Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A couple of years ago, after several unsatisfactory experiences in a row, Emsworth vowed to attend no more Shakespeare productions directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  But when Henry V was announced for the 2012 season, an exception seemed to be called for.  How much of a muddle could McAnuff make of it?  The setting of Henry V is fixed firmly in England and France in 1415; what were the chances Mr. McAnuff would set it in a fascist country in 1930?  And if McAnuff ran amok with glitter and spectacle, as was inevitable, would it ruin a play like Henry V?  I didn’t see how it could, and went ahead to order an excellent pair of third-row tickets.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. The Stratford show does not use actual horses.

But poor acting will sink any play.  True, Mr. McAnuff didn’t mess with the setting of the play.  And visually it’s a success, from the elaborate period costumes to pageantry of the chorus parts to the cannon to the enormous British flag. The brawl in the tavern between the hot-tempered Pistol and Nim went off nicely, and the battle scenes were lively and cleverly choreographed. But none of this made up for the fact that King Henry is poorly cast and that long parts of the play are simply tedious.

One can say this of Aaron Krohn: with his compact figure, square jaw, and steely eyes, he looks very much the part of the 28-year-old king. He can be heard pretty well, and he has all his lines memorized.

But in all other respects his performance falls well short. The part of Henry V calls for an enormous range of expression, from the early moment when the king shows his steel by showing no mercy to traitors, to his ironic and meditative dialogues with his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the famous “band of brothers” speech, to his shocking order that the French prisoners be killed, to the wooing of the Princess Catherine. Mr. Krohn is a man of one voice — it matches his steely eyes — and he uses it on every occasion.

A good actor accompanies his lines with appropriate gestures; the Stratford Festival’s best actors convey as much with looks and body language as with words. But Mr. Krohn looks into the distance, and his arms fall limply at his side.

McAnuff

How much a director can be blamed for poor acting from a play’s lead actor, I cannot say, but nevertheless all of the worst acting performances we have seen at Stratford have been in plays directed by Mr. McAnuff.  Mr. Krohn’s expressionless speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt would not have inspired a pack of wolves to attack a stray lamb.

Did Mr. McAnuff, who seems to prefer doing things different in Shakespeare merely for the sake of being unconventional, tell his lead actor not to deliver a rousing speech, simply because that’s what other actors usually do?  In Act V, Scene 2, the Duke of Burgundy, a minor character, is given some of the best poetry in Henry V, lines that illuminate the playwright’s mature reflections on war and peace. Burgundy’s speech uses horticulture as an extended metaphor for a French nation in which peace and the blessings of peace have not been allowed to thrive:

And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.

Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that Xuan Fraser, as Burgundy, showed no evidence of understanding his lines? As Burgundy droned on, the Stratford audience zoned out. Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that the wooing scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine (Bethany Jillard), toward the end of the play, was dying a slow death, and that Mr. Krohn and Ms. Jillard seemed to be caught in a dialogue loop from which they could not escape?

It’s not all bad.  The tavern scenes, with Bardolph (Randy Hughson), Pistol (Tom Rooney), Nim, (Christopher Prentice), and the Hostess (Lucy Peacock) are lively and well-acted; Mr. Rooney is a treasure.  The scene in which Bardolph has been arrested for stealing a chalice from a chapel is rendered with feeling and suspense: will they really hang the reprobate?  I especially enjoyed Juan Chioran as Montjoy, the French king’s herald, and Ben Carlson as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in King Henry’s army.

And McAnuff, no doubt correctly guessing that a good part of the play’s audience would not understand French, gave interest to the episode in the palace between Princess Catherine and her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Deborah Hay) by having the dialogue (all in French, as the playwright wrote it) take place during Catherine’s bath.  Any doubt as to whether the actress was actually bathing in the altogether was removed when the Princess stood, her back and backside to the audience, to be dried off.

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The Winter’s Tale at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Yanna McIntosh and Ben Carlson as Hermione and Leontes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Rooney as Autolycus

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

Seana McKenna

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

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

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

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

I am satisfied and need no more
Than what I know

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

An 1836 imagining of Autolycus by British artist Charles Robert Leslie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bartholomew Fair at the Stratford Festival

Bartholomew Fair

Cliff Saunders as Leatherhead, the peddler and puppeteer

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

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

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

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

Bartholomew Fair

Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo

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

Bartholomew Fair

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

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

Peacock

Lucy Peacock as Ursla the pig-woman

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

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

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

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

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

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

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

The musical West Side Story (see this post)