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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The Misanthrope at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Sara Topham as Célimène and Ben Carlson as Alceste

(August 2011) Looking around the nearly full Festival Theater just before the play was to begin, we wondered how many folks had bought their tickets for The Misanthrope especially to see Stratford Festival icon Brian Bedford direct and act. Could a seventeenth-century French playwright really have such an impressive fan base? Mr. Bedford was unfortunately a scratch, unable to direct because his The Importance of Being Earnest was still running on Broadway, then unable to perform because of medical issues.

We wouldn’t say that Mr. Bedford wasn’t missed, but this offering of Molière’s 350-year-old comedy was just fine without him.  Molière’s own productions couldn’t have been much more entertaining.  What struck Emsworth was that some in the audience were tickled by certain lines, and some by others.  From the beginning of the play to its end, pockets of half-suppressed laughter were continually erupting in random parts of the theater.

The cast of The Misanthrope

The play is a satire on the society of Molière’s time (although the set and the costumes suggest the mid-1700s, a hundred years after Molière).  The play’s hero, Alceste (Ben Carlson) has lost his patience with his friends because they flatter an acquaintance to his face, then savage him behind his back. “How else are people to behave?” his friend Philinte wonders. Alceste’s sanctimonious reply:

I’d have them be sincere, and never part
With any word that isn’t from the heart.

Alceste declares misanthropically that he wants to go off to live in the wilderness where he’ll be alone and won’t have to endure the hypocrisy anymore.

We see the sort of thing that riles Alceste early in the play when one of his friends, Oronte (Peter Hutt, in the supporting role Brian Bedford would have played), asks Alceste for an “honest” critique of a dreadful love sonnet that he has penned.  Knowing that Oronte merely wants to be flattered, Alceste demurs, but when Oronte insists, Alceste pulls no punches.  This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Ben Carlson is masterful and outrageously funny.

The set for The Misanthrope represented a Parisian salon with panel paintings in the style of François Boucher (1703-1770). This Boucher is from a set of salon paintings in the Frick Collection (New York City) entitled The Four Seasons (Spring)

The play is set in the heavily patronized Paris salon of Célimène (Sara Topham), a young widow with whom Alceste is in love.  Alceste is unfortunately handicapped as a lover by his inability to keep from scolding Célimène for her flirtatiousness and for her biting character sketches of absent acquaintances.  Not to be missed are the verbal fireworks between Célimène and her moralistic “friend” and rival Arsinoé (the indispensable Kelli Fox). Célimène goads her older rival:

When all one’s charms are gone, it is, I’m sure,
Good strategy to be devout and pure.

By the second half of the play, we realized that what initially seemed a fairly simple storyline (much talk, seemingly little action) was in fact multi-layered and complex; this is a very cleverly plotted play. Will Célimène’s romance with Alceste be undone by her two-faced behavior, and if so, who will be mated with whom? The outcome is in doubt to the end.

The catfight between Célimène and Arsinoé, and the social milieu of malicious gossip, brought to mind scenes in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, which we saw at the Shaw Festival last summer.  Luce’s 1936 play surely owes much to The Misanthrope.

One notices right away that the dialogue of The Misanthrope is in rhymed verse. Director David Grindley chose Richard Wilbur’s acclaimed 60-year-old translation, which still sounds fresh. What skill it must take not merely to translate rhymed French poetry into English, but to translate it into rhymed English poetry! It took us a few minutes to adjust to the verse; once you catch the first several rhymes, you start to listen for them, but soon you realize that you’re missing the meaning by concentrating on the wrong thing.

Ben Carlson as Alceste

Rhymed verse makes demands on performers as well. Some of them — notably Ben Carlson, Peter Hutt, and especially Kelli Fox, handle Molière’s/Wilbur’s poetry effortlessly, letting the rhymes peek out and take you by surprise, instead of pounding you over the head with them.  It’s the same technique that they’d use for delivering Shakespeare, where an actor needs ever so gently to convey the rhythm of the blank verse, without indulging in overt pauses at the end of the lines.

Not all the actors fare so well, especially Sara Topham, whose unsubtle, sing-song delivery of Célimène’s lines reminded me a little of an eighth-grader reciting Longfellow. Trent Pardy’s Acaste (another suitor for Célimène’s attentions) was little better.  Truth be told, we’re not sold on Sara Topham, although her star seems to be high at Stratford these days.  She looks very well, but she still hasn’t learned how to vary her delivery or to project her voice without straining; by the end of our show it wasn’t pretty.

