Theatre

Stratford: daring if not soaring

Patricia Keeney Smith June 25 1979
Theatre

Stratford: daring if not soaring

Patricia Keeney Smith June 25 1979

Stratford: daring if not soaring

Theatre

Patricia Keeney Smith

With Love's Labour's Lost, Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Ned and Jack, and The Importance of Being Earnest, Artistic Director Robin Phillips launches for Stratford ’79 a parade of poetic souls struggling for expression, determined apprentices rehearsing painfully for the responsibilities of life or just role-playing for its own gleeful sake.

Phillips creates a daring season, if not a consistently soaring one. Stressing youth and innovation, he casts his shows largely from younger members of the company, bringing flair to most major roles but disaster to some minor ones. Design and direction (the latter much delegated by Phillips) are,however, impressive over-all.

The most stunning experiment of the Stratford season is a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Against a stylized white set designed by Daphne Dare, triple casting is used in roles of the deposed king and his usurper, Bolingbroke. In the historical tetralogy that ends with Henry V (to be done next year), Shakespeare writes an epic of England—from the hierarchical Middle Ages, when king was next to God, through the boiling sea of civil war to a more expansive and politically enlightened time.

In Richard II, the small, colored figures of medieval tapestry are fading. Stratford’s stark ceremonial interpretation emphasizes the transition, through a ritual arrangement of actors and plain, clear visuals. Vibrancy is absent. Verbal friezes are thrown into high relief, forcing one to listen. The result demands and rewards great attention.

Director Zoe Caldwell draws distinctly different performances out of her three Richards. They are as they should be, finely wrought ornaments of an age about to shatter. Nicholas Pennell is impressive as a white-faced, hollow-eyed, death-haunted king—all blonde fragility. The most regal of the trio, he is erratic and as imperious as an Oriental mandarin, madly making words work, using language—his only instrument of power—to explore and, hopelessly, explain. With almost primitive sensuality, Frank Maraden gives us the king as esthete who, when he finally accepts defeat, languishes voluptuously in it. A poet of decadence, he dies like a ravished swan. Looking almost Christlike, Stephen Russell’s Richard is truly the king of elegy. The actor slips masterfully from the light intonation of unquestionable position to a gentle pathos, a pure weeping sorrow. It is a lyrical study and Russell’s last warrior-like leap against death comes as a surprise. He flies into a moment of human fury, remembering briefly that he is still on earth, though his spirit has been singing sweet sad songs on its premature way to heaven.

After the sighing, sacred Richard, Russell gives us a roistering Hotspur in Henry IV Part I. Never a boor, he is the basic good-hearted Briton, Harry to his wife, Kate, full of humor and manly mettle, demanding “cracked pates” and “bloody noses.” A soldier and no politician, he provides the intended foil to Shakespeare’s more complex Renaissance kingly type, Prince Hal. Curiously watching the multiplying models of English life over which he must eventually rule, this character is excessively difficult to pin down. Actor Richard Monetee doesn’t succeed. With his vast if semi-visible scheme of sovereign selfeducation, Hal has to span the teeming groundswell of England’s unruly individuals like an arch. At least Peter Moss gives the concept graphic expression during a splendid coronation pageant that is strung across the stage like a glittering necklace at the play’s end.

Hal must also compete for the limelight (in Part II especially) with the vivacious panorama of ordinary life; that ripe lord of forbidden fruit, Falstaff (a magnificent mobile portrait thanks to Lewis Gordon); and his bright if sordid tavern world including Tom Wood’s cryptic Poins, Richard McMillan’s ludicrous Francis and Martha Henry’s brittle, pathetic, Doll Tearsheet. It’s a rich, wide canvas with a memorable painting of country folk as well—the delicious naïveté of Shallow and Silence (Cedric Smith and Mervyn Blake) in their rustic content.

