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.

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We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seeing Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival over the last few years, we’ve gotten so used to pleasant surprises that we’ve come to expect them. We’re talking here about plays that didn’t seem like much when we read them, but that came wonderfully rich and alive on stage – like Troilus and Cressida (2003), The Taming of the Shrew (2008), and A Winter’s Tale (2010).

We counted on the same from this year’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which we’d never seen performed before. True, on the printed page – and we re-read the play just last spring — its situations seemed contrived, its jokes puerile (if we got them at all), and its characters one-dimensional.  But we still somehow expected that the magic would come out on stage.

Sir John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), flanked by Mrs. Page (Laura Condlin) and Mrs. Ford (Lucy Peacock)

Unfortunately, it just didn’t. We don’t fault either the cast or the director. You couldn’t ask for more, for instance, from the two merry wives themselves, Mrs. Page (played by Laura Condlin) and Mrs. Ford (Lucy Peacock), a pair of past-their-prime housewives who find that they’ve both gotten indecent propositions from Sir John Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies). On stage Ms. Condlin and Ms. Peacock giggle and carry on energetically at their own schemes for teaching the lecherous knight a lesson. Unfortunately, the audience – at least at the performance we attended – mostly didn’t laugh along. The material just isn’t that funny.

Tom Rooney as Master Ford

In fact, our audience didn’t really stir until Tom Rooney, playing Master Ford, came on stage. Here, at least, was a bit of magic. Failing to realize that his wife is merely making sport of the fat knight, Master Ford believes he is being cuckolded. The character seems dull and lifeless on the printed page, but Rooney’s Ford is vital and compelling. Rooney makes far more out of the part that we imagined possible.

Nor does the seriously talented Geraint Wyn Davies fail to get all there is out of the role of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, although it wasn’t really until the second half of the play that our audience began responding to Falstaff with any regularity or enthusiasm. We got a charge out of Falstaff’s padded fat costume — in fact, we liked all the period costumes and the set for the interior of the Garter Inn. (We were grateful that director Frank Galati didn’t transpose the play to, say, Brooklyn in the 1950s.)

Geraint Wyn Davies as the fat knight

Considering the individual performances and the brisk direction, we didn’t feel we wasted our money on The Merry Wives of Windsor. But we left thinking that this play would languish in obscurity, unperformed, if it were attributed to a Elizabethan playwright other than Shakespeare. It just isn’t that good; even this excellent Stratford Festival cast couldn’t make us think it was. There aren’t any clever turns of phrases that you’d want to tuck away for future use, there aren’t any speeches that make you sit back, smile, and appreciate the poetry, and there aren’t any genuinely memorable characters. No other Shakespeare play is so deficient. We left feeling that we would have “had to be there” — in 1599 — to find the play funny.

In the program notes, Robert Blacker writes that The Merry Wives of Windsor is “underrated by scholars but not by audiences.” We grant his first point, but doubt his second.

We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2011 season

In 2010 fanfares still reminded theater-goers at the Festival Theater in Stratford that a show was about to begin

It was a decent 2010 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, though not a great one.  As chronicled in this blog, we saw only one truly memorable show (a marvelously acted The Winter’s Tale) and only two that we could rate as solidly entertaining (Kiss Me, Kate and Two Gentlemen From Verona).  Three were disappointing in various respects (The Tempest, Peter Pan, and Dangerous Liaisons), and As You Like It) was an outright stinker. We know they hardly ever do this — but The Winter’s Tale was so good that we can only hope that the management will consider reviving the production in 2012.  We’d see it again in a heartbeat.

We had fun pointing out how political correctness sucked some of the joy out of Peter Pan (see this post), and we wouldn’t have missed Christopher Plummer as Prospero (see this one).  Mr. Plummer isn’t scheduled to be back at Stratford in 2011.  But if he returns in 2012 we’d love to see him as the Duke in Measure for Measure.  We were reading the play recently and could hear, in our mind’s ear, Mr. Plummer’s rich baritone delivering the Duke’s lines. Update (12-13-10): We saw that Mr. Plummer told a Toronto drama critic recently that last summer’s Prospero would be his last Shakespeare role, because there weren’t any more age-appropriate roles he hadn’t done. We hope he changes his mind.

There will still be four Shakespeare plays on the 2011 playbill, but we figure to be skipping a couple of them.  Here’s what we like best on the 2011 menu, which also includes the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar and and the classic musical Camelot.  In order of interest, more or less:

Moliere

Molière’s The Misanthrope (at the Festival Theater)

We’ve been interested in French drama since our college course in French literature, but unfortunately we’ve never seen much of it.  So Molière’s The Misanthrope is a top priority for us as we order tickets this week, especially with Brian Bedford directing and acting.  Update: Bedford won’t be directing the play after all, because his The Importance of Being Earnest, which originated at Stratford in 2009, is still running on Broadway, but he will still be acting in The Misanthrope.  David Grindley is now announced as the director.

