14 November 2013
*sigh* It’s now been 2 years since Stratford put on a Shakespeare production truly worthy of the festival stage. Last year’s Cymbeline was pretty good and there are 2 near-great productions in this year’s lineup (Othello and Merchant of Venice) but nothing with the excitement of 2011’s fabulous Twelfth Night and thrilling Titus, or the astounding run that preceded that season (As You Like It, The Tempest and Two Gents in 2010; Mackers, Caesar and Midsummer in 2009). I’m starting to get worried. The festival’s chosen directorial wunderkind of the moment, Chris Abraham, shows promise but he’s yet to wow me outside the realm of new works (here’s looking at you, The Little Years) and there aren’t many other exciting directors orbiting the festival lately. Same goes with the acting. While Shaw and Soulpepper are flush with strong young actors at the moment (I’d give you a list but if you’re a regular reader you’ve been hearing about them all summer), Stratford is in a transitional period as the standout performers who highlighted the aforementioned awesome recent years (Andrea Runge, Gareth Potter, Dion Johnstone, Evan Buliung, Laura Condlln, Mike Shara) begin to age out of the young romantics with still a few years to go before they start replacing Ben Carlson and Yanna McIntosh in the adult roles (especially if the festival keeps bringing back leading players of yore like Graham Abbey, Jonathan Goad, and Michelle Giroux). There are a few strong performers poised to take their place (I’m particularly fond of Ian Lake and Bethany Jillard when they’re cast right) but the company has lost a little of the energy that comes with a really strong front of young talents nipping at the heels of their elders.
All this is to say that the recent Stratford Shakespeare productions (both this year and last) have, for the most part, bored me without really hinting that next year’s will be all that much better.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the worst production of Stratford’s 2013 season- that horrific R&J. Richard Ouzounian called it “universally despised”, which is a massive feat, if you think about it. Tim Carroll has somehow managed to unite the entire Stratford consumer base behind one singular disapproving attitude (when was the last time you caught me agreeing with Ouzounian?). The way he did it was by looking at all the great recent productions (like, say, an anachronistic rock & roll Twelfth Night; a witty, playful Two Gentlemen of Verona; Mackers via Africa, Titus as a fine art-influenced black comedy), finding what they all had in common (invention, energy, relevance) and going the other way. Tim Carroll’s attempt at replicating “original practices” not only fed into some of the more annoying Shakespeare stereotypes (why do so many people think that a man who staged everything as modernly as he could in his own time would want his characters stuck in doublets and hose for centuries to come?) but it also made for one incredibly boring production- no props, no sets, a pretty damning lack of natural acting, the house lights on The Entire Time. Ugh. I get pretty annoyed when a Shakespeare director armed with the sort of resources Carroll had in Stratford doesn’t bring something really interesting to the table, but a production doesn’t necessarily live or die by a director’s contribution (though Carroll came pretty damn close to murdering one of my favourite texts of all time completely on his own). Instead of finding someone new and exciting to premiere in the role of Juliet (or using Bethany Jillard, the blatantly obvious choice from the current young company), for some reason we got Sara Topham playing a character much younger than half her own age. I don’t like Topham as an actress (she has a vocal affectation I will never learn to appreciate) but she did as fine a job as could be expected when cast in one of the least appropriate roles ever (translation: Juliet, failure). Daniel Briere was Stratford’s new big find of the season, an import from out west making his festival debut as Romeo. I was thinking that casting an unknown actor in such a great part must mean that he’s pretty special. He’s not. He wasn’t necessarily bad in the role- appropriately charming and all that- but I could barely remember him within an hour of leaving the theatre (Romeo, failure). Jonathan Goad as Mercutio straddled both of these problems: he was both far too old for the role and not as memorable as he should have been considering his resume and track record (Mercutio, failure). The production did have some saving graces, however. Tom McCamus (cast boringly as the Friar) brought the only touch of snark and hint at modern delivery in the entire production. Antoine Yared played the underrated role of Paris with pathos and just the right balance of froufrou sweetness to explain both why Lord Capulet wants him to marry his daughter and why she wants nothing less. Season MVP Scott Wentworth was commanding and intricate as the crucial Lord Capulet (complicated father-daughter relationships were the throughline of Wentworth’s season, uniting three very disparate characters in a really intriguing way) . But it was Mike Nadajewski’s perfectly timed turn as the Capulet servant Peter that really kept me from hurling my crumpled program at the stage. It’s a little absurd that a production could be so bad that a character with about a dozen lines could be its highlight but Nadajewski’s cutely frustrated Peter was undoubtedly the highlight of this terrible terrible experiment in defiantly lazy direction and willfully wonky casting.
