Theatre

Conquests, glories, and spoils

June 26 1978
Theatre

Conquests, glories, and spoils

June 26 1978

Conquests, glories, and spoils

Theatre

THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL Stratford, Ontario

Peter Hall, director of the British National Theatre, let his chagrin be known. On the first night of his new Macbeth, starring Albert Finney and Dorothy Tutin, half London’s first-string critics were elsewhere. They had gone to Stratford, Ontario, to see the same play mounted by Robin Phillips with Douglas Rain and Maggie Smith.

If any doubts remain that Phillips has built Stratford into a better mousetrap, the path the world beat to its door this summer should dispel them. And no one can say any cheese but quality was used. For two years, critics of Phillips’ Stratford regime complained about provincial and federal governments flying out foreign reviewers for the festival’s openings—boosting Phillips’ reputation overseas, they said, at taxpayers’expense.This year the governments de,sisted. More foreign critics (than ever turned up, fares paid by their papers. The news was abroad. North America has classical theatre to discuss in the same breath as the Comédie-Française, Moscow Art Theatre and Britain’s great subsidized companies.

For Canadians, two other statistics are perhaps as significant. Of Stratford’s record 18 productions this year, four are new Canadian plays. Another four are codirected by Phillips and young Canadians. Like the Renaissance painters who made their studios schools for apprentice artists, Phillips has turned Stratford into a teaching theatre. The good news is that, on the showing of this year’s first eight plays, the School of Phillips works even better than Phillips alone.

Phillips’ single-handed offerings, opening week, were a revival of last year’s As You Like It, Barry Collins’ British success Judgment and John Whiting’s The Devils. Whiting’s play, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon originally staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company and filmed by Ken Russell, is a lurid El Greco canvas of a 17th-century French town gripped by witch fever, with two huge roles for virtuoso actors: Grandier, the doubting priest who seeks God through the flesh, and Sister Jeanne, the hunchbacked mother superior who finds Grandier’s image usurping the place of God’s in her contemplations.

Phillips gives it a powerful, clangorously baroque production, with a fine if uncarnal performance as Grandier by Nicholas Pennell and a superb, violently affecting one by Martha Henry as Jeanne. But the upward straining to transcend oneself which is the play’s theme infects its language and playing. The cast hasn’t yet found a way to speak Whiting’s packed lines as plausibly spontaneous utterances of human lips. The denseness of the text turns into laborious delivery and listening.

Collins’ 105-minute monologue Judgment makes hard listening for other reasons. Based on a true Second World War story, it’s the graphic confession by a Russian officer of how he and a comrade survived for 60 days in an underground cell where they had been imprisoned and left by retreating Germans. After drawing lots by compact, they killed and ate five other soldiers entombed with them. The program encourages anyone who feels com-

pelled to walk out during his narrative to do so without guilt, and several members of the first audience seized the offer. But despite its Grand Guignol matter, Judgment is a humane work. Vukhov, the narrator, is a decent, agonized man, no monster, and Richard Monette pours out his torrential apologia with racked, burning sincerity. If the piece repels, it’s not by wallowing in its gruesome material but by its rather academic relish of the moral conundrums it poses.

Phillips’ romantic As You Like It, set by Robin Fraser Paye in the costumes and pastel hues of a Rowlandson watercolor, has ripened since last summer from an eyefilling production into a distinguished one. Maggie Smith’s Rosalind, whose sharpedged, Chaplinesque clowning originally

worked scratchily against the show’s velvety bloom, now treads a miraculous razor’s edge between tears and comedy, so thin any line can turn startlingly toward emotion or humor. Her performance now ranks with her Millamant in Way of the World two years ago, but the production framing it, self-consciously exquisite, comes from the softer side of Phillips’ talent.

The season’s other Shakespearean comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, gets a busy, robust production from Peter Moss which works best when he whips it into frank farce. The middle act, where Shakespeare’s cheerful housewives bundle the fat, amorous Sir John Falstaff into a laundry basket, rollicks into the realms of Feydeau. The cost of this is sketchy, two-dimensional farce characteristics, with the exception of Alan Scarfe’s volcanically jealous husband, Ford. Eyes gleaming with manic suspicion behind steel-rimmed spectacles, he tucks his chin sideways with the perverse smugness of a man who has always expected life to deal him a slosh in the chops. He has the courage, essential to farce, to play for nastiness. Not so William Hutt as Falstaff, rosy and guileless as a whiskered baby, in a performance comically adroit but relentlessly lovable.