By reputation Bedford is the world’s foremost English-speaking interpreter of Molière, but we’ve seen him only in other roles till now.  He’ll be 76 years old during the 2011 season; his character in The Misanthrope (Oronte) is at least half his age.  But we saw Bedford pull off the same sort of thing a few years ago when he played the lead in Private Lives.  Ben Carlson, who was brilliant as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in 2010, will play Alceste.  Kelli Fox, another favorite of ours, is shuttling back to Stratford from the Shaw Festival to fill a supporting role.  This 1666 play is a satire of French high society.

Update 2 (7-8-11): We just saw that Mr. Bedford won’t be appearing in The Misanthrope either because of a medical issue. That’s disappointing. The estimable Peter Hutt will take his place. We’ve enjoyed Hutt’s work over the years at both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival.

Hey!  When is the Stratford Festival going to offer a play by Victor Hugo?  We’d jump at the chance to see Ruy Blas or Hernani.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (at the Avon Theater)

We heard a fair amount of casual grousing in Stratford last summer about how the Festival was going to the dogs with shows like Evita – not simply musicals (bad enough!) but rock operas!  Personally, we don’t have a problem with rock musicals per se, though a lot of them, including Evita, don’t amount to much.  They’ll run out of worthy rock musicals a lot quicker than they’ll run out of classic American musicals.

the classic album cover

Jesus Christ Superstar is another story.  We’ve loved this rock musical account of the last days of Jesus’ life (told from the perspective of Judas, our Lord’s betrayer) since our high school years, when the two-disc LP first came out and the buzz started.  We listened to it incessantly and played and sang the tunes over and over – “I Don’t Know How to Love Him, “Everything’s Alright,” “Superstar,” and the Tchaikovsky-esque “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”  This music hasn’t gotten stale over the last 40 years. 

But this will be our first chance to hear it/see it live.  Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy, the stars of 2009’s remarkable West Side Story in Stratford, will sing the parts of Jesus and Mary Magdalene; Josh Young, whom we don’t know, will channel Judas.  Des McAnuff will be directing.  We expect good things.

Richard III (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

In this Richard III, the lead role will be played by Seana McKenna. As a general rule, we’re not keen on “non-traditional” casting, but we fully expect Richard III to be the best Shakespeare in Stratford next summer. It’s the loosely historical story of how the hunchback Richard, Duke of Gloucester, schemes and murders his way onto the throne of England.  We learned recently that there are still people in Great Britain who insist vehemently that this play is a gross libel on Richard and that he wasn’t the monster of Shakespeare’s play.

Ms. McKenna is at the peak of her powers; we loved her last summer in The Winter’s Tale.  As for Richard’s being played by a woman — well, Richard is not a very manly man; he seems interested in women mainly to humiliate them and to blight their lives. An sexually ambiguous Richard may be just the ticket.  The rest of the cast is strong: Martha Henry, Peter Donaldson, Martha Henry, Sean Arbuckle, and Yanna McIntosh.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theater)

This is a Shakespeare play we hadn’t even read until a year or so ago, figuring that it was only a minor work.  Maybe it is, but after seeing The Gentlemen of Verona transformed into a first-class piece of entertainment last summer, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one we’ll see. 

The cast will have several of the Stratford Festival’s best, including Tom Rooney, Tom McCamus, Janet Wright, and Lucy Peacock.  Geraint Wyn Davies will play Falstaff, the fat, lecherous knight who is trying to get into the sack with two married women at once, but who is blockheaded enough to send the same love letter to both. 

Camelot (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at the Festival Theatre)

The musical Camelot is based on one of our all-time favorite novels, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a whimsical retelling of the legends of Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, and the rest of the gang at Camelot.  We’ve never thought Camelot had an especially memorable score, compared to shows like South Pacific or My Fair Lady, but three hours in Camelot can be special.  Geraint Wyn Davies will play the cuckolded king, Brent Carver the magician Merlin. 

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (at the Avon Theatre)

Emsworth has a long-standing prejudice against theatrical and cinematic adaptations of classic novels.  As readers, we form our own mental pictures of the scenes and characters of a novel.  Why let a play or a movie forever displace those images with someone else’s? 

Nevertheless, Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1939 novel won a Tony, the wife of our bosom loves Steinbeck’s book, and one of our favorite actors, Evan Buliung, will play Tom Joad.  (We have just remembered that the wife went happily to see the last Steinbeck adaptation at Stratford (Of Mice and Men) while we saw something else.)  It’s the story of the Joad family and their struggles to make it during the Great Depression. 

Titus Andronicus (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

We’ve read Titus Andronicus, and we’re just not inspired to see this convoluted story about the succession to the Roman throne, a mind-numbing tale of mayhem, rape, cannibalism, and murder.  We’re curious as to how they’ll accomplish the special effects – there’s some really nasty stuff to be staged.  But Titus Andronicus simply doesn’t strike us as a very good play.  The experts say good parts of it were written by someone other than the Bard. 

Not all Shakespeare plays are equally worthy.  If we see this show, the main reason will be that we’d like eventually to brag that we’ve seen the entire Shakespeare canon.  John Vickery will play the title role. 