Measure for Measure, on the other hand, was excellently cast. The great chameleonic Tom Rooney in the morally complex and unforgiving role of Angelo? Yes please. A small but strong part for the perennially overlooked Christopher Prentice? Huzzah! Randy Hughson? ALWAYS. But I’ve never been so bored. Measure for Measure should have been captivating. I’d never seen it before, it’s a really complicated text, it featured a top-rate cast. But director Martha Henry infused the production with a traumatically lackadaisical pace and almost no sense of urgency. Too much focus was given to Geraint Wyn Davies and his crutch accent, underthinking Measure’s bizarre Duke (Shakespeare wrote a fair number of bizarre Dukes but this is by far his weirdest). Rooney’s Angelo had few moments of redeeming humanity to complicate what shouldn’t be but is here a simplistic break in strict morality. Even the genius Hughson wasn’t particularly interesting, though he was playing the anchor of one of the Bard’s most idiotic subplots so that’s hardly his fault. Luckily for absolutely everyone involved, the best thing about Measure for Measure was also its most important thing: Isabella. On paper, I hate Isabella; she’s sanctimonious and cold beyond any sort of likeability (especially when Claudio is played by someone as sympathetic as Prentice). But Carmen Grant did wonders with the would-be/could-be/might-soon-be nun. She exuded calm and light, as though tapped into something beyond the understanding of the story’s baser characters (by which I mean every single other character). When Isabella went on about preserving the integrity of her soul, I didn’t role my eyes once, because Grant presented her as a soul worth preserving, at any cost. Without Grant Measure for Measure just couldn’t have flown but, because of her, it did.
The late opener this season sported Abraham’s good name (along with excellent visual style and a sense of hip-ness that was otherwise absent in Stratford this year) and a leading cast that was at once fantastic and somehow misguided. Casting Dion Johnstone in the lead role of Othello seemed like the easiest of no-brainers. He’s a Stratford mainstay on the grownup side of still fairly young who needed to be lured back after a season away to focus on film and television. More relevant, however, is the inescapable fact that he is the one and only prominent black male actor in recent company history. There are a few leading women of colour (Yanna McIntosh, Cara Ricketts) and some Fantastic up and comers like EB Smith and Michael Blake; but no other leading men. It was Johnstone or bust when it came to casting this Othello. And, despite the fact that he’s one of the sweetest and most jovial people in Canadian theatre (you know, not really the type to smother people with pillows), Johnstone’s strong history with conflicted heroes, moral decline, and the disturbing cross-section between sex and violence easily promised a strong performance. Which he gave, without question. Unfortunately, said performance lay underneath a thick African accent that sometimes drew focus and seemed to distract the Canadian-accented Johnstone from the sort of internal character work he would normally bring. But no matter how well Johnstone planted the seeds of violence in his heroic character, and no matter how gleefully charming and clever Graham Abbey was as Iago (and he was plenty gleefully charming and clever), there is no good man in the world who would murder Bethany Jillard’s innocent, almost saccharine Desdemona. There are a lot of reasons the story of Othello just doesn’t work for me. Fundamental amongst these is the belief that heroes don’t kill their wives, for any reason. And since the world seems to insist that, while Macbeth is an antihero, Othello is a regular hero (you know, the kind who are supposed to be heroic), I need Desdemona to be just a little bit shifty (innocent, but shifty). She’s attracted to his war stories, so why not give her a tiny violent edge herself? She’s overly familiar with Cassio (played excellently here by the standout Brad Hodder), so why not make her a careless flirt? As embodied by the adorable ingénue Jillard, Desdemona was a white-wearing little angel whose suspicious behaviour more closely resembled good hostessing than cuckoldry. She was a little high-pitched, a little too flitty, but it’s hard to pin down whether this was a Jillard problem or an Abraham one. Either way, the character interpretation didn’t do what I need it to in order to clarify what I think is one of Shakespeare’s more ridiculous plots. Visually, Othello might just have been the Stratford Shakespeare production of the season, and it certainly contained tons of standout moments and superb performances, but something about it just wasn’t quite right for me.