To compensate, Lotfi Mansouri’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, spirited, sumptuous and ravishingly melodic, somehow remains relentlessly unlovable. Voltaire’s dry fable of the Westphalian innocent who, raised in the optimistic 18th-century faith that he inhabits the best of all possible worlds, finds it rife with wars, earthquakes, rapes, robbery and deceit, does not lend itself to musical comedy. Laved in Bernstein’s gorgeous score, tricked out in dazzling costumes by Mary Kerr, wittily choreographed by Brian Macdonald and sung with vast cheerfulness by an attractive young cast, it ends up tasting like watermelon laced with vinegar. As Edward Evanko and Caralyn Tomlin, (Candide and his Cunegonde),

lead the chorus in Voltaire’s soaring injunction to forget philosophy and cultivate one’s garden, the audience gets the message the show has been telegraphing all night: that they’re peasants.

The festival’s pearls, so far, are the three productions Phillips has co-produced with his pupil-directors. Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, jointly staged by Phillips and his dramaturge Urjo Kareda, serves the great comedy as handsomely as the festival last year served Ibsen’s Ghosts. If anything, its balance is threatened by the superlative performances of Martha Henry, as the Petersburg beauty Elena trapped in marriage to a peevish old scholar, and Brian Bedford as the country doctor Astrov, drawn to her elegance but unable to stomach its useless-

ness. For once, Elena becomes a woman of depth and talent, choked by marriage. This gives edge to Astrov’s sarcastic flirtation, brilliantly ambiguous in Bedford’s performance : its brutality seems a genuine defence against involvement. Bedford’s boyish, sudden Astrov steals some colors from William Hutt’s Vanya, the bachelor brother-in-law caught in calf-love at 47, It’s Vanya who should seem the greyhaired schoolboy, Astrov the adult. But the whole cast’s playing is on Stratford’s highest level, with no weak links from Mary Savidge’s dried old mother, so steeped in French pamphlets she speaks with an accent, to Marti Maraden’s gauche Sonya, love for Astrov glowing humbly through her plainness.

Peter Moss’s co-staging with Phillips of The Winter’s Tale yields a production as beautifully rich and concentrated as Measure for Measure in Phillips’ first season. Once again, a Shakespearean fairy tale gains meaning and reality by translation to late 19th-century Europe. Leontes, Shakespeare’s irrationally jealous king of Sicilia, reigns over a sombre Czarist court of stiff uniforms and stiffer potted palms. The silk-hatted ambassadors he sends to question the Delphic oracle about his queen’s

fidelity travel by Orient Express. Bohemia, the mythical seacoast from which his lost daughter Perdita brings back spring to his gloomy palace of frozen passion, is a meadow of poppy-red peasant embroidery and stamping dances. Brian Bedford mines wonderfully brooding, broken humanity from the role of the Plutonic king, Martha Henry shines with superb, stubborn intelligence as his scolding conscience Paulina and Margot Dionne, in her first Stratford lead as the slandered Hermione, is born to play queens: tall, regal and exquisite, with a voice like a viola.

Best of all and most revolutionary is Macbeth, staged by Phillips and Eric Steiner. Never has Stratford’s stage been turned so boldly into a state of mind. Un-

Shakespeare’s tragedy snakes out swiftly as oil spilling over marble. Then it congeals. Armies freeze into slow motion, leaving only the words and thoughts of the murderous Scottish pair racing toward the audience.

Maggie Smith’s Lady Macbeth, intensely still, is the greater imaginer. The spirits of night she summons are real to her as servants. When, in her sleepwalking, she asks for her husband’s hand, he recedes visibly in her nightmare, leaving her alone and lost in the dark hell of memory. It is a great performance. Douglas Rain, as the more prosaic partner left to live out the consequence of her imagining day to day, has to work harder for less effect. Smaller than his deed, his Macbeth shrinks in its aftermath to a scared, white-faced fool of circumstance. It’s a brave reading, but less inflected than hers and risks anticlimax.

The production divided critics and will audiences. It is hard and dark as onyx, austerely unfamiliar, jumping over time and expectation like a bad dream. But few Macbeths can have looked deeper into Shakespeare’s inferno. Judging from the School of Phillips’ first year, Peter Hall should avoid conflict of opening dates for the foreseeable future. RONALD BRYDEN

der an empty coronach lit in what seem a hundred shades of blackness, the line of