The Homecoming (by Harold Pinter, at the Avon Theater)

You’d almost have to say that nastiness will be a running theme at Stratford in 2011. Titus Andronicus is all blood and carnage, Richard III is a story of sociopathic, bloody cruelty, Jesus Christ Superstar ends with a brutal whipping and a crucifixion, and Harold Pinter’s 1964 Tony-award-winning play may be the most disquieting of all.  The Homecoming is even more trying to the nerves than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which came out around the same time. It’s about what happens in a lower-class North London family when the oldest son, Teddy, brings his slutty wife Ruth home to meet his father and brothers. 

The play is violent from its realistic beginning to its surreal end, mostly verbal violence.  These people use words to hurt.  We happened to see the 2008 revival in New York City and thought it was an extraordinary play, but still don’t feel braced enough to see it again. (Another Pinter play, we’d probably spring for.)  The Homecoming is not for the squeamish, any more than Titus Andronicus.  The Stratford’s cast includes Stephen Ouimette, Brian Dennehy, and Cara Ricketts.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (at the Festival Theater)

Twelfth Night is one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (in this post we made a list), and it would be our top priority for 2011 if it weren’t being directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  As we announced after seeing the McAnuff-directed As You Like It in September (see this post), we’re going to pass on Shakespeare plays directed by McAnuff for the foreseeable future.  No one can say we didn’t give them a fair trial: we also suffered through his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 and squirmed through his Macbeth in 2009.  Directing Shakespeare is simply not where McAnuff’s considerable talents lie.

They’ve done this play in Stratford a lot.  Since 1953 only A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been played there as often as Twelfth Night; this will be the eleventh production since 1953.  On average it comes up every five years, so if we miss this one . . . . It’s a shame, though, especially considering the talent in the 2011 cast, which includes Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney, Ben Carlson, and Brian Dennehy. 

The rest: Shakespeare’s Will (by Vern Thiessen, in the Studio Theatre); Hosanna (by Michael Tremblay, in the Studio Theatre); The Little Years (by John Mighton, also in the Studio Theatre)

The talented Seana McKenna will also be playing Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Will, a one-woman play about how William Shakespeare’s wife felt about being left his second-best bed in his last will and testament, together with other reflections on what it was like to be the great poet’s wife.  Unfortunately, we’re hung up on the premise.  We doubt that Anne Hathaway’s husband actually wrote the plays and sonnets that have come down to us under his name (see this post).

But we’re intrigued by Hosanna, the play with which long-time Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette made his mark as an actor, and just might manage to see it.  There will be a cast of two: Hosanna, a transvestite, will be played by Gareth Potter, and Hosanna’s partner Cuirette will be played by Oliver Becker. 

The small, almost claustrophobic Studio Theatre will host a third play in 2011.  The Little Years was written by John Mighton, a Canadian playwright who also has a Ph. D. in mathematics.  The play, set in the 1950s, is about a teenage girl who’s interested in physics.

We observed a year ago that the 2010 playbill consisted of mostly contemporary works, other than the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan.  This will be true in 2011 too: except for the Shakespeare plays and Molière’s The Misanthrope, every show on the schedule was written after 1960.

The Tempest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

William Hutt as Prospero in the 2005 Stratford Festival production; the poster hangs in our study

Before we get to this year’s Tempest [summer 2010], we hark back to Stratford, Ontario in August 2005, where we saw what turned out to be one of the last stage performances of the late William Hutt. We remember it well. 

Late in the first act of The Tempest, Mr. Hutt, as Prospero, had thoroughly captivated his daughter Miranda (and the rest of us) with the story of how he had been supplanted as Duke of Milan by his treacherous brother Antonio and how Prospero and Miranda had been exiled to their Mediterranean island. Then, after charming Miranda into sleep, Prospero summoned the spirit Ariel to report on the seastorm she had conjured up to bring Antonio and his traveling companions to the island.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero in the Stratford Festival's 2010 production

Emsworth’s companion five years ago was his son; the night before, we had seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  We were riveted by Mr. Hutt’s performance. With his musical voice and expressive, perfectly timed pauses, he made Elizabethan English seem as easy to understand as Dr. Seuss.

Unfortunately, our son, still a college student, was suffering from a summer cold. We armed him with cough suppressants. But when Mr. Hutt took one of his trademark pauses, in the course of reminding the ungrateful Ariel how she had been liberated from the hag Sycorax, the breathless silence in the Festival Theatre was broken with a loud cough from the third row, stage left.

Mr. Hutt seemed not to hear or notice, and we waited for him to go on. But the 85-year old actor kept holding his pose. The pause lengthened; audience members began to glance at one another. After half a minute, we heard a low female voice say a few words from under the front of the stage. Mr. Hutt took a breath, changed his pose, and delivered the line he had been given by his prompter. The performance resumed.

Our son was of course mortified; his cough had made an acting legend forget his lines. But the glitch made Mr. Hutt’s stunning performance all the more memorable.