Douglas Rain’s care-worn Henry IV finds nothing but discomfort in his reign. We feel the weight of his crown and the torment of sovereign days and nights that rattle to a volley of antimonarchist rebellions that he initiates. If deposed Richard was a king welded to sorrow, political necessity drags down the fourth Henry like a dead weight. His final reconciliation with Hal is branded by Rain’s horrified whispered confession in which he promises to bury with a dying body the guilty burden that has darkened his life. Bolingbroke’s hard-won gift of peace, barely bought through a reign of constant adjustment, provides only slight relief in this sombre, moving portrait of a king truly “sick with civil blows.”

Shakespeare’s Love's Labour's Lost is an intricate minuet of adolescent amours and superbly decorative poetry. Its clever artifice is expressed simply and accurately by designer Daphne Dare and the direction, by Phillips and Urjo Kareda, which choreographs even the faltering of the young actors into nearly satisfying and appropriately satirical patterns. The light elegance of the costumes is fine, rendering the play’s four eminently sensible women demure enough to play coyly at love with the foolish, likable swains who court them by the book. During the comedy’s inspired nonsense, spiritedly indulged at Stratford, Shakespeare parodies a number of courtly and academic types while indulging in a dazzling exhibit of literary affectation as one who adores the game yet recognizes its innate limitations. Especially right is Frank Maraden’s romantic, foolish knight, Don Armando, a kind of Don Quixote figure; and Domini Blythe’s dark-haired, openly taunting Rosaline. As the king of Navarre, Alan Scarfe exhibits quiet melancholia in welcome contrast to his raging in Sheldon Rosen’s Ned and Jack, and accentuates the play’s underlying note of sober realism. That tone of tristesse builds into two of Shakespeare’s most natural songs on the seasons, which this production ruins with an unaccountably brassy Broadway treatment.

Ned and Jack benefits from the important process of rewriting and more evenly balanced casting. Alan Scarfe as John Barrymore, New York’s obstreperous darling of the theatre in the early part of this century, rolls about the stage like a big, Byronic baby. Immensely physical, self-destructive, impossibly idealistic and variously talented, Scarfe’s Jack is matched by Jim McQueen’s dry-witted, acerbic, prodigious playwright who, early in his career, becomes bedridden with arthritis. They are locked into a symbiotic relationship which both nourishes and exhausts; understanding each other with the contemptuous familiarity of characters in a play that has outrun its time.

Stage business in this production is both clever and apt, supplying moments of closeness, laughter and childlike imagination which engage the audience’s sympathy. It is essentially intimate, atelier theatre, and a performance piece richly performed.

Once more, Stratford skilfully executes Wilde’s timeless The Importance of Being Earnest. Its appeal is timeless if not ageless, for it sits just right in Edwardian England, adroitly bursting the inflated bubbles of class and clergy with the brilliant use of absurd surface logic. The plot revolves around Lady Bracknell, that bastion of British society played with deadly pacing by William Hutt (also a hit in the 1976 version). Unerringly, director Phillips evolves a lovely languor for the garden scene between Marti Maraden’s arch, country-fresh Cecily, and Domini Blythe’s politely venomous Gwendolen. The two play perfectly off each other, providing a merciful break from the brisk banter of the two men and all the witty repartee that opens the play.

Again, performers show their many colors. Nicholas Pennell does John Worthing with a soft-spoken gentility that bears no trace of his tortured Richard. Similarly, Eric Donkin’s fey little Canon Chasuble is only a distant cousin to his confused but well-meaning York in Richard II, while Amelia Hall’s coy governess, Miss Prism, is remote from her grieved and outraged Duchess of Gloucester in Richard II.

The company continues to exhibit strength, varyingly in its senior young men but consistently in its major females and its veteran actors. Outstanding are William Needles’ disillusioned Gaunt and his prophetic Bishop Carlisle in Richard II, Max Helpmann’s randy old Holofernes of Love's Labour's Lost and his conscientious Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV. While theoretically a good teaching policy, the use of very young actors has unbalanced some productions. So far, with two remounts, one flop (the Burt Shevelove sappy musical adaptation Happy New Year), and four well-done Shakespeares, the bard wins.