Alceste was the second on-stage misanthrope we’d encountered within a month; there’s another at the Shaw Festival this summer in My Fair Lady. Neither Henry Higgins (the central character in My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion) nor Molière’s Alceste is willing to make himself agreeable to others. Alceste justifies himself on the ground that he alone is honest and sincere; Henry Higgins does not bother to justify himself at all.

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.

Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Stratford Festival

Three Sisters

Irina (Dalal Badr), Olga (Irene Poole), and Masha (Lucy Peacock)

We’ve seen Kelli Fox in The Three Sisters twice now. In 2003 she was the oldest sister, Olga, in a production at the Shaw Festival directed by Jackie Maxwell; in the current show at the Stratford Festival she plays Natasha, Olga’s sister-in-law and nemesis. Kelli Fox is one of the two best reasons to see the Stratford show; the other is Lucy Peacock, who gives (pardon the cliche) a simmering performance as the second sister, Masha. Both stand out in an excellent production of what is, of course, one of the world’s great plays.

The half dozen or so Chekhov plays we have seen have fallen into two distinct camps. Some directors assume that each character must be played as if in the throes of terminal depression. When, as often happens in Chekhov plays, the Russians don’t seem to be listening to each other’s remarks, these directors call for long, awkward silences. Where an actor has a longer speech, she is instructed to step forward and intone it as if in a trance. As P. G. Wodehouse observed (through Bertie Wooster) in Jeeves in the Offing, this brand of Chekhov can be trying:

I knew Chekhov’s Seagull. My Aunt Agatha had once made me take her son Thos to a performance or it at the Old Vic, and what with the strain of trying to follow the cockeyed goings-on of characters called Zarietchnaya and Medvienko and having to be constantly on the alert to prevent Thos making a sneak for the great open spaces, my suffering had been intense.

Three Sisters

Irene Poole as Olga

That notion of Chekhov works no better for Emsworth than it did for Bertie Wooster. Fortunately, the current production of The Three Sisters at Stratford, like the one directed by Jackie Maxwell in 2003, falls into the second camp, with directors who understand that Chekhov’s characters brim with vitality and exhibit a wide range of intensely human emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.  This show is not a theatrical tone poem in a minor key; it’s about people like us that we can care about.

Three Sisters

Masha (Lucy Peacock) is, sadly, married to a good man whom she neither respects nor loves

The Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family: three well-educated sisters and a brother who grew up in Moscow but find themselves stranded in a small Russian village, a military outpost, a year after the death of their father. The three women — Olga (Irene Poole), Masha (Lucy Peacock), and Irina (Dalal Badr), all in their twenties — want nothing more than to leave this cultural wasteland, return to Moscow, and rejoin a social circle with people who know about literature and music. They have pinned their hopes on their brother Andrei, a violinist and a scholar with aspirations of teaching in Moscow at the university.

Unfortunately, the passionate Masha is already married to a man she does not love (Peter Hutt). As she explains to Vershinin, the only officer in their acquaintance with any cultural advantages,

I was married when I was eighteen, and I was afraid of my husband because he was a teacher, and I had only just left school. In those days I thought him an awfully learned, clever, and important person. And now it is not the same, unfortunately . . . .

Three Sisters

Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) foolishly marries a woman who comes to disgust him

And the sisters’ hopes of returning to Moscow with their brother Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) receive a blow when he develops an unfortunate attachment to Natasha (Kelli Fox), an ill-bred woman of the village. By the second act (nine months after the first), Andrei has become a husband and father, has begun a career as a petty bureaucrat, and is gambling away the small family fortune. By the final act (three years later), he knows that marrying Natasha was a colossal blunder. As he confesses to Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick), who boards with the Prozorovs,

There is something in her that makes her no better than some petty, snake-like creature. She is not a human being. She seems to me so vulgar that I can’t account for my loving her or, anyway, having loved her.

Natasha is like the camel in the proverb who pokes his nose into a tent and ends up displacing everyone else.  (Kelli Fox gives us this dreadful termagant to the hilt.)  She bullies and shocks her sisters-in-law with her vulgarity, selfishness, and petty cruelty; in the end she drives them away from their home. Olga’s only consolation, as she reconciles herself to a provincial life as a old maid schoolmistress, is that she is able to rescue the family’s 80-year-old nanny and servant, Anfisa (Joyce Campion), to whom Natasha has been shockingly brutal. Masha and Irina have no choice but to settle for marriages to men they do not love.

The naked plot of The Three Sisters, which is much richer than three paragraphs can convey, would suggest that the play is nothing but a gloomy, metaphorical portrayal by Chekhov of all the self-inflicted wounds that were keeping Russia from advancing to modernity.  But these characters joke and tease, sing and dance, flirt and misbehave, scheme and dream.  The joy of life spills forth in every scene. 