Prospero (Christopher Plummer) and his affectionate daughter Miranda (Trish Lindström)

This year’s portrayal of the marooned magician-duke by Christopher Plummer, who at 80 is younger by five years than Mr. Hutt was, is every bit as fine as Mr. Hutt’s. Every phrase from Mr. Plummer hits its mark; he delivers Shakespeare with intense clarity. Mr. Plummer’s Prospero seems earthier and more irrascible, a ruler who wields near-absolute power with utter confidence. Mr. Hutt’s Prospero, if we remember it rightly, was more lyrical.

But The Tempest is not nearly — we know this is heresy — the best Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival this year.  The Winter’s Tale is more thoroughly satisfying and more entertaining (see our thoughts on it at this post), a judgment informally confirmed by various other theater-goers we met at random in Stratford. (We haven’t yet seen As You Like It.) When Mr. Plummer was on stage, we were spellbound, but he is off-stage for good parts of the play, and those parts didn’t match up.

In fact, after intermission, the pace seemed to lag and the play seemed to lose energy. This was especially so in the scenes involving Antonio (John Vickery), Alonso (Peter Hutt), and the other shipwrecked noblemen. The most engaging of the minor characters in the play ought to be Gonzalo (James Blendick), the old counselor who ensured that Prospero was provided with his beloved books to accompany him in his exile. But although the playwright meant us to understand that Gonzalo (like Polonius in Hamlet) is a tedious talker, he surely intended that the character would in fact endear rather than bore.

The scenes with Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) were lively and entertaining, as these actors have superb comic timing and were at the top of their game. Jarringly, however, Mr. Dow chose, or was directed, to play Alonso’s jester as a lisping, limp-wristed queen. We couldn’t imagine why.

Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) with Prospero (Mr. Plummer)

The special effects were excellent, especially those involving Ariel, played by Julyana Soelistyo, a tiny, seriously talented acrobat and actress who seemed to be in the air more than on the stage. But it seemed out of character for Prospero to be performing cheap magic tricks — the Duke of Milan wasn’t that kind of magician. And we couldn’t help thinking, not for the first time after seeing a Shakespeare play directed by Des McAnuff, that he was counting on gimmicks to keep his audiences interested.

Aside from Mr. Plummer’s Prospero, the character who grabbed our attention was Dion Johnstone’s Caliban, who glided around the set on four limbs with unhuman, fluid ease, much as we had always imagined Tolkien’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In fact, we came to think that Caliban was a literary ancestor of Gollum.  Just as Caliban whined about the island that Prospero had “stolen” from him, Gollum whined obsessively about the ring that Bilbo Baggins had “stolen” from him. And when we saw how devoted Caliban was to his new master, Stephano, and how much he disliked and resented Stephano’s companion, Trinculo, we remembered exactly the same dynamic between Gollum, his “master” Frodo, and Sam Gamgee (whom Gollum despised) during their trek to Mordor.

We were bemused to see that they’re making a new Hollywood version of The Tempest that will star Helen Mirren as Prospera.

We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2010 season

The 36-year-old Michael Therriault, who once played Ariel in The Tempest, will play Peter Pan at Stratford in 2010

Life is too busy and money too scarce for us to drive all the way to Stratford, Ontario to see a disappointing show; we’ve got to be selective. The eight shows we saw in 2009 were mostly worth it; Julius Caesar and the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story were memorable. But Bartholomew Fair and Macbeth left us fidgeting and annoyed, respectively, and made us feel we might have given them a miss.

Happily, for the 2010 season, the powers at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (here’s its website) have decreed that there will once more be four Shakespeare plays on the playbill (there were only three in 2009) out of a total of 12 shows. Here’s what we think of the menu, which also includes Kiss Me Kate, Evita, and J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan:

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

This is the 2010 Stratford show we’re looking to most. It’s the story of Leontes, a Sicilian king who becomes violently jealous of his wife Hermione’s friendship with his friend Polixenes.

Ben Carlson

The Winter’s Tale should have a lot going for it. Marti Maraden was one of the main victims of the Stratford’s ill-conceived and short-lived experiment in having three co-artistic directors a couple of years ago, but she apparently holds no grudges and is coming back to direct this play. We like her Shakespeare better than anyone’s. Ben Carlson, a first-rate Shakespeare actor (Hamlet in 2008, Brutus in 2009), will play Leontes. Tom Rooney’s first two seasons at the Stratford have made him one of our favorite actors; he will play the philosopher-peddler Autolycus, just as in 2009 he played the philosophical Porter in Macbeth. Yanna McIntosh will, thankfully, take the place of the worst actress we’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play, Nikki James, who was originally scheduled to play Hermione.

In one scene, the playwright directs that the character Antigonus, sent by Leontes to Bohemia to abandon Hermione’s (and his) baby to the cruel elements, should “exit, pursued by a bear.” Back in 1600, coming up with a suitable live bear for a show couldn’t have been very hard, since the drama theaters were also used for bear-baiting exhibitions. Fortunately, Ontario practically swarms with bears, so getting one should be a cinch. Should make for a lively show.

