THEATRE

A summer triumph

Stratford’s Festival surmounts hard times

John Bemrose July 10 1989
THEATRE

A summer triumph

Stratford’s Festival surmounts hard times

John Bemrose July 10 1989

A summer triumph

THEATRE

Stratford’s Festival surmounts hard times

Over the past decade, the Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario has endured as many ups and downs as a hero in one of the plays by William Shakespeare that are its specialty. In the early 1980s, a rising deficit, shrinking audiences and acrimonious debates over who should run the festival all tarnished the image of Canada’s largest and best-known theatrical enterprise. But now, after four years under the artistic directorship of John Neville, the festival is clearly basking in renewed confidence. Superb versions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters are currently leading a playbill in which three out of seven main-stage productions are outstanding—a healthy percentage in the hit-and-miss world of theatre. Behind the scenes, the news is also good. The festival—located in the city of Stratford (population 26,450) 143 km west of Toronto—has accumulated a surplus of $3.3 million, earmarked for much-needed physical improvements to its three theatres. As well, box-office receipts since the five-month season opened on May 29 are keeping up with last year’s record pace. The 36-year-old Stratford Festival, once notorious as the sick man of Canadian theatre, is enjoying a major shift in fortunes.

The man most responsible for Stratford’s financial turnaround is 64-year-old Neville, who is stepping down this year to make way for a new artistic director, David William. Britishborn Neville, who came to Canada in 1972, told Maclean ’s that he is weary from managing the mammoth festival, with its $ 17-million-plus annual budget and 790 employees. Neville, who has also directed and acted in several Stratford productions, said: “I was putting in very long days, from 7:30 in the morning until 6 at night, not to mention performances and receptions and so on. I was certainly fearful of being able to carry on at that capacity.”

Neville says that he plans to do nothing for a while after his term expires on Oct. 31.

He has certainly earned a rest. When he took over in 1986 as Stratford’s seventh artistic director—he had directed Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre (1973-1978) and the Neptune Theatre in Halifax

(1978-1983)—the festival was staggering under an accumulated deficit of $4.3 million, mainly as a result of overspending on productions during the regimes of Robin Phillips and John Hirsch. Neville successfully worked to restore morale, and also insisted—with the backing of an aggressively cost-conscious board of governors headed by Toronto businessman Murray Frum—that Stratford’s shows be mounted on, or under, budget.

Some of his other decisions proved controversial, particularly his transfer of the festival’s popular and highly profitable musicals from the 1,107-seat Avon Theatre to the 2,262-seat Festival Theatre (the 500-seat Third Stage, used for Young Company productions, completes the festival’s triad of theatres). That change made sense financially, but led to charges that Neville was compromising Stratford’s dedication to the classics. Douglas Campbell, a Stratford company member for 19 seasons, says that he was outraged by Neville’s inclusion of two musicals in the 1988 season. “It reflects the fact that economic arguments, not artistic ones, have come to dominate the festival,” he said. “Just look at the programs Stratford hands out. They used to feature pictures of the actors—now they are full of photos of the sponsors, of businessmen.” But leading company member Goldie Semple contends that success at the box office has helped the company. “When the actors know the theatre is doing well financially,” she said, “it makes them feel more confident in their work.”

Since Neville’s arrival, festival box-office revenues have soared, to $13.5 million in 1988 from $8.8 million in 1985—the year before he took over. Much of that increase is due to rising ticket prices—Stratford’s top ticket is now $35.50, up from $30 in 1985. But, because Neville increased the number of performances and made a concerted effort to bring in more tour-group audiences, total attendance has risen to

535.000 last year from

437.000 in 1985. As well, corporate fund-raising has quintupled, to $3.1 million last year from $600,000 in 1985:

Around Stratford, a farmbelt market centre that straddles the tranquil Avon River, merchants and ordinary citizens readily praise Neville for his role in restoring an institution that opened in a tent in 1953 and now brings in an estimated $70 million each year to local restaurants, inns, shops and other businesses. But artistically, his tenure has won only mixed reviews. He was widely praised for his daring decision in 1986 to stage some of Shakespeare’s more difficult and lesser-known plays. And a few of the shows that emerged under his stewardship, including last year’s staging of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, rank among some of the best that Stratford has ever offered. But many other productions have been dismissed by critics as mediocre and unadventurous, leading some observers to remark that the institution is in

danger of becoming a costume-drama showplace catering to tourists. Former Stratford lead actor Susan Wright traces the problem to Neville’s choice of directors. She said, “The actors are not always confident they are in the best hands.”

