Closeup/Theatre

A former light restored

A prolonged ovation for Stratford, Phillips et al

Ronald Bryden July 11 1977
Closeup/Theatre

A former light restored

A prolonged ovation for Stratford, Phillips et al

Ronald Bryden July 11 1977

A former light restored

Closeup/Theatre

A prolonged ovation for Stratford, Phillips et al

Ronald Bryden

Audiences at Canada’s Stratford Festival love standing ovations. They like adding a gilt edge to their investment in travel, time and $ 12.50 a seat. There’s also the pleasure of a well-fought tug-of-war. As the cast runs on for calls, a dozen baying enthusiasts leap to their feet. Neighbors, shamed by such fervor, follow suit. Waverers behind, unconvinced but wanting their money’s worth, stand for a last glimpse of the bowing actors. Phalanxes of drivers, racing to beat the jam, get trapped in midrow. Half the house is up, and the fun begins. The longer the cheers, the more embarrassed those curmudgeons clinging to their seats and aesthetic dissent. One by one they yield grumpily, trying to show by aloof patience that they’ve simply had enough and wish to go. And another trophy goes home to the cultural treasure chests.

For once, at the first night of Robin Phillips’ Richard III, there was no contest. As Brian Bedford limped on, furtively wriggling the shoulder he’d hunched all evening,

the Festival Theatre house rose as a body. The ovation was real, not manufactured; unclamorous but unquestioned. Phillips had proved his quality. After two seasons of trial and error, hostile gossip and nationalist sniping, he had shown what he was capable of achieving: a match for the best in the English-speaking world. Predictably, part of his triumph was showmanship. He had programmed his four days of press shows artfully to this climax. Ignoring ritualists who demanded that the festival’s 25th summer should open with the play Tyrone Guthrie had chosen to launch it in 1953, he kept Richard III almost to last. Instead he led off with a mild, pretty Romeo And Juliet and a revival of last year’s Midsummer Night's Dream, Maggie Smith replacing Jessica Tandy as Titania. The second day unveiled two more leading ladies: Margaret Tyzack in Ibsen’s Ghosts, Martha Henry in Guthrie’s other 1953 choice, All's Well That Ends Well. Not till the third night, after a lowpowered matinee of Strindberg’s Miss

Julie, did he unmask his full heavy artillery.

It was the trick of early Cinemascope: pulling the curtains slowly back to reveal the wide screen strewn with stars, not in pairs but galaxies. There, peopling Shakespeare’s huge, saturnine medieval canvas, were Bedford in the role Alec Guinness played 24 years ago; Smith, Tyzack and Henry as three generations of Plantagenet queens; and a company of 50, bristling with spears and bearded, familiar Stratford faces—Eric Donkin, William Needles, Max Helpmann, Mervyn Blake—as strong a collection of talents as most that Britain’s National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company could field today. From there on, no trickery was needed. Achievement spoke for itself.

Phillips’ Richard, concentrating the quality he spread too thin over too many productions his first two seasons, puts him among the international handful of directors who can be called creative, not merely interpretive, artists. It also suggests he may yet join the inner ring of those—Brook, Hall, Bergman, Planchón, Grotowski— who can orchestrate a disparate group of actors into an entity. Brian Bedford’s Crookback, maliciously controlled and controlling, is a distinguished performance which stands up to memories of Laurence Olivier’s. But it could not work, as Olivier’s did, outside an ensemble.

Olivier’s Richard was a titanic caricature modeled, he confessed, on Goebbels, the Broadway producer Jed Harris, and Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Bedford’s is life-size: a real man who discharges his hatred of his crippled body on a real world by crippling a kingdom. Small, pale eyes darting the

mischief and sadness of a monkey, his Richard is a psychological study all the more terrifying for being recognizably human. His voice, the light, dry accents of over-controlled neurosis, rises to rhetoric only at the play’s end, when Richard with tired self-loathing wills his own death. His crimes are actions as small as squeezing a trigger: a look, a down-turned thumb, a word in a murderer’s ear. It is their effects, executed by others, that appall: a string of corpses, a palace echoing the shrieks of maddened queens, a ruined England. Phillips’ production is a distorting mirror which magnifies the small, black ape at its centre into a dragon. It builds from muted, intimate scenes between figures in black or grey (the Plantagenet court is never out of mourning for some murdered member of the dynasty) to a pealing, crimson coronation climaxed by the grotesque little usurper dragging his vast cloak painfully up to the throne. It’s a moment of genuine medieval horror: the enthroning of incarnate evil in the seat of grace. It’s natural for the

production to crack wide open from that point, spilling Armageddon over the stage.

