Theatre

A few diamonds among the paste

Mark Czarnecki June 30 1980
Theatre

A few diamonds among the paste

Mark Czarnecki June 30 1980

A few diamonds among the paste

Theatre

Mark Czarnecki

The only Shakespearean play worthy of limelight during the opening week of this year’s Stratford Festival was Brian Bedford’s Titus Andronicus, a revival of his successful 1978 production. Probably Shakespeare’s most maligned play, Titus is a bloody pot-pourri of severed heads and hands, plucked tongues and skewered hearts, which seems so gratuitous that many critics refuse to hold the hallowed bard responsible for such excesses. Bedford has bucked the trend by assuming Shakespeare really knew what he was about; sensationalism has been downplayed in favor of Titus’ coldly logical degeneration from noble Roman gen-

eral to bloodthirsty avenger, giving the play a much-needed centre of gravity.

William Hutt’s Titus is of tragic stature, a worthy precursor to Macbeth and Lear, reduced after his fall from grace to a macabre maître d’ role in which he serves up the wicked empress’ sons to her baked in a pie. Errol Slue is a mesmerizing Aaron, the amoral Moor who engineers the rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Goldie Semple) and lashes him on to revenge. Slue is that rare actor who can speak Shakespeare’s lines as if he understood them; his feeling for their rhythms is superb, and the emotional force that pours out

of him in the shortest speech rolls across the stage like crashing surf.

Bedford’s lavish staging has transformed this shrill revenge tragedy into a moving Jacobean masque, a feast for the eyes and ears. Gilt-laden funeral processions slant across the stage under eerie lighting to sinister music. Violent death lurks everywhere but treads softly—the murders are muted, all the blood is dried, entrails are safely tucked away. The text has been cut and spliced freely, but intelligently, and when, at the end, the sibylline oracle (a Bedfordian addition) prophesies the dire fate of Rome, the play comes to rest within a historical frame, an icon frozen in time.

Bedford has been mentioned as a possible successor to retiring artistic director Robin Phillips, within a troika that could also include Peter Moss, currently an associate director of the festival. Unfortunately, Moss’s productions so far this season, Henry V and The Servant of Two Masters, don’t raise high expectations that he could pull his weight in such an arrangement.

Richard Monette and Jack Wetherall alternate in the title role of Henry V and. although their interpretations differ substantially, with minor exceptions Moss hasn’t modified the staging and supporting performances to match their variations. The play’s static pageantry, whose sole function seems to be the glorification of England’s martial superiority over France, is therefore heightened: with no vital connections established between the king and the play, the other characters might just as well be movable cardboard cutouts capable of complementing any Henry imaginable.

In the contest for the kingship, Wetherall gets the nod for daring more in a production that desperately needs daring. His Henry borders on religious zealotry—as the Archbishop of Canterbury pours self-serving advice into his ear, legitimizing the impending slaughter of the French, Wetherall kneels on a prayer stool, hands piously folded. Other fine touches, like the fervent, sometimes squeaky mentions of God et al in his shouted oaths, convincingly suggest that the former Prince Harry, the profligate who used to be Falstaffs whoring partner, swung to the opposite extreme once he accepted the awesome responsibilities of kingship.

Monette’s Henry is cool and serious, in total control, as if the young Harry

knew while cavorting with Falstaff that he was merely indulging in child’s play. It’s a more traditional view but more boring, too, and Monette hasn’t helped himself by emphatically parsing his speeches into monotonous oblivion. The minor characters almost save the day, however. Mervyn Blake as the governor of Harfleur touchingly yields his town to Henry, Rod Beattie’s Pistol is full of wit and foul distemper, Barry MacGregor’s enthusiastic devotion to the Crown in the role of the Welshman Fluellen is matched only by his animated love of leeks, and Diana Leblanc brings lithe charm and humor to her courting scene with Henry.