James M. Barrie

Peter Pan (by James M. Barrie, at the Avon Theater)

This is not, repeat not, a musical play, and it won’t be much like the treacly, annoying thing with Mary Martin that you’ve seen on television. It’s J. M. Barrie’s original stage play, first performed in 1904, and it’s one of the finest plays in the English language. At Stratford in 2010, the androgynous Peter Pan will be be played by Michael Therriault.

With Peter Pan, the Stratford Festival is trying to tap the kids’ market. But when we first saw the play at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, we found that Peter Pan was a dark, decidedly adult play, apt to scare the bejeezus out of the average five-year-old. Then again, maybe today’s five-year-olds, weaned on Darth Vader and Spiderman, can take it.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at the Festival Theater)

Christopher Plummer, who be 80 years old next summer, is coming back to Stratford to play Prospero. Surely there’s no finer Shakespeare actor in the world; Mr. Plummer’s King Lear at Stratford seven years ago was hands down the most breath-taking theater experience we’ve ever had. We were mesmerized by the zillions of great theater anecdotes in Mr. Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself (see Emsworth’s review at this post).

So even though it was only five years ago that we saw the late William Hutt in a marvelous performance of The Tempest at Stratford, we wouldn’t think of missing the 2010 show, though we do wish someone besides Des McAnuff were directing it. Folks will need to get their tickets for The Tempest early; the show is only running from June 11 through September 12, and at a relaxed schedule designed no doubt to keep Mr. Plummer from wearing out. Don’t plan to save money at a preview performance; the Stratford Festival is charging full price for every single performance of The Tempest.

Cole Porter, no doubt in the process of composing songs for Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (music by Cole Porter, at the Festival Theater)

Another opening, another show. We love the songs of Cole Porter, and the plot of Kiss Me, Kate might have been written by P. G. Wodehouse himself, so this classic musical is tempting. Like so many musicals, it’s a show business story, and it has a play within a play: one of the characters, Fred Graham, is directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Fred’s ex-wife Lilli as Katherine the shrew. Real-life actress Chilina Kennedy will play Fred’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Our favorite songs: “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “So In Love.”

Dangerous Liaisons (by Christopher Hampton, at the Festival Theater)

This is the racy play on which the 1988 movie, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was based; you probably saw it. It takes us back to eighteenth-century France, when the amoral, idle nobility amused themselves by playing humiliating practical jokes on one another. Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna will play the jaded aristocrats whose game is to bring about the deflowering of a young girl and the fall from virtue of a married woman. Martha Henry will also be in the cast.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It (at the Festival Theater)

This would be among our top choices at Stratford for 2010 if it weren’t for our fear that the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, who has designated himself to direct it, will spoil the play with distracting gimmicks. (We have the same fear for The Tempest, but trust that Christopher Plummer will keep his director focused on the story of the play.) We have now seen two deeply unsatisfactory Shakespeare plays directed by Mr. McAnuff: 2008’s Romeo and Juliet and 2009’s Macbeth, and we are not alone in thinking that this is not where Mr. McAnuff’s talents lie. Couldn’t he have taken on Kiss Me, Kate instead? This is sheer stubbornness.

Tom Rooney

But As You Like It seemingly has a foolproof cast, with Paul Nolan (star of 2009’s West Side Story) as Orlando, Tom Rooney in the dual roles of the good duke and the bad duke, Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as the unenthusiastic fiancées Touchstone and Audrey, and Brent Carver as Jacques. How badly could the play be spoiled?

Evita (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Avon Theater)

This is not our favorite Rice-Webber show; indeed, we have only lukewarm enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber shows after Jesus Christ Superstar. But Evita should pack them in, as did West Side Story in 2009. And as the very first rock-style musical presented at the Stratford Festival, it’ll presumably draw a younger audience.

Not a bad marketing move, considering that the Stratford Festival depends so heavily now on revenues from its high-priced musicals. Evita will be directed by Gary Griffin, who did practically everything right with West Side Story, and it will star Chilina Kennedy, who was dazzling as Maria in West Side Story and is now clearly Stratford’s diva of choice. Ms. Kennedy will play the charismatic wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and everyone will sing along with “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

This is yet another musical show — but one more in the nature of a revue, with commentary from the performers, than a play. Brent Carver will be the lead troubadour, singing the songs of the late Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, who wrote his songs in French.

We know a few Jacques Brel songs that were translated into English and became hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons in the Sun.” But most of the songs in the show won’t be familiar to us. Will there be English subtitles? We’re probably not adventurous enough to find out.

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona (at the Studio Theatre)

Emsworth has never paid much attention to this early Shakespeare play, let alone seen it performed, but a recent reading has whetted his interest. It’s the story of two pals, Valentine and Proteus, and their women; no sooner has Proteus successfully courted one named Julia than he leaves for Milan, where he promptly forgets her and falls in love with a duke’s daughter, Silvia, who falls in love instead with Valentine even though the duke intends her for someone else. The plot will seem familiar to hardcore fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who stole it for his 1931 comic novel Big Money.