Phillips never loses sight of the horrorcomic element, the comedy of outrage, which made the play a favorite 19th-century melodrama. Bedford’s Richard is sardonically funny: a skeptic who believes the worst so powerfully that he makes it happen. The production’s faceless, helmeted armies, clashing by night, scare like creatures of science fiction. But Phillips keeps as well the chronicle’s tragic sweep, marshaling a bevy of superb straight performances. Martha Henry’s Lady Anne, wooed by Richard over her husband’s coffin, is a militant virgin corrupted before our eyes. Maggie Smith’s Queen Elizabeth, trapped like a fly in Richard’s horrible logic, shows that her virtuosity does not end at comedy. And Margaret Tyzack’s Queen Margaret, an ancient prophetess of doom, presides over the play like a sexless sibyl, pronouncing judgment in a voice from Revelations. There are one or two miscalculations, mostly the result of trusting major roles to young company members not yet ready for them. Robert Ruttan overplays the nightmare poetry of Clarence’s dream with acted panic, and Tom Wood defeats, with a voice of gravelly Prairie virtue, the attempt to present Richard’s victor, the future Henry VII, as simply another Machiavellian. But on the whole it was a night to restore the devalued currency of Stratford ovations and confound Phillips’ enemies.

His Richard 111 is this Stratford season’s black pearl, but there are other treasures. David William’s opening production of Romeo A nd Juliet isn’t one, but should satisfy school matinees and fanciers of the old-fashioned style of picture-book Shakespeare, in which actors munch apples, scullions juggle trays and nuns wallop combatants over the head with reticules during street fights. Richard Monette’s Romeo gives the feeling that he learned the expression and then put in the words, but Marti Maraden’s Juliet, well counterpointed against the surrounding bustle, grows from dreamy, slow-motion girlhood to ringing clarity and power.

David Jones’s All’s Well That Ends Well is picture-book Shakespeare, too, but in it the pictures are designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s and have the distinction of details from Velasquez—cloaked soldiers huddling beside stacked muskets, lace-collared aristocrats whose faces speak proud volumes of courtly experience. Jones treats Shakespeare’s last, dark comedy as the first of his final romances, and plays it for fairytale serenity rather than bitter laughs. He’s helped in this by Margaret Tyzack’s Countess of Roussillion, a marvelous portrait of the wisdom and forgiveness of age, and by Martha Henry’s stainless-steel Helena, the most modern of Shakespeare’s heroines, who can cure a king’s fistula and trick a reluctant husband into her bed.

Martha Henry’s beauty makes things difficult for Nicholas Pennell’s Bertram, who seems more than usually foolish to re-

ject her, and William Hutt, though clearly born to play 16th-century French kings, is a shade too sophisticated to give their big scene the sense of fairy-tale ordeal, in which Helena snatches him back from the underworld. But Henry’s Helena carries the play on shoulders as straight and a voice as ringing as those of a lady-knight in an Italian romance, creating an image of virtue as impressive in its way as Bedford’s study of wickedness.

The festival’s other great triumph is Margaret Tyzack’s Mrs. Alving in Ghosts. Arif Hasnain’s direction is safe and uninspired but acting can seldom have explored and filled out so satisfyingly all the crannies of Ibsen’s tragedy of human selfmutilation. In a sense, all its characters are spiritual dwarfs, robbed of their proper growth by hypocrisy and timidity. But Miss Tyzack invests her Mrs. Alving with such warmth and intelligence that, when she painfully confesses her incapacity for joy to the son whose life her failure has blighted, she gives the sense of a magnificently whole woman delivering judgment on herself. She almost turns the play around: it would be worth enduring the gloom of 19th-century Norway’s rainy fiords and iron puritanism, you feel, to forge such a character.

