Theatre

The word’s the thing to catch the crowd

Mark Abley January 29 1979
Theatre

The word’s the thing to catch the crowd

Mark Abley January 29 1979

The word’s the thing to catch the crowd

Theatre

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perched side by side on bony chairs in the old Rideau Winter Club, are struggling to maintain their dignity. Hamlet is leaning over them, improvising under orders. From outside the bare rehearsal hall infiltrate noises of traffic snarled in an Ottawa winter. Slapping his friends on the back, tousling their hair, Hamlet finally squats at their feet and removes a convenient shoe. “What a piece of work is a man,” he remarks, examining Rosencrantz’s toes. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are straightfaced under orders. Their director has told them to look inward, to zero in on themselves. Their director, that paragon of animals, is a rumpled, quiet man lounging in jeans, watching like a cat.

The energy in John Wood’s gaze sustains a fierce imagination. Artistic director of English-language theatre at the National Arts Centre, Wood finds an intensity in working with others that at first seems to contradict the reticence and ease of his manner, the casual humor in his voice. “Directing,” he admits, “is a consuming process.” He has just turned 40. Despite a far-flung list of successes, he is hardly a household name. But for seven chilly weeks from January into March, he is taking Hamlet and two other plays on tour through eight provinces. Set in 1938, his Hamlet mingles the strains of big bands with those of foghorns and seagulls. The prince tf Denmark packs a mean revolver. The company’s travels will give tens of thousands of Canadians a rare opportunity to see the work of a theatre they subsidize so heavily. The tour will also be a test of John Wood.

A loner, tough but gentle, Wood lacks the flamboyance of his friend and rival, Stratford’s Robin Phillips. “I’m not very social; I tend to protect my privacy because I have so little. I hate board meetings, parties, receptions, and I’m just no good at small talk.” His eyebrows squirm at the thought. Two decades of directing have failed to deprive his face of its nonchalant, trustful look.

Born in Montreal, the only son of a stockbroker, Wood studied history at Bishop’s University and quickly moved to England, where his best friend was Diana Rigg. Returning to Canada in 1963, he spent three years as a public affairs producer for CBC Radio. “I grew

up with radio,” he remarks. “It keeps the imagination alive.” To this day, clarity of sound is a prime dramatic concern. A full-time director since the late ’60s, Wood continually listens for the nuances in language. “You’re not letting Shakespeare do the work,” he tells James Hurdle, the Claudius of the tour. “Put yourself in his hands.”

The touring Hamlet will be Neil Munro, a wiry 32-year-old who played the role four years ago for Wood at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. Munro, a wry, engaging man, calls Wood “uncompromising” and talks of “mutual intimidation.” But what the rehearsals show is a profound unspoken understanding. With inexperienced actors sprinkled through the cast, Munro, answering a frown or wink from his director, gives life to Wood’s reliance on developing raw talent.

A director of Shakespeare without a strong sense of poetry is

doomed to flounder in a swamp of images and, according to Munro, a poetic ear is one of Wood’s theatrical gifts. Yet the man is unashamedly ruthless with Shakespeare—not to mention Gilbert and Sullivan, whose songs provide the distant basis of another touring production, William Schwenck and Arthur Who? Chopping off a protruding line in Hamlet, Wood announces with a grin, “Sorry, Will.” He says his first duty is to the audience. “We have to make the text come alive.”

He moved in 1977 from Halifax to Ottawa, faced with the challenge of creating a permanent English-language ensemble at the National Arts Centre, given ample funds to do exactly that. Wood arrived at the same time as Jean Gascon,who, as director of all theatre at the NAC, is Wood’s nominal boss. Gascon, an actor, a man with a courtly flair, calls Wood “secretive” and speaks of his “timid image.” Life within the concrete battlements is not always easy: “I can’t say I was happy here the first year,” admits Gascon, who works off and on in both English and French, “but the wine is now decanting.” The pressures, however, are great. Some directors of regional playhouses, jealous of the resources gathered in Ottawa, are waiting to trample down the grapes of wrath. Although the NAC has a mandate to host the finest productions of other Canadian theatres, Wood is chiefly concerned with building a national theatre company of his own.

He lives with a Siamese cat and a Lhasa Apso dog in an old house in central Ottawa—the first home he has ever owned. A total commitment to theatre is evident from the reading matter: volumes of David Garrick’s Letters live snugly by the front door, stacks of Plays and Players fill the bathroom. But Wood was never a performer. “I’d love to have been a singer, actor, dancer,” he admits, “but I was too shy.” Like so many artists, he grew up loved and lonely. A favorite play is that classic of youth and solitude, The Glass Menagerie-, another Tennessee Williams piece, This Property is Condemned, was his first play.

Wood is, in fact, the rarest of creatures—an artist whose ego is fed by the nourishment he gives to others. Unlike Gascon, who directs by “getting inside” all the roles in a script and foraging outward, Wood grounds his work in his knowledge of each performer. In life and art, John Wood aims at openness of spirit, a home for the imagination. The dreams of beauty and mastery have not faded, or gone sour. He isn’t a cultural nationalist: “People in the arts are the last who should ever shut down borders. This of all countries should keep the doors open.” If he knows a hawk from a handsaw, Canada is in luck.

Mark Abley