In 2009, instead of a fourth Shakespeare play, the Stratford Festival put on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had a large cast and a lot of fancy original props. It couldn’t have been cheap to mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be more economically performed at the small Studio Theatre space, where the audience surrounds the stage. There will be only a short window of opportunity to see this play; it will run for less than two months (from July 30 to September 19, 2010).

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (by Michel Tremblay, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

In its 2009 season, the Shaw Festival offered Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times; in 2010, the Stratford Festival will put on Tremblay’s well-received 1998 play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a comedy based on the gay French-Canadian playwright’s relationship with his mother.

Lucy Peacock will play Nana (the mother character); Tom Rooney will be the Narrator (presumably a stand-in for Tremblay himself). This play will run for only two months, from July 27 to September 26, 2010.

Do Not Go Gentle (by Leon Pownall, in the Studio Theatre)

A one-man show starring Geraint Wyn Davies could be really good; our appreciation for Mr. Wyn Davies grows year by year. He will play Dylan Thomas soliloquizing about his life and how he rates as a poet compared to William Shakespeare.

This very show actually just opened on Broadway! (We write as of December 8, 2009.) It won’t appear at Stratford, though, till July 2, 2010, where it will run through August 22.

King of Thieves (by George F. Walker, in the Studio Theatre)

This play is actually a musical — another one! — but the Stratford Festival evidently doesn’t dare to risk putting this world-premiere piece in one of its larger theaters. Wonder what Mr. Walker thinks of that! The show is a new take on old material, a tale of a couple of crooks (Mac, to be played by Evan Buliung, and his father-in-law Peachum, to be played by Sean Cullen).

George F. Walker

Its source is John Gay’s 1720 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (whose characters included Macheath and Polly Peachum), but most of us are more familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. Those were both set in London; Walker’s version is set in New York City in 1928.

This is the second year in a row that the Stratford Festival has put on a work by Walker; we didn’t see last year’s Zastrozzi. A few years back, we saw Walker’s straight play Nothing Sacred at the Shaw Festival, but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

From its press releases, we gather that the Stratford Festival will have avoided losing money during 2009 on the strength of having had two extraordinarily popular musical shows. By offering Peter Pan and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest on top of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate, management has probably taken its best shot at increasing the number of sold-out shows in 2010.

We can’t help noticing that there’s nothing on the 2010 playbill even remotely comparable to the Ben Jonson, Racine, and Chekhov plays that were seen in 2009. In fact, aside from the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan, the Stratford is offering mostly contemporary shows. The Stratford Festival will be that much less of a “classical” repertory theater company in 2010.

Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Timothy D Stickney as Banquo

Timothy D. Stickney playing Banquo as a twentieth-century European general in Africa

Macbeth deals with historical figures in 11th-century Scotland, and they call it “the Scottish play.” So why would any director place its setting in central Africa, circa 1950? We knew there couldn’t be any good reason. But we figured something must have triggered director Des McAnuff’s thought process.

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

At first we thought this was another unfortunate case of clumsiness in dealing with a racially mixed cast. (The same director bungled this elementary task in 2008’s Romeo and Juliet, as we observed in this post a year ago.) Could McAnuff have thought that audiences would never “get” a Macbeth with black actors in key roles (Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, and Lady Macduff) unless it were set in Africa?

Anyway, that’s not our theory anymore. We think now that the seed was sown when McAnuff was watching the second season of the sadly short-lived Slings and Arrows television show, which we dug out of our stack of DVDs after we got back from our last visit of the year to Stratford, Ontario.

As many of Emsworth’s readers will know, this Canadian show, which ran for three seasons beginning in late 2003, chronicles three seasons in the history of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival, an Ontario repertory company that bears hilarious similarities to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The second season of Slings and Arrows deals mostly with the Festival’s production of Macbeth.  As the season begins, the Festival’s artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), is being pressured to put Macbeth on the playbill for the upcoming season. Reluctant to do it, he talks it over with his friend Nahum (Rothaford Gray), a security guard at New Burbage who once directed theater himself in his native Nigeria:

Tennant: They want me to do Macbeth.
Nahum: Dammit!
Tennant: Why does that bother you?
Nahum: I do not like that play. It teaches us nothing.
Tennant: It teaches us about evil.
Nahum: No! It shows us evil. It’s a portrait of a psychopath. Where I come from in Nigeria, it is a familiar sight. I’ve had my fill of psychopaths.

Bingo! Nigeria! Macbeth reimagined as the rise and fall of a murderous, monomaniac, twentieth-century African dictator!

MacbethIt wasn’t a good idea, anymore than this sort of thing usually is. (For instance, we’ve talked to several people who were so distracted by the contemporary-ish costumes and machine guns in this year’s Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival that they seemed not to have noticed how superbly acted that show was; they judged the show a failure based on how it looked.)  Post-colonial Africa had almost nothing in common with eleventh-century Scotland.  Did McAnuff seriously think it would help audiences understand this challenging play to have King Duncan hold a press conference (complete with an array of microphones and photographers with bulky flash cameras) to welcome Macbeth and Banquo back home? Or to have Macbeth’s armies fighting Malcolm’s on a battlefield with an army jeep and soldiers wielding automatic rifles?

