Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is this a Cup of Tea I see Before me?

(Otherwise known as the Stratford 2009 report).

I saw four plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year over three visits, the last one being yesterday. Each one was highly worthwhile, if not just for the delights this small Ontario city has to offer.

The Importance of Being Earnest was presented in a new production at the Avon Theatre, unique among the Stratford stages for its nifty proscenium arch. Desmond Heeley's set and costume designs once again presented something that looked as if it had been in storage for about 30 years, but that was part of its charm. A very traditional, pretty production, it was a delight in that the language was allowed to speak for itself, as it were, and so, in many instances, I felt I was hearing Oscar Wilde's words for the first time. Brian Bedford directed and also starred as Lady Bracknell. It was very refreshing that he, with his entire cast, avoided mugging, and thereby let the comedy work successfully. My (face) cheeks were aching from laughter as we left the theatre.

Whips! Swordplay! Nudity! Zastrozzi , by Canadian playwright George Walker, was a heady, sexy, rollercoaster packed with wit and violence. Cor! I didn't get the play entirely, but that is not unusual. There is much I don't get, but I don't let that bother me. I just let it wash over me and I take in what I can. A sort of Renaissance serial killer, the title character seeks to kill all artists who displease him. Now there's a conversation point right there. This performance also marked the first time I had been inside the festival's studio theatre. It's an intimate space with highly raked rows of seats. Not for the prone-to-stumble or the highly vertiginous.

The highlight of the season for me was a new production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. The brilliant Anthony Burgess translation was interspersed with some of the original French. I'm not sure that tactic worked: it felt more like distraction than assimilation. Santo Loquasto designed the show in period style, which was delicious, lots of feathered hats and lacy collars. At the top of the show was a bit of business with a contemporary hoodied teenage boy being enfolded by a friendly troupe of theatrical acrobats. I found that pretty silly but it was probably designed to appeal to the many school groups who probably attended. Perhaps Cyrano is part of the curriculum. (It was certainly rammed down our throats in tragic style when I was school. Yet, I survived to love the play despite the best efforts of my embittered, burned-out teachers.) Colm Feore was Cyrano and he was deft and funny. His final words were so beautifully played. The director was Donna Feore (Colm's wife), who did such a great job on Oklahoma! two years ago. Amanda Lisman (who was Julia in the previous evening's Zastrozzi) was a girl-next-door version of Roxanne, and I was left wanting. Christian was played by Mike Shara and, what can I say: can anyone make Christian interesting? I much preferred this actor as Algernon in Earnest. This played at the Festival theatre, and it might not have been life-changing, but I enjoyed it.

Yesterday was Macbeth, strangely one of only three Shakespeare plays the Festival is mounting this season, out of a total of 14. Only two years ago the festival changed its name (and brand) from the Stratford Festival, to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The reason is probably something to do with the economy. But it's a bit of a surprise after having recommitted themselves to the importance of Shakespeare to their company, to have this swing of the pendulum. I saw Macbeth last time the festival produced it. That was mightily uneven, with a magnificent Lucy Peacock chewing the scenery in a most thrilling way all round Graham Abbey's extremely lily-livered Macbeth. Just because Lady M. is the powerful character she is, doesn't mean that Macbeth is a cream puff. He's a respected warrior... it's just that his wife is even tougher. For this season's production, artistic director Des McAnuff set Macbeth in an undetermined African nation, around the middle of the 20th century. All well and good, with some enjoyable costumes, but that setting indicates a wide range of cultural possibility. I assume he had something more specific in mind but maybe that was best left unsaid. It bothered me and I think if I was African it would bother me more. Could you identify a play as being set somewhere as vast as "Europe"? Where, dammit? Poland? Italy? Scotland? Very different places. It also bothered me, because, clever as it was in parts, the setting was a big distraction, and I - who knows this play pretty well - was really confused by what was going on. Colm Feore (playing this in rep with Cyrano) was a slippery sort of Macbeth, one I couldn't quite pin down, and this might be a good thing, I'm undecided as yet. He seemed almost too intellectual at times. The motive for his drive seemed to come out of nowhere. It certaintly didn't seem to erupt from his Lady, who was played by Yanna McIntosh, and was about as terrifying as the cup of tea on my desk. She had a great wardrobe though, especially her banquet gown, a magnificent deep red silk, with a wide sparkly neckline. Mmmm... shiny.

Lesson learned this summer: If you haven't booked anywhere for dinner in Stratford (and usually if you haven't, you're toast), a saving grace is Molly Bloom's, an Irish pub with pleasing grub, Guinness and friendly service. I can walk or drive you there, but I can't remember to tell you the street it's on. So Google it if you are so inclined.

Below: Intermission at Cyrano. The Stratford bar serves Jackson Triggs merlot, a blog recommendation.


Protege said...

I have not seen a play for ages! How un-cultural of me...
I would love to visit that Irish bar.;)
And I can see Bruce is your devoted companion at all times. I hope he enjoyed the plays as well;)

Betsy said...

A Shakespeare Festival sounds like so much fun! I would certainly take those in if they were in my city! Bruce is such a lucky guy! ;)

Blog Princess G said...

If you ever visit Ontario, Stratford and its magnificent festival should be on the list.

Bruce is certainly a popular and frequent companion!