Emsworth has three daughters of his own, presently almost exactly the same age as Chekhov’s three sisters, and was delighted to see that Chekhov was aware of how birth order influences the temperaments and personalities of siblings.  (Did we notice this when we saw the play six years ago?  We don’t remember.)  We had little difficulty in matching the salient traits of our three daughters with those of Olga, Masha, and Irina.

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

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.

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

An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Festival (a review)

The Inspector Calls, playing through October at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is an ingeniously plotted classic mystery play, full of well-timed twists and turns, a sure bet for an evening’s entertainment. (I rant about this play’s strong ideological content in a separate post.) The Shaw Festival’s presentation is done well, but is not, to our mind, fully satisfying.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

In The Inspector Calls, the well-to-do Birling family has gathered for a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Birling’s daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. But the party is interrupted by the arrival of a man who identifies himself as Inspector Goole, and who tells the family he has just come from the morgue to ask them questions about a poor young woman who had just taken her own life.

The Birlings (Peter Hutt and Mary Haney) and Croft (Graeme Somerville) indignantly disclaim any knowledge of the girl. But as the Inspector questions them (moralizing as he goes), it becames apparent to the smug, well-to-do Birlings that they have more to do with the fate of the late Eva Smith than they thought.

Revelations follow upon revelations, and playwright J. B. Priestley feeds us just enough clues to let us guess what will unfold next. In fact, at the performance we attended, we could hear elderly, hard-of-hearing theater-goers behind us loudly whispering “I’ll bet it was really him that . . .” to their spouses during pregnant pauses in the action. At intermission, the conversation on the sidewalks outside the Festival Theater buzzed with speculation as to how it would all turn out.

It is a pleasure, year after year, to see Benedict Campbell at the Shaw Festival. What an outstanding, versatile actor! Six years ago, he was superb as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, at the Stratford Festival (playing with Christopher Plummer as Lear). Since then, happily, he has been at the Shaw, where, two years ago, we were genuinely moved at his and Kelli Fox’s portrayal of the the complex relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Last year, we were astonished to see him singing and dancing up a storm in Mack and Mabel, in which, energetically and single-handedly, he set the tone for a fabulous production. We had no idea!

This year, Campbell is the Inspector in Priestley’s thriller, and he has just the solid heft and authoritative presence that the role requires. He is, in fact, so convincing as an English police detective that many in our audience seemed to have difficulty accepting the possibility that he might be something else altogether. As to that, Priestley gives the audience plenty of clues, beginning with the Inspector’s name, “Goole.” Even so, I think many left the Festival Theater genuinely baffled as to just who had been visiting the Birling family.

The set for An Inspector Calls features a large platform that rotates imperceptibly by 180 degrees during the course of the play, moving the actors and the props with it. We are to understand, I supposed, that just as the self-satisfied Birling family come to see themselves in different ways, so we the audience are also to see them from different perspectives. (As noted in my earlier post, Priestley’s objective in this play is as much to indoctrinate as it is to entertain.)

All said and done, however, the “thrill” was missing from this thriller. The revelatory moment in the last act when chills should have run up and down our spines came and went without chills. We never made any sense of a mysterious light that flitted randomly along the edges of the set. A female figure (who had no lines) appeared hazily on stage between scene changes for no apparent reason. As the Birlings, two of our very favorite actors, Peter Hutt and Mary Haney, were not permitted to demonstrate their dramatic range and left us flat.

The Shaw Festival’s artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, seems to be following the practice of her predecessor, Christopher Newton, in allocating at least one slot in a season’s playbill to something in the nature of a mystery or thriller, plays like Laura, Sorry Wrong Number, and adaptations of Agatha Christie. Here we are reminded that our very worst experience at the Shaw Festival involved a play in this slot, 2006’s disastrous The Invisible Man. The sets and the costumes were gorgeous, the special effects superb, and the acting unobjectionable. But what mediocre material the cast had to work with! This “suspense” play, in which invisible parts of Griffin’s body were revealed during the opening scene, was about as suspenseful as the slasher movies in which teenagers start getting axed in the first five minutes. Nothing built up to anything, and the Invisible Man himself was a whining johnny-one-note. We never got to know any characters well enough to care about them, and the playwright failed to introduce two important characters, Dr. Kemp and his wife, until the play was mostly over. This year’s An Inspector Calls is more like it.

Interested in reading more about J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls? See my post An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival’s 2008 production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1939 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.