And didn’t it occur to McAnuff that audiences would find it odd to hear Banquo’s assassins report to Macbeth that they’d cut his throat, when we’d just seen Banquo mugged and shot?

There was so much good acting in this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Festival that it’s a shame the overall production wasn’t more satisfying. We found the unmodulated high pitch of the play wearing, not enervating. The sets, the props, the costumes, and the special effects were distracting and incoherent. We were given a series of memorable visual images, which is something, but telling the story of the play seemed to be the last thing on the director’s mind.

The performance we saw got off to a poor start. We could hear only a little of the dialogue in the stage-setting opening scenes, in which many of the play’s principal characters are introduced.

Now, in some Shakespeare plays — Julius Caesar and Richard III, for instance — the playwright helped audiences keep track of who’s who on stage by having the characters repeatedly address each other by name. Unfortunately, he did very little of that in Macbeth, in which help would have been especially welcome because of the play’s large cast of characters. It is therefore all the more important that a director of Macbeth ensure that the opening scenes are not only lively, but audible. But in this show most of the actors in the first scene (after the witches) failed to project well enough for us to hear — and we weren’t far from the stage. Sometimes the problem with audibility was due to the background music, which was a lot like a movie score. Did McAnuff think that would make the play feel more comfortable for theater-goers who are more used to watching motion pictures?

MacbethAt any rate, it was a great relief when Macbeth (Colm Feore) and Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) appeared on stage. Both have strong, expressive voices, good diction, and the indispensable ability to make Elizabethan English heard and understood in the too-big Festival Theater.  (The talented Feore also had a wonderful role in the second season of Slings and Arrows — but not as Macbeth; he plays a wacked-out marketing consultant hired to “re-brand” the financially struggling New Burbage Festival.)

Macbeth

Tom Rooney as the Porter

rooThey were by no means the only actors we especially appreciated. Tom Rooney was wonderful in his brief appearance as the Macbeths’ porter; now we understand, for the first time, why this comic philosopher’s scene belongs in the play.  Also strong were Geraint Wyn Davies (Duncan in the play; he played an actor playing Macbeth in the second season of Slings and Arrows), Gareth Potter (a much better Malcolm than he was a Romeo a year ago), and John Vickery (Ross), who had the challenging task of breaking the news to Macduff (Dion Johnstone) that his family had been slaughtered.

For all that, the narrative power of the play just wasn’t there. We’ve commented before on the Othello we saw in Chicago a couple of years ago (directed by Marti Maraden, who is, thankfully, returning to Stratford in 2010 to direct The Winter’s Tale). Simply reading the text of Othello, we always found it hard to understand how the noble Moor could so quickly become so morbidly suspicious as to believe Colm Feore as Macbeth that his new wife was doing him dirty. On stage, however, his transformation was absolutely convincing, to the credit of both the director and Derrick Lee Weeden, who played Othello.

We’ve had a similar problem wih Macbeth.  Reading the play, we find it hard to understand how Duncan’s trusted general could so suddenly be overcome by ambition that he would embark on a series of savage murders to achieve what the witches had already pronounced as his destiny. (We don’t buy the notion that a soldier like Macbeth is such a “killing machine” that murdering friends in cold blood isn’t much different from what he does on the battlefield.) We hoped this Macbeth would show us how, but it didn’t.

P. G. Wodehouse quoted from Shakespeare more than any other poet, and (we think) from Macbeth more than from any other work of Shakespeare.  See this post.  Other posts from Emsworth about shows he saw during the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Jean Racine’s classic French drama on the ancient Greek tale of Phèdre (see this post)

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

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (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)

Emsworth’s list of his own ten favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post).

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (a review)

Julius Caesar

The historical Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is close to the top of the list of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but we’d never seen it performed until last weekend. The show at the Stratford Festival was tight, tense, and immensely satisfying, and we saw more in the characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar than we ever knew was there.

We suppose there’s no danger of giving away the plot. The folks at Stratford evidently think people know the story, too; they left the usual plot summary out of the program. (We renew our complaint that the cost-cutters at Stratford are printing this year’s programs on cheap paper stock in an odd-sized (8 1/2 by 10 3/4) format that doesn’t fit our collection of programs.)

100_5571

Julius Caesar is one of the plays reflected by relief sculptures along the outside of the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C.

So to review, here’s the story. Around 40 B.C., Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davies) has defeated his rival Pompey and has become virtual dictator of Rome. Jealous of Caesar, a number of Roman senators, led by Cassius (Tom Rooney), are plotting regime change. The conspirators realize, however, that without the support of the widely respected, high-minded Brutus (Ben Carlson), they are sure to be villified for taking Caesar down. Cassius persuades Brutus that, for the good of Rome, Caesar must die.