Eric Steiner’s Miss Julie misses fire. On the surface, it seemed an asset that, for once, Stratford’s huge company could populate the rarely seen peasant orgy of class hatred that fills the stage while Strindberg’s peccant countess and her butler have their orgy behind the scenes. In fact, it relieves Douglas Rain’s icy, bourgeois butler of the need to ground his seduction in social resentment so that he seems to take Domini Blythe’s countess—more spoiled deb than berserk Valkyrie—out of pique, not rage. Strindberg’s sexual explosion congeals into a display of technique and fine speaking.

Phillips’ third production in the festival’s opening salvo is Molnar’s The

Guardsman, a pre-Sarajevo comedy laced with armagnac like some ornate belleépoque dessert. A basically silly lady-ortiger short story about a jealous actor who makes love to his wife disguised as a Russian hussar and can’t then fathom whether she recognized him or not, it becomes in the hands of Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford a Hungarian forerunner of Pinter’s The Lover, a wittily searching study of a woman’s need for freedom in marriage. Bedford gives his suspicious husband the mania of a Molière cuckold. Maggie Smith, refining her now-familiar comic mannerisms, one hand forever fluttering to forehead or nape, brings to them the stylized, perfect elegance of a Japanese print. Where other actresses rely on force, she uses swiftness. When she tears through the confession to her husband that she’s seen a better Romeo than his “in a stock company at Schmatz,” she snatches his self-esteem from him with the speed and grace of a pelican seizing a basking sardine. And in the last act, reading in aloof boredom while her husband drones on about money, she brings down the house with her disgusted discovery that her fingers are absently helping with his sums—she has declined into a wife. People seldom ascribe greatness to comic acting: they should see Maggie Smith and think again.

She displays the same capacity to touch deep feeling with light, glancing technique in her double role as Titania and Hippolyta in Phillips’ revised Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a way, this seems perhaps the most important of this year’s Stratford offerings: important because it transforms last year’s arbitrary, unsatisfactory production into one so strongly played, finished and concentrated, that its original weakness of premise—that Shakespeare’s glowing wedding-masque is a wintry dream of the aged Elizabeth I, recalling her days as Gloriana, Queen of Faerie— scarcely matters.

Its improvement and the general excellence of Richard I IPs large cast prove that Phillips has turned Stratford into what the greatest Shakespearian director of all, Harley Granville-Barker, called an “exemplary theatre”: one which uses its continuity to teach and to learn. Phillips’ Dream shows his Stratford can learn from mistakes, improve itself by them: his other productions show that it can teach—much of their quality lies in the striking improvement in young actors (Marti Maraden, Jack Weatherall, Stephen Russell) who two seasons ago promised little more than promise. Such a theatre, Granville-Barker believed, could develop into a nation’s school of articulacy, teaching it not only the riches of language but how to dream what it may become. Phillips’ Stratford shows the power to become such a theatre. It would be lamentable if instead of grabbing his success and building a truly national theatre on it, Canadians gave him no use for it but as a ticket to Broadway or London.

Theatre at the gallop

It was just your average opening night mélange of big and little crises, climaxing with Michelle, normally a soft-spoken woman of infinite charm, screaming obscenities at the goat in her dressing room. The goat, inappropriately named Coquette, proved that hanging out with theatre people had taught her a nice, quick exit. Knocking over a few props, she bounded out, leaving Michelle and at least seven of her colleagues to ready themselves in the simple, understated elegance of their collective dressing room: only a makeshift curtain separated them, in varying stages of undress, from a vast field rich with horse droppings, goat turds and the prying eyes of the people of Armstrong, BC, the Okanagan hamlet in which the World’s Only Horse-Drawn Open-Air Theatre was making its 1977 summer premiere.