Vancouver playwright Tom Cone has updated Carlo Goldoni’s comedy The Servant of Two Masters from the 18th to the 20th century with disastrous results. This is doubly sad since no Canadian plays are being presented at Stratford for the first season in many years, and Cone’s debacle won’t encourage any policy reversals regarding the inclusion of more indigenous theatre. The core of Goldoni’s plot remains intact: Beatrice (Goldie Semple) disguises herself as a man and searches Venice for her lost lover, Florindo (Brent Carver), who unwittingly hires her moonlighting servant Truffaldino (Lewis Gordon). But in dismantling and reassembling the rest of the play, Cone hasn’t presented any new insights that might justify hauling The Servant into the 20th centuryarranged marriages like the one presented in the play may still be with us, but without additional material from the time to set this action in context, it looks far more out of place than in Goldoni’s original. Director Moss has abetted the playwright in his misdemeanor by neither making sense of Cone’s text on its own terms nor gritting his teeth and pummelling it into a coherent vision of his own. Then there’s the question of theatrical etiquetteshould the characters still prance through slapstick routines à la Goldoni derived from the commedia dell’arte tradition, or should they humanize the action with more naturalistic playing in the style of Gordon’s shuffling Truffaldino? Though he has help from set de-

signer Michael Eagan’s ingenious evocation of Venice, and strong performances from Graeme Campbell as the blustering father, Pantalone, and Jennifer Phipps as the wily maid Smeraldina, Moss and the production are both paralysed by this dilemma. And since the cast looks as if it doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, it is understandable that the audience should feel the same.

D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game won a Pultizer Prize in 1978 when it appeared on Broadway with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in the starring (and only) roles. American director Mel Shapiro is responsible for this version with Kate Reid and Douglas Rain, and the production reveals the play for what it is: a well-constructed, insubstantial “tragicomedy” perfectly suited for straw-hat theatre, which relies too much on the abilities of the actors for its success.

Not that Reid and Rain aren’t up to playing Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin: she’s a repressed man-hater who drives Martin mad by incessantly beating him at gin rummy, their only refuge in an old folks’ home inhabited by zombied television addicts; he’s a deluded former businessman bankrupted by a short temper. They hurl barbs at each other with comic aplomb, managing to dignify a text that too often goes sitcom for its humor—playwright Coburn isn’t ashamed to milk the laughs those oh-so-naughty four-letter words are guaranteed to deliver. No matter, the audience was well pleased, and The Gin Game should prove a successful drawing card for Stratford visitors in a deck that otherwise seems stacked against them.

Opening week was capped by Phillips’ production of Beatrice and Benedick (also known as Much Ado About Nothing when Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford aren’t transforming these supporting roles into Star Showcase). Sure, B and B are Shakespeare’s wittiest lovers. Yes, yes, Hero and Claudio (Diana Leblanc and Stephen Russell, heroine and hero respectively) are dullsville by comparison despite an ec-

centric plot that has Claudio, at the marriage altar, falsely accusing his fiancée Hero of wanton behavior. But is Phillips therefore justified in backing away from the challenges of this “problem play,” contemptuously leaving the rest of the cast floundering in ignorance while he whirls a haggard Smith through six costume changes?

Smith and Bedford are delightful, no doubt about it—they can draw laughs from stones not to mention lines that normally wouldn’t draw laughs at all. Evil is at work in Much Ado: “Kill Claudio!” Beatrice exhorts Benedick, eager to avenge the slander committed against her cousin Hero. Hoots of laughter from the audience. And why not? Taking his cue from the title, Phillips has trivialized the play ad absurdum: hapless Claudio, for example, has been directed to drape himself over very low, uncomfortable divans in endless Joys of Sex perms and combs—no wonder Russell has trouble reacting, he doesn’t have time to untwist his vocal cords. Lost in the crushed taffeta, fine lace and sumptuous silk are a curdled, menacing Don John (Nicholas Pennell) and Barry MacGregor’s constipated Verges, a tiny gem of comic integrity in a treasure chest of rhinestones and cardboard paste.

Some might argue that, in the end, rhinestones are what Stratford is all about. What’s so bad about importing all that worthy Old Country talent and giving Mr. and Mrs. Festivalgoer a hefty shot of glitz and classy patter once a year? Nothing at all, if vital and provocative theatre doesn’t become subservient to it. At the moment, Titus Andronicus and the stunning Virginia (see Maclean ’s, June 23) excepted, truly good theatre isn’t happening at Stratford. It’s no coincidence either that the best of the new generation of Canadian actors and directors are almost entirely absent from the company roster. With Phillips’ departure, the Stratford board has an opportunity to initiate farreaching changes in festival policy. Given enough foresight, they could keep the swans, keep the picnics, keep the audience and, theatrically speaking, keep the faith, too.