Julius Caesar

If Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davis, center) had only read the letter being offered to him, he would have learned of the plot against his life.

On the Ides of March, Cassius, Brutus, and other Roman senators stab Caesar to death. Against the advice of Cassius, Brutus unwisely permits Caesar’s protege, Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad) to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s oration inflames the Romans against the conspirators. Mobs riot in the streets, and a civil war breaks out, in which Brutus and Cassius are uneasy allies. It all ends with a final battle at Phillippi.

Julius Caesar

Tom Rooney as Cassius, lean and hungry

As well as we know the play, we still felt the suspense keenly. Would Brutus yield to Cassius’s flattery and join the conspirators? Would Caesar be warned in time? Would the conspirators take Cassius’s advice and assassinate Mark Antony as well?

Domestic tension, as well: would Brutus ever tell his distraught wife Portia (Cara Ricketts) what’s going on?  Would Caesar heed the soothsayer and stay home on the Ides of March, as his wife Calpurnia pleads? Our own wife, who is not politically minded, thought the moral of the play was that husbands should listen to their wives.

We couldn’t have asked for a better cast for our first Julius Caesar on stage.   Geraint Wyn Davies has only a few scenes, but he is positively masterful as a ruler who has begun to believe that he is, indeed, god-like; no wonder Brutus could be persuaded that such a Caesar needed to be stopped. Best of all was Tom Rooney, with his bright-eyed intensity, steely sense of purpose, and ramrod stature. We knew without Caesar’s telling us that Cassius had “a lean and hungry look.”

Julius Caesar

Ben Carlson (Brutus) and Tom Rooney (Cassius)

Ben Carlson speaks the language of Shakespeare naturally, conversationally, and with effortless diction.  He and Rooney are well paired; the best parts of this Julius Caesar were Brutus’s scenes with Cassius.  The famous “quarrel” scene was just short of perfection (we dissected the quarrel in this recent post); it fell short only in that we felt that Brutus would, for maximum impact, have told Cassius to his face that he had “an itching palm.”  Instead, Carlson delivered the accusation in an offhanded manner as he poured a drink across the stage from Cassius.

Until last weekend, we never fully appreciated the emotional power of the “I am sick of many griefs” scene later in Act IV, Scene 3, in which we (and Cassius) learn of Portia’s suicide. Carlson, Rooney, and Kevin Blanchard (as Messala) play this scene with delicacy and humanity.

We were a little disappointed, however, in Jonathan Goad’s Mark Antony. We have seen Goad described as Stratford’s Johnny Depp, and indeed Goad’s what-me-worry? approach to the part reminded us of the hero of Pirates of the Caribbean. But it didn’t suit here, with the Roman empire at stake. Surely no confrontation in Julius Caesar should bristle more than the scene immediately after the death of Caesar, when Mark Antony comes face to face with the conspirators. But this Antony seemed more annoyed than angry with the conspirators; he hardly seemed to fear for his life. The scene slowed the play’s momentum.

And Antony’s “This was the noblest Roman of them all” monologue, after the death of Brutus, also fell flat.  It ends, of course, with Antony’s pronouncement on Brutus: “This was a man!”  The line needs to be delivered portentously, with equal emphasis on “this” and “man”.  But Goad accented only the first word: “THIS was a man.” It sounded more like a throwaway line.

Still, Goad delivered one of the play’s most thrilling moments with his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. For this scene, director James MacDonald resourcefully embedded members of the cast in the audience, they made us feel part of the dangerous mob ourselves. The effect was electric. We had always assumed that Antony began his speech when the noise of the crowd died down. But Goad made us understand that “lend me your ears” (which he was obliged to shout over the din) was uttered in order to get the mob to shut up and listen.

From the supporting cast, we especially enjoyed the performances of Michael Spencer-Davis (as Casca), Cara Ricketts (as Portia), John Innes (as Cicero), and Dion Johnstone (as Octavius Caesar). Skye Brandon was superb as the unfortunate Cinna the poet, whose appearance and rapid demise (the finest cameo role of any play we can think of) seemed even more shocking than the assassination of Caesar himself.

The costumes and the props did not, frankly, make sense. The most that can be said for them is that we didn’t find them terribly distracting. In the first act, the Romans all wore snazzy suits and colorful ensembles (including some very short skirts) that vaguely reminded us of the Berlin street scenes, circa 1914, of Ernest Kirchner. In the second act, the officers in Mark Antony’s camp wore twentieth-century military uniforms; those in Cassius’s and Brutus’s camp wore baseball caps. And the soldiers all carried semi-automatic rifles. We missed the point of these “modern” touches.  We know exactly the time period in which this particular play takes place; it wasn’t the early 20th century.

Ben Carlson deserves credit for remaining unflustered under trying circumstances. During one of his early scenes, quite close to the stage, an extremely loud cellphone went off and played a long passage from Mozart’s C major piano sonata, K. 545. The owner had trouble getting it under control. Carlson never batted an eye as we all finally heard the belltones of a cellphone being turned off.

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)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (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)