In completing its summer schedule with Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, Ontario’s Stratford Festival displays considerable artistic nerve. The Shakespearean work—a dark tale of war and betrayed love—is a long, difficult play to stage containing several scenes of dubious dramatic merit. And A Man For All Seasons, which debuted in 1960, has not aged particularly well. Its account of the moral struggle of Sir Thomas More, chief adviser to King Henry VIII, now seems ponderously literary. Still, Stratford’s current versions of both plays intermittently attain impressive heights.
Cymbeline is the more spectacular of the two shows. Robin Phillips, directing his first play at Stratford since he retired as artistic director in 1980, superbly manages the huge cast. Although he has severely pruned the unwieldy script, his principal strategy has been to ask Stratford’s renowned production staff to produce a vast array of ingenious and often massive military props. Those tactics, coupled with the energetic pace of the production, turn Cymbeline into an epic spectacle whose sweep suggests an entire world hurtling to disaster.
Phillips’s decision to set Cymbeline between 1938 and 1940 gives the play a disturbing relevance. The troops who invade King Cymbeline’s domain wear the blue-grey uniforms of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s army. Gigantic war machines underline the sense of doom that builds throughout the play. At the end, a huge cannon dwarfs Cymbeline (Eric Donkin), his court and the enemy, silently mocking their vows of peace and reconcilation.
But the dazzling visual aspects of the production fail to hide the weakness of certain actors. Joseph Ziegler’s performance as the young hero Posthumus suffers from a lack of heart and force that makes it difficult to sympathize with his character. Other problems originate with the script: in one lurid scene, Posthumus’s young wife, Imogen (Martha Burns), awakes to find what she
thinks is her husband’s beheaded body lying beside her. Understandably, Burns fails to bring credible feeling to that overwritten episode. She is far more effective in the play’s drawn-out finale, in which she and her husband reunite. Still, the true star is the villain, Iachimo (Colm Feore), an Italian playboy who tries to destroy Posthumus’s faith in Imogen by seducing her. With sneering self-assurance, Feore swaggers about in a yellow bathrobe, the very essence of a bad man mightily pleased with himself.
By contrast, it is a good man who dominates A Man For All Seasons. The play, directed by Walter Learning, focuses on Henry’s attempts to rid himself of his wife, Catherine of Aragon,
who has failed to provide him with a male heir. His chancellor, Sir Thomas More (William Hutt), refuses to support divorce because it runs against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Playing a man torn between his king and the dictates of his own conscience, Hutt gives a masterly performance. But in the play’s latter half, when More is imprisoned and facing certain death, Bolt’s script becomes abstract and intellectual, and Hutt’s approach turns too cool.
Among the other actors, Douglas Campbell is heartily satisfying as The Common Man—the obscenely robust butler, boatman and jailer who comments drolly on More to the audience. But several of the other performers in both A Man For All Seasons and Cymbeline lack the poise and vocal skill that such traditional plays demand. That shortcoming suggests a lack of depth in the company—a problem that must be solved if Stratford is to maintain its reputation as North America’s premiere classical ensemble.
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