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.

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

Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has its moments. But the lead actors are so weak that the show can’t be recommended.

As directed by Des McAnuff, Shakespeare’s tragedy opens in 21st-century Verona, in a public square, with motorized scooters, young women text-messaging on their cellphones, and two servants of the Capulets who are itching for a fight with the Montagues. The brawl is broken up by authorities who wield (and fire) automatic pistols.

Gareth Potter as Romeo

Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the Montagues decides to crash the Capulets’ masked ball, along with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, in the hope of meeting Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated. As Romeo sheds his modern clothing for his ball costume, the time of the play shifts backward four centuries to 16th-century Verona, where Shakespeare actually placed his play. (After the ball, the cast appears in nifty 16th-century costumes.)

At the ball, Rosaline is forgotten when Romeo falls for the Capulets’ 13-year-old daughter Juliet. The attraction is mutual, and knowing that the Capulets will never consent to their daughter’s marriage to a Montague, the lovers arrange for Friar Lawrence, a local priest, to marry them secretly.

But Romeo (Gareth Potter) gets caught up in another streetfight with the Capulets and stabs Juliet’s favorite cousin Tybalt in a swordfight. Will Juliet (Nikki M. James) forgive Romeo for dispatching her cousin? Will Romeo escape punishment from the Prince of Verona, who is disgusted with the endless feuding? Will the violence escalate? Will the lovers ever be united?

Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter as the star-crossed lovers

Unfortunately, this show is spoiled by frankly amateurish — Emsworth doesn’t mean to be harsh, but how else to put it? — performances from the actors playing Romeo and Juliet.

The program bios indicate that director Des McAnuff has recently directed Nikki M. James as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. No doubt she shone in that role, which doesn’t require much expressive range.

But how could McAnuff have thought James could do justice to some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare? James delivers each line in the same soprano range of her voice that she must have used to call Toto. Nor does she do well without the microphone with which she was surely equipped in The Wizard of Oz; she seems to think that the only way to be heard in the spacious Festival Theater is to shout. The most that can be said of the casting is that James is a lithe and attractive Juliet who passes convincingly for a 13-year-old.

Des McAnuff

In the program, McAnuff indicates that he sees the first half of this play as a comedy and the second half as a tragedy. That’s a reasonable way of approaching the play, given the tone and the sweetly romantic scenes in the first two acts.

But Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter seem to have misunderstood what McAnuff meant about “comedy.” They perform the famous balcony scene as if it were a joke that everyone in the theater is in on — almost as parody. And Juliet wakes everyone up everyone in the house when she screeches “Anon” to her nurse at the top of her lungs in the middle of her tender speeches to Romeo. After hearing these outbursts, I fully expected Romeo to make his excuses and slink out of the garden, grateful that he had not committed himself too far to this petulant, shrill-voiced child.

Nor does James seem comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. When Juliet learns that her new husband has been banished for slaying Tybalt, she does an extended riff on “banished.” Unfortunately, each time she bellows the word, she places the accent on the third of the syllables: “ban-i-SHED.” The effect is alarming. (A scene or two later, Friar Lawrence, Romeo, and the Nurse all pronounce it with only two syllables.)

As Romeo, Gareth Potter delivers his lines with little more real expression than James, and his voice has an indistinct quality that makes him hard to hear. Seated only a few rows from the stage, off to one side, we hardly caught a word of one key speech that he delivered from the front of the stage.

One supposes that the casting of Romeo and Juliet always presents problems like this; by definition, young, relatively inexperienced actors must be called upon to play the parts.

Lucy Peacock as the Nurse and Nikki M. James as Juliet

Despite the leads, there are some fine performances in this show. As the garrulous Nurse who can never be brought to the point, Lucy Peacock is magnificent. So is Peter Donaldson as Friar Lawrence; his rich baritone, perfect diction, and sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare’s language are a treat. Both Roy Lewis, as Montague, and John Vickery, as Capulet, convey power and dignity as heads of the warring families.

I especially enjoyed Evan Buliung as Romeo’s friend Mercutio and could not help thinking that either he or Timothy D. Stickney, who had a strong stage presence as Tybalt, would have been better cast as Romeo.

The set for Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Festival consisted of a cleverly-constructed, versatile Italian bridge that morphed, as needed, into a ballroom, a balcony, and a crypt. It also facilitated some exceptionally rapid and well-choreographed scene changes. We wished, though, that its moving action had operated more quietly.

Emsworth carps about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, as a result of which Des McAnuff became sole artistic director of the Festival last winter, in this post.

See Emsworth’s review of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of All’s Well That Ends Well at this post, and his review of Hamlet at this post.

The priests of multiculturalism give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.