The Stratford Shakespeare production I liked best this year was most definitely The Merchant of Venice. By virtue of being very tricky in a modern context, Merchant has become one of Shakespeare’s most interesting pieces to see performed. It’s almost impossible to find a production where the director hasn’t put a lot of thought into their interpretation because the anti-semitism in the text is pretty much guaranteed to offend someone (specifically if played as a straight comedy). But unlike some of the other contemporarily awkward plays (see feminism and Taming of the Shrew, rape in Two Gentlemen of Verona), Merchant is also one of the best written plays in the canon. The combination of thoughtful direction on a solid text leads to a pretty consistently high standard when it comes to Merchant productions, if the cast is right. Initially, Stratford’s 2013 production was going to be headlined by Brian Bedford. But Bedford has some fairly serious health problems which forced him to drop out at the last minute and he was replaced by Scott Wentworth. This had a fascinating effect on the season as a whole. Wentworth was originally slated for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof and Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet– both characters who have tumultuous and harsh but ultimately well-intentioned relationships with their daughters that come to a head when the issue of marriage arises. Shylock, in his own way, falls directly in that line. The change also meant that the two most famous Jewish roles in English-speaking theatre history would have the same face. Wentworth was now the star of the two biggest Stratford shows of the season, characters that couldn’t help but inform each other and whom he played with all the nuance and distinction that such a task demanded (and perhaps then some). His laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully tender Tevye bled more compassion into his Shylock, while Shylock’s desperation and spine of steel resurrected themselves as Tevye grappled with his strict faith and love for his disobedient daughter Chava. But even without seeing the musical first, Wentworth’s updated Shylock (the production was set in the 1930s) contained all the humanity (both endearing and alienating) of one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. If you pricked him, you better believe he was going to bleed. The rest of the production was fair if not quite up to Wentworth’s standard (which is astounding considering that general Stratford practice is one lead and one supporting role per actor and Wentworth was splitting his focus between two massive leads in addition to a demanding supporting turn in R&J). Tom McCamus was predictably predictable as Antonio, a role that is utterly fascinating but rarely played as such, though Tyrell Crews foiled him beautifully as the charmingly romantic but dangerously self-centered Bassanio (a character reading that was dead-on). Antoine Yared made his third appearance in a minor role this season as the Prince of Arragon and had his third excellent success (his heel clicking contemplation received uproarious laughter and spontaneous applause from the audience). I really wanted to like Michelle Giroux as Portia because she was tough and smart and all sorts of good things but the grand cadence that marked so many of this year’s dramatic Shakespearean women got in the way (I honestly don’t think I saw a single tragedy this year wherein the heroine had any sense of naturalism). Ron Pederson was a highlight as the darkly funny Launcelot Gobbo but that’s where the performances of note ended.
Two or three years ago, Antoni Cimolino’s Merchant of Venice would have been declared a strong supporting player in Stratford’s season, but 2013 wasn’t so lucky. As this season struggled to keep its head above water, it did so on the shoulders of Scott Wentworth, the Tevye who saved Shylock.
Romeo & Juliet: F
Measure for Measure: C-
The Merchant of Venice: B+