded and abused one another, sang and danced, and laughed loudly at their own jokes. There was plenty of groping and off-color humor.

But the play still isn’t that entertaining. It’s all a bit forced, like the names of the characters (like Littlewit, Winwife, Knockem, and Wasp, who was actually costumed like a wasp). At our performance, some of the audience gave up and left after intermission.

The play takes place in London on Bartholomew’s Day. John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), a Puritan who has written a puppet play, is plotting to go to the wicked fair over the objections of his strict mother-in-law, Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson). Various friends and neighbors wander in and out, also intent on the fair; Littlewit encourages them to kiss and fondle his wife Win (Jennifer Paterson).

Bartholomew Fair

Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo

One of his friends is the well-to-do but dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is planning to marry Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley). Littlewit, a scribe, has drafted a marriage license for them. Cokes’s fiance is the ward of the local magistrate, Justice Overdo, who plans to go to the fair to scope out vice and crime.  One of two men competing for the affections of Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law is an unpleasantly joyless church elder named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran).

Bartholomew Fair

Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp, with Alana Hawley as Grace Wellborn

Littlewit occasionally makes plays on words, then boasts that he has made a “device.” This is unfortunately typical of the play’s humor. In the same vein, Cokes is noisily amused by the fact that his first name is Bartholomew, like the name of the feast-day and fair. Cokes’s manservant Humphrey Wasp (Brian Tree) has the thankless task of protecting him from his own foolishness; of all the generally good performances in Bartholomew Fair, we liked Brian Tree’s best.

Peacock

Lucy Peacock as Ursla the pig-woman

There are plenty of villains and dubious people at the fair, including Joan Trash (Kelli Fox), a faux-cripple who sells gingerbread; Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), who peddles cheap musical instruments and hobbyhorses and gives a puppet show. Most fantastic of all is a monstrously large seller of pork and ale named Ursla (Lucy Peacock); her tent is also the base of operations for pickpockets (who target Bartholomew Cokes), pimps, and whores.

This was our second attempt at appreciating an Elizabethan playwright besides Shakespeare. Several years ago, we tried the Stratford Festival’s Edward II, but even though we read Christopher Marlowe’s play before we went, we still had trouble following the story and staying focused on the performance.  Bartholomew Fair wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, the language of the play seemed easier to understand than some plays by Shakespeare, who was prone to inverted sentence structure and long, complex clauses.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

But our limited experience with Marlowe and Jonson simply confirms what people have known for hundreds of years: Shakespeare was in a class of his own. Ben Jonson’s characters are hardly more than caricatures; they don’t think deep thoughts, utter memorable epigrams, face great challenges, or wrestle with moral dilemmas. 

And while Bartholomew Fair has a narrative, it barely has a plot. It’s as if the playwright didn’t really expect that his audience would be playing close attention. Jonson seems to have assumed that his audience wanted only to see cliched characters indulging their carnal urges, making asses of themselves, and getting their comeuppances.

We couldn’t help thinking that Bartholomew Fair was something of a prototype for the contemporary genre of gross-out teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad, which have essentially the same stock characters. These follow the same formula as Bartholomew Fair: sexually frustrated young people go to a party and hook up; a repressed young thing loses her inhibitions and learns the liberating joy of sex; the local puritan is exposed as a hypocrite; the local authorities are bumbling fools who end up getting some of their own medicine.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival (a review)

I frankly worried that we might be wasting our money on tickets for Love’s Labour’s Lost (Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario). According to the brochure, “The members of the 2007 Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre perform alongside senior artists in this delightful comic feast of language and love,” and we saw on closer examination that the cast would include no fewer than nine young actors from the Conservatory.

Alana Hawley

And the kids weren’t just serving tea on stage. Alana Hawley (Stratford debut) was down to play Princess of France and Trent Pardy (Stratford debut) the King of Navarre, while Dalal Badr (Stratford debut) was cast as Rosaline and Ian Lake (Stratford debut) as Berowne. Were we to pay top buck for a student performance?

Fortunately, we had nothing to worry about. The young actors acquitted themselves very well, the play was a delight, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.

The dialogue in Love’s Labour’s Lost is as witty and erudite — it’s not for everyone — as the storyline is thin. The young King of Navarre (in southern France) has resolved to devote three years of his life to the rigorous study of philosophy, literature, and science; three of his friends (Dumaine, Longaville, and Berowne) have vowed to join him. The four have also agreed that, while they study, they will live monkish lives of fasting and early rising, and they will avoid the fairer sex.

Their vows come under attack almost immediately when the Princess of France arrives in the vicinity on a diplomatic mission from her father. With her is a retinue of lovelies: Maria, Katharine, and Rosaline. Romance and, inevitably, broken vows follow closely behind.

The play satirizes people who make vows of abstinence and asceticism that they cannot reasonably keep. Of course, vows like that seem quaint in our day, where the only vows most young persons make are to live exactly as they please.

But the play also satirizes foolish young men in love, a theme that will never lose its relevance. The latter half of Love’s Labour’s Lost consists mostly of episodes in which the love-smitten scholars try one thing after another — dreadful love poems, showing off for the women in hunting contests, disguising themselves as traveling Russians — to impress the young women, who indeed require little persuasion. In this show, these scenes are played to perfection.

Peter Donaldson as Don Adriano de Armado

Good as the young actors are (we especially liked Alana Hawley as the Princess of France), the show’s best comic lines are delivered by Brian Tree as Costard, a carnally-minded laborer around the court of the King who mucks up everything he tries. He wants to gratify his animal urges by marrying the delectable and willing Jacquenetta (Stacie Steadman), but somehow loses her to Don Adriano de Armado (Peter Donaldson), a pretentious Spaniard who is the butt of the King’s jokes. Asked by two of the scholars to deliver love letters, Costard mixes them up and misdelivers them because he cannot read. (I infer that the original audience for this play was not the unwashed in the mosh pit at the Globe, but a sophisticated court audience who would have found illiteracy amusing.) Our audience at the Tom Patterson theater looked forward to each of Costard’s hilarious appearances on stage.

Michael Langham

Michael Langham

Love’s Labour’s Lost is directed by Michael Langham, who has frequently directed the play; this production shows the hand of a director who knows exactly how he wants the lines to be spoken and the scenes to be played. Mr. Langham has just celebrated his 89th birthday. Long ago, from 1956 to 1967, he was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. His 1961 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival was, I learn, one of the landmark Shakespeare productions of the twentieth century, demonstrating how much this play can actually be enjoyed in performance.

By contrast, none of the young actors can be much older than 24 or 25. No doubt thanks in good part to Mr. Langham’s direction, their acting was mature beyond their years. Much of this play is written in verse; their delivery preserved a sense of poetry without ever becoming trite or monotonous.