Mary Stuart

May 18, 2013

Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna were absolutely fantastic together as Mary and Elizabeth. Seana, especially, in turns strong and terrifying and isolated and paranoid.

And a great supporting cast. Ben Carlson and Geraint Wyn-Davies as Mary’s prosecutor and her lover; but not all bad and good. We’d take Burleigh’s straightforward nature over Leicester’s two-faced power grab any time. At least neither loses his head.

Brian Dennehy as Shrewsbury says he lacks the necessary “flexibility” to be a part of Elizabeth’s court. But while the threat from Mary herself may not warrant Elizabeth’s actions, the play leaves it an open question: lonely is the head that wears the crown, especially in such a time of turmoil. The acting brought moments of great subtlety to the question. I’m interested to read if the written play is more subtle than, at times, it seemed.


Much Ado About Nothing

October 7, 2012

Other than reading on the page, my only experience with Much Ado is the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson version, which made me a bit surprised, but still enraptured, with the…nervousness of Deborah Hay’s Beatrice. Hay and Ben Carlson were absolutely magical together as the quarreling, soon-to-be lovers, and at the end, the chemistry between the real-life couple was beautifully apparent.

Along with Hay and Carlson, Christopher Newton has come to Stratford from Shaw to direct, and I don’t know if I fancy myself an expert, but I thought one could tell from the look and feel of the play. It was a bit more stuffed-looking than the typical show at the Festival theatre (not even discounting last year’s Misanthrope!). A grand piano was tossed around the stage in almost every scene.

But the direction of the actors, and the acting, was superb. Juan Chioran and Gareth Potter were a regal and devious Don Pedro and Don John. Bethany Jillard was a very strong Hero, and Tyrone Savage made Claudio, someone I usually find too stupid for words, a bit smarter. But I suppose anyone looks dumb compared to Beatrice and Benedick.

Which made me more sad to recognize how much the play highlights the disenfranchisement of women, and perhaps this explains this Beatrice’s nervousness. When the crisis arises, even her wit can’t save her cousin. Claudio and Hero’s marriage, her shaming, and the eventual resolution are all matters worked out by the men, including the friar who comes up with a very familiar-sounding plot. Margaret is a tool to be used; Hero and Beatrice can only talk, and when it comes to something important, no one listens. Except Benedick, which makes them the most wonderful couple around.

This was only going to be a review of the Stratford Festival’s amazing production, now on DVD, of Twelfth Night.  I didn’t see it live; chose two other fantastic productions instead. But now, even though they were great, I’m kicking myself for not seeing Des McAnuff’s comedy in person.

The word to describe it is joyful. Not without the touch of melancholy that always gives a Shakespearean production greater depth, especially thanks to Tom Rooney’s Malvolio. But sheer joy in the language, the comedy, the romance, the music!

It might be because I’m such a huge fan, and have been since his Shaw Festival days, but a lot of this joy radiates from Ben Carlson’s cranky but accommodating Feste.  The interplay between Feste, Maria, and Brian Dennehy’s Sir Toby Belch and Stephen Ouimette’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is fantastic.

Twelfth Night is full of music, the food of love!  And McAnuff added even more, including a song based on Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd” and Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply”.  Even with all the beautiful music (a showstopping “Come Away, Death”, performed by Carlson alone), the most fun was Carlson, Dennehy and Ouimette turning “Hold Thy Peace” into a 50s rock song. Just thinking about the song and the scene puts a smile on my face.

Which brings me to what this post turned into: thoughts on the beauty of theatre and the important times my family’s had, thanks to Stratford.

We’d been before now and again, but my mother made a point of taking us in 2002, to see Christopher Plummer as King Lear. It was a breathtaking, heart-rending, production, and we made a beautiful day of it, picnicking along the river and spending time as a family. When we got home, we got the message that my mother’s sister had passed away; and for me, admittedly a niece rather than a sister, the grief we saw enacted on the stage that day, in retrospect, reflected our own.