Wright was at the centre of one of the controversies plaguing Neville’s final year. She and a number of other fine lead actors, including Susan Coyne and Nancy Palk of the Young Company and Douglas Campbell of the mainstage company, were not offered parts for the 1989 season. As well, Stratford’s most renowned actor, William Hutt, was offered such small roles that he decided—like Wright—to join the rival Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-theLake, Ont. Wright told Maclean’s that she was bewildered by Neville’s action and “very hurt.” For his part, Neville said that he had great admiration for Wright’s talents, but that he had no part “worthy of her stature.” He also said that several other Stratford notables who did not return, including actor Colm Feore and director Robin Phillips, who headed Stratford’s Young Company last year, were

offered jobs but did not accept them.

There have been other storms. Last year, when Stratford announced that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice would be on the 1989 playbill, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) asked the festival to hold seminars for its student audiences on Shakespeare’s characterization of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, which reflects the anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe in Shakespeare’s time. The organization feared a repetition of a 1984 incident in which some children who were part of a school audience at the same play threw pennies at a group of Jewish students. Then, before the

current season opened, there was public outcry over what proved to be erroneous reports that the CJC was pressuring the festival to censor the play. Director Michael Langham did cut a line and a half from the play—in which Shylock is forced to become a Christian—but he says that he made the deletion solely for artistic reasons.

Langham’s artistry with Merchant involves far more than the trimming of lines. Langham, who was the festival’s artistic director from 1956 to 1967, has infused his production with a warmth and intelligence that overflow the stage. Brian Bedford is particularly memorable as Shylock, who tries to take a pound of flesh from the body of the merchant Antonio (superbly played by Nicholas Pennell) in lieu of an unpaid debt. His Shylock is a complicated, vividly real creation, capable of evil but also of striking a poignant note of humanity in a famous speech about his fellow Jews—“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Competing with The Merchantes the best of Stratford’s current offerings is Three Sisters, Chekhov’s comedy about life in provincial Rus-

sia. Neville directed the production, and he has staged the play against Debra Hanson’s delicate white set—a startling but successful ploy that works as a foil to the drama’s melancholy. Among an impressive cast, Lucy Peacock is rivetting as Masha, one of three Prozorov sisters wilting under the banality of their lives. Her silences are time bombs packed with a lifetime’s resentment.

Stratford also has done well by that old warhorse of the Shakespearean repertory, Henry V, given fresh and intelligent life by director John Wood. Geraint Wyn Davies makes a deeply sympathetic Henry, a fully three-dimensional hero engaged in a paradoxical struggle to become both a humane king and a successful warrior. But, unfortunately, the Stratford company fails to rise to the same level in its other attempts at Shakespeare, particularly in its plodding version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is full of awkward and uninspired verse-speaking. The same problem plagues the double-bill of Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors. In order to make them fit into a single evening, the two plays have each been cut by 50 per cent, leaving them with about as much of their original resonance as Classic comic book versions. On the whole, Stratford does better with the season’s musical, Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s frothy 1948 reworking of The Taming of the Shrew. The singers do an adequate job with such old favorites as Wunderbar—but the real showstoppers are the choreographic routines featuring the elegant tapdancing of Dirk Lumbard.

Three main-stage productions have yet to come: The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Shakespeare contemporary Thomas Dekker, opening on July 27; Sir John Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse, beginning on July 28; and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, debuting on Aug. 25. And now, Stratford-watchers are turning their attention to the future plans of the new artistic director, David William. Bom in England, William, 63, is a director of international stature who became a landed immigrant in Canada in 1986—and has already staged about a dozen productions at Stratford. He told Maclean’s that he would like to establish a Toronto theatre season for the company. “Also, I’d like to get away from doing the same old Molières and Chekhovs,” he added. “Shakespeare will always be our mainstay, but there are so many other wonderful plays— European and American—that have never been done here.” Yet it remains to be seen how far William will be allowed to go in establishing a more adventurous repertory—with all the financial risk that such a move would imply. Stratford’s former troubles—and John Neville’s triumph over them—mean that, in the future, any artistic director will be expected to keep one eye firmly on the bottom line.

JOHN BEMROSE