It was mid-June and the theatre, known officially as the Caravan Stage Company, had been late in getting on the road. But then, one could expect a certain confusion and delay in assembling, for a summer of traveling and performing, some 15 actors, actresses, musicians and technicians, five of their children, three of their goats, two of their dogs, and 13 horses, eight of them purebred Clydesdales to draw the four wagons they live and perform in for three months. Once assembled, the Caravan company is a wondrous sight. Carsjerk to a halt and drivers stare in amazement as the horses, drawing splashily painted wagons and flanked by “outriders,” also on horseback, come clip-clopping around the corner. With its ragtag band of performers looking like faded flower children, it is an amusing, anachronistic, and even anarchistic sight—and that’s only the As. This year the Caravan’s production is an original play, Hands Up/, a musical written collectively by the group around the true story of Bill Miner, a Western bank-robbing legend from the early 1900s.

Everywhere they set up camp, locals come to stare, and in some cases to stay, as company members, sitting around a campfire, draw out guitars and fiddles for im-

promptu singsongs. While they do their actual performances on civic-owned properties, they seem to have no trouble finding campsites en route, although some of the people who offer their fields for the night might have their own special reasons for doing so. Once last month, a persuasive sort of rural Avon Lady spent two hours showing amused members a selection of “home and personal care products” she was selling. She managed to pawn off a couple of bottles of high-powered suntan lotion on them before they packed up and hit the road.

The seeds of Caravan were sown seven years ago in a bizarre getaway trip that Nans and Paul Kirby, a young couple involved in the production of a radical Montreal magazine called Logos, made from Quebec to British Columbia, in search of a new lifestyle, in a beat up vw van. The van gave them a bad time. They joked about hitching it up to a team of horses—and soon they forgot the joke and began pursuing a dream. “I said to Paul, wouldn’t it be great to travel through Canada on horseback, just the two of us?” Nans recalls. Caravan was the outcome, although as she points out rather wistfully “It’s not quite the two of us any more.” It was they who designed and built the first wagon—a gypsy style “vardo” out of which they lived and performed for several years, slowly expanding into a summer company of about 10 regulars.

It would be too simple to dismiss the band as yet another back-to-the-land branch of the Crunchy-Granola set, when in fact they bring with them an amazing array of backgrounds and skills. Not the least of these is expert horsemanship. One woman from Saskatchewan was an accomplished dressage rider, another man from BC joined the troupe as their horseshoer and only got into acting after much prodding from the others. Always the horses are the initial attraction: many, intimidated by the word “theatre,” come just to see them—and end up paying the $2.50 ticket to watch the show.

A little shaky in the early part of its run, Hands Up! is a joy to watch, thanks in part to the near-perfect scenery of the BC interior: the wagons are pulled in a circle, the audience sits on the grass and the play is performed against a natural backdrop of mountain and sky. Apart from that, the music, much of it written by Ron Weihs of Vancouver, is engagingiand the wild-West subject matter is near and dear to many of those in the 20 or so towns through which the Caravan will pass by mid-September. The show’s infectious charm is plainly the work of a happy team, but the person who welds them together is Nick Hutchinson, who has directed them for the last two years. Like the others, Hutchinson, 31, is deeply committed to Caravan for political and idealistic reasons. Unlike the others, he has a formidable theatrical background. The son of the august British actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, he studied and taught at the National Theatre School in Strasbourg, France, before emigrating to become, in the late Sixties, an associate director of Theatre Toronto. Light-years away from his mother’s awesomely respectable London lifestyle and reputation, Hutchinson, in mud-caked jeans and felt hat, is blissfully happy—although he has one particular worry waiting for him later this summer: Dame Peggy will be popping into the wilds of BC to see the show, the first of his she will have ever been to. “Of course I’ll be nervous, I’ll be inside out,” admits Hutchinson. But he isn’t worried that the primitive quality of the art will be feeble sustenance for his mother’s sophisticated appetite. “Listen,” he says, with a glance that takes in the horses, mountains, the gypsy band of performers at peace around the campfire, and one of the goats, “there’s enough in this whole thing to blow

her MIND.”_JUDITH TIMSON