Since then we’ve gone at least yearly, and usually a few times a year. I’ve shared trips with my whole family, my whole family and some friends, just my husband, just my brother, and last year, I got to take a friend to her very first play (she’s a concert goer, not a playgoer, but I think she’s convinced!). There have been a couple years where we’ve dealt with the rain, but usually it’s a gorgeous summer or fall day, offering time to spend with loved ones, and time to ponder the magic the Festival shares with all of us.

My mother-in-law, whom we lost in 2010, was a lover of musical theatre. My husband and I got to take our moms to a few productions, and so whenever I see a fantastic play like Twelfth Night, I wish I could share it with her. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack, and it gives me opportunity to think of her, and have that joyful feeling. In a couple weeks I’m having that first-time theatre-goer friend over, and we’ll watch the play and share in the fun.

I am so thankful for all these moments.

The Misanthrope

September 26, 2011

This play was a gem! And sadly under-attended. I think part of it might be a great number of misconceptions about the play–that it would be stuffy, or silly (or, as the ladies behind us suggested, that it was written in the 17th century, about the 18th century[??]). And there are stuffy and silly characters, at least at first. But the verse is so well-constructed (adapted for English by Richard Wilbur) and here, so well-delivered, that even the stuffiest and silliest characters (except perhaps Kelli Fox’s devilishly good Arsinoe) have an admirable depth of feeling.

Philinte and Eliante, the second couple in the play, feel too good to be true, but Juan Chioran and Martha Farrell imbue them with a reality and a gravity. Sarah Topham as Celemine broke my heart, first when we see her pain at having caused her lover pain, and then when she has to refuse him to stay in the society she (I think reasonably) loves.

Ben Carlson has adapted very strongly to comedy and is brilliant here, leaving us with the play’s conundrum: is the misanthrope a hero, or a fool?

A Public Tragedy

August 2, 2009

A very good production, one of the best plays, and one of the worst audiences I’ve ever been in.

But even two phones ringing, people flashing lights, and lots of coughs and people coming and going couldn’t distract from Shakespeare’s excellent public tragedy, Julius Caesar.

A tragedy about the downfall of ambition and the horrors of the mob. But one that depends on personal relationships: Caesar and Calpurnia, Caesar and Brutus, Brutus and Portia (a strong character and strong actor, robbed by how few scenes she’s in and by the phone ringing throughout the main one), Brutus and Cassius.

And what a Brutus and Cassius! Ben Carlson and Tom Rooney (last year’s Hamlet and Horatio) broke my heart each time they spoke. Noble and troubled, lean and hungry. “You have done that you should be sorry for!”

The production was quite good, largely on the strength of the performances. It does seem, to a slight extent, that this year’s productions have traded emotional impact for visual impact; but very good nonetheless.

The Vital Importance

May 31, 2009

Witty! is the prevailing word in my mind, coming back from Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2009 Importance of Being Earnest. What, in Brian Bedford’s hands, isn’t witty? (Even his Lear was witty, which was part of the problem). But it’s perfectly right for this play, certainly; and, with a couple shaky parts (this was a preview, after all), the performances were all witty little gems, too. Mike Shara was especially good as Algernon, which was wonderful to see because I’ve always thought of Shara as the sort of boring romantic lead.

Ben Carlson, one of my favourites, was Ernest John, and just hearing that made me realize something about the play – Algernon gets most of the laughs, but Jack/Ernest is really the more fascinating character…the one who’s constructed this whole double life. It’s less expected (I’m assuming at this point, having seen at least 4 productions and myriad films), and more funny when Jack comes in mourning his brother Ernest than when Algernon comes in as Ernest. And other characters could have the same depth – Lady Bracknell’s rise, fear of social upheaval, and reaction to family tragedy; Prism and Chausable.

But they weren’t played that way, here, from Carlson on down. And I’m not sure it’s a fault of the production, just the way of the play. Certainly not as shallow as the society it depicts, but really just one or two layers removed. And this sparkling, witty production was perfectly content with that. But it didn’t make for my favourite Earnest.