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.

“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.

”The

Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.

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 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.

Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

(May 20, 2011) We really didn’t know quite what to expect from a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. Would there be dialogue between the musical numbers to flesh out the rock opera’s storyline? (There was none.) Would the musical arrangements be similar to those in the legendary 1970 recording? (They were, though a few changes to the songs jumped out at us, like a new verse in “Hosanna”.) Would the orchestra appear on stage? (For the most part, the musicians stayed in the pit.) Would the orchestra really rock? (It really did.)

Importantly, how would it all sound? To our great relief, the audio mix in the Avon Theatre was superb — clean and crisp, loud but not overwhelming. The instruments and voices were all clearly heard (too often in musical productions, when everyone’s wearing mics, the sound of a large ensemble, with everyone wearing mics, is shrill and muddy), and the stripped-down but full-sounding orchestra couldn’t have been better. An able French horn player, identified in our program as one Derek Conrod, made the most of his opportunities.

Des McAnuff

The excellent sound meant that there was nothing to interfere with the enjoyment of the performances of Josh Young, as Judas, and Chilina Kennedy, as Mary Magdalene. Before the end of the first verse of “Heaven on Their Minds” we’d forgotten all about Murray Head; Mr. Young has a better voice. And he’s a rocker; Van Halen should call next time he needs a new lead singer. We had had trouble imagining how an actor could truly “act” without any spoken lines (our experience at the opera had left us with low expectations). But Ms. Kennedy was wonderfully expressive, visually as well as musically. In fact, there was plenty of acting; as in any well-directed musical, director Des McAnuff made sure his audiences never lacked for something to watch on stage.

Chilina Kennedy

We love the music of Superstar enough that we probably would have been satisfied if the performers had simply stood at the front of the stage and given a concert. But this show succeeds as a dramatic production.

Of course, no show is perfect. Although Paul Nolan has a fine voice and nails the look with his long wavy locks, his Jesus seemed unnecessarily passive at times, and his vocal numbers all got off to weak starts. In his grand Tchaikovsky-esque ballad “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” we heard too little of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody — and Mr. Nolan didn’t seem comfortable yet with the improvisations that someone was teaching him. The supporting cast, including Aaron Walpole as Annas, had strong voices across the board, but Mr. Walpole seemed glued to the stage and looked very much as if he was wearing one of those blow-up sumo wrestling costumes that you see at neighborhood carnivals.

For Christian believers, the new production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) is a bracing reminder that Jesus of Nazareth was equipped with a full range of human emotions. Orthodox Christians understand, of course, that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, but despite the New Testament evidence that he also exhibited feelings of anger, betrayal, weariness, and fear, we often avoid thinking about his human side; we tend to think of him primarily as an idealized, living embodiment of the Beatitudes.

That may explain why, 40 years ago, many Christians reacted strongly to Jesus Christ Superstar‘s focus on Jesus’ human side, an emphasis that was interpreted as implicitly denying His divine nature. Perhaps the hardest pill for believers to swallow was the suggestion in Superstar (for which there is no evidence in the Gospels) that Mary Magdalene was romantically attracted to Jesus. Yet it is plain from the Gospels that men and women saw Jesus as someone who could help them gratify other kinds of worldly desires and ambitions; it’s no great stretch to imagine that a woman might have found Jesus sexually desirable. It’s true that the prophet wrote of the Messiah that “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). But Jesus was still a man; do Christians really think that He wore a magical protective shield that made it impossible for women to see Him in “that” way? Of course, if Superstar had portrayed Jesus as reciprocating lustful feelings, that would have been another matter. We’re grateful that, in this show, Des McAnuff didn’t go there.

Back when the two-disc album was released in 1970, Emsworth listened to Jesus Christ Superstar over and over and played the tunes with high school friends (our little band did an instrumental version of “Superstar” for the senior talent show). We still know the music backwards and forwards. We were therefore startled, midway through the second act, to hear one of the guitarists playing an intro to a song we didn’t recognize. There it was in the program: “Could We Start Again, Please.” We did a little research when we got home and saw that the song was in the original 1971 London production and has been in other productions since. We didn’t know! We’d never managed to see Superstar on stage and had deliberately avoided the movie versions.

Perhaps Webber and Rice left “Could We Start Again, Please” off the original 1970 album for reasons of space. Or perhaps they wrote it specially to bulk up the stage production, or perhaps to give the actor playing Peter another featured number. Either way, we thought the musically cliched soft-rock duet was a weak number that would have fit better in Sunset Boulevard (think “As If We Never Said Goodbye”) than in Superstar, where it interrupted the momentum of Passion week. And what sense did it make for such a song to be sung by Peter and Mary Magdalen? The song’s theme is that Jesus’ ministry took a wrong turn — but it was Judas, not Peter, who had become dissatisfied with the Messianic aspect of our Lord’s ministry.

On the day we saw a Superstar matinee, director Des McAnuff surprised everyone by appearing on stage to introduce himself and the show. Since we were about to see only the third preview performance, he explained, the show was still being tweaked; nevertheless, he assured us, it was for all practical purposes in “final form”. (There wasn’t much that seemed to need “tweaking”.) Only afterward did we wonder how to account for Mr. McAnuff’s cameo. Since it was already ten minutes past two when he stepped up, we figure that that the stage manager asked him to vamp while the crew took care of technical difficulties backstage. (Given his relationship with Tim Rice, we hope Des McAnuff has been thinking about the possibility of mounting Chess at the Stratford Festival. But the Festival doesn’t need a rock musical every year.)

Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t a long show. Despite the delay, Mr. McAnuff’s remarks, and an intermission, the performance we saw was over before four.