Theatre

Dreams and despair

John Bemrose June 16 1997
Theatre

Dreams and despair

John Bemrose June 16 1997

Dreams and despair

JOHN BEMROSE

Altogether, the Stratford Festival will mount 12 productions this year. Seven start later in the summer. The following are currently running:

Camelot, with music by Frederick Loewe, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, directed by Richard Monette.

With its catchy title song and other favorites such as How to Handle a Woman and If Ever I Would Leave You, this 1960 musical reflects the hopes and uncertainties of an era. All the optimism of the postwar world is captured in this story of the young, idealistic King Arthur (Tom McCamus), who founds a chivalric order known as the Knights of the Round Table.

But so are the menacing shadows of the Cold War—mirrored in Camelot’s debate over the use of naked force in the service of justice, and by the ultimate, tragic dissolution of Arthur’s peaceable kingdom.

The trick in putting on Camelot is to bridge the immense span between its lighthearted playfulness—at times it seems almost farcical in its treatment of character—and the weightiness of its themes. This is extremely difficult to do convincingly, but the Stratford cast pulls it off, for the most part, in a production of great energy and sweetness. Sustained by Desmond Heeley’s fantastically colored costumes and props, this is a deeply textured Camelot, which allows silly things to go on—at one point Arthur’s court sage, Merlyn (Douglas Chamberlain), conjures up an ice-cream cone for himself—while never losing its sense of foreboding.

As Guenevere, Arthur’s faithless queen, Dale sings beautifully and dances with a deft light-footedness that gives the character a sprightly, mischievous quality. This is a queen who rules by caprice, deeply likable for all that, and with a vein of wistfulness that fore-

I Stratford covers a wide spectrum of emotions

shadows her fate. Dale’s speaking voice is a trifle shrill—she seems to warble out her lines rather than speak them. In this she is the mirror image of McCamus, whose lack of a strong singing voice means he has to partly talk his way through the songs à la Richard Burton (who first created the role for Broadway), but whose actorly skills allow him to create an Arthur who grows in sympathy and depth.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, directed by Diana Leblanc.

Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama about a self-deluded New York salesman, Willy Loman, makes the implicit argument that the American dream is toxic. Its promise of opportunity and success might lure some people to riches, but it can also grind down those like Willy, who can’t reconcile the dream’s mythic proportions with their own smallness.

Today, that disjunction has generated widespread cynicism, but in Miller’s play it produces a kind of heroic resistance. Willy is a man who believes in the big gesture, the big sale. But he is really only a mediocre salesman with diminishing prospects. Rather than accept this, he inflates his own self-image and, worse, involves his family in the illusion. But as the play opens, the game is running out. Business is down for Willy (AÍ Waxman), while his two sons, Biff ( Geordie Johnson) and Happy (Graham Abbey), have reached their 30s without fulfilling the promise of their youth. And Willy, despite the singleminded devotion of his wife, Linda (Martha Henry), is having suicidal thoughts.

Miller’s great play makes Willy’s desperation ordinary enough to be universal, yet strange enough to be fascinating—a balance illuminated by Stratford’s solid, somewhat conservative, production. The cast convincingly evokes the inbred, neurotic interdependencies of a family living out a lie. But at the same time, the actors convey the Lomans’ beleaguered dignity.

Henry’s deeply sympathetic Linda provides the show’s bedrock. In some interpretations, Linda turns into a kind of wheedling second fiddle to Willy. But Henry, her face a deeply engraved mask of worry, gives the character a plangent subtlety and strength. The scene in which Linda briskly sets the table while simultaneously making an impassioned defence of Willy to her sons shows just what a complicated balancing act she must manage. Meanwhile, Johnson’s superb Biff is poised on a knife edge between his urge to escape his family and the compulsion to fulfil his father’s dreams. His jaw rigidly set, his voice oddly muffled, Johnson provides most of the show’s explosiveness.

Waxman might have been expected to supply more of it himself. With his wry grin and crumpling features, he certainly looks the part of Willy. And he does give a skilfully crafted performance that evokes the salesman’s pathos. But his Willy is too opaque, too earthbound, too far from desperation. He never really catches the tragic fever that would light the stage.

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Rose.

It is a measure of the Bard’s greatness that even a comedy as politically incorrect as this one continues to be performed.

Never mind that it is about a man, Petruchio (Peter Donaldson) , who subdues his shrewish new wife, Katherina (Lucy Peacock) , by starving her into docility. The play is crammed with such wonderfully exuberant language, characters and plot twists that it overflows with a sense of abundant, profligate life. Director Richard Rose has honored these qualities in a production that spills over the bare thrust stage of the Festival Theatre like river water foaming over a rock. He has changed the setting from Padua, Italy, to Little Italy in the New York City of the 1960s— and filled it with all the bravura of an immigrant culture embracing the riches and risks of a new world. Here are the short skirts, the accents, the flashy suits and finned cars. Here, too, are religious processions in which the faithful totter after a drunken priest, and a local band plays sentimental Italian tunes.

In fact, Rose lays on so much incidental detail and color that the play—and any mood it might be generating—sometimes gets overwhelmed. Yet through it all, his Shrew boils with an erotic energy that has something almost mythic about it, as though Katherina and Petruchio were the heroes of some divine orgy of regeneration. In many stagings of the play, these two are antagonists, but hardly lovers. Yet there is a definite sexual charge between Peacock’s Katherina and Donaldson’s Petruchio. Their battle of wills—at one point she breaks a raw egg over his head —is really just an unconventional mating dance.

And Katherina, it seems, is not, ultimately, subdued. There is a flash of irony in her eye, a pride that calls her intentions into question as she delivers the notoriously troubling speech at the end of the play—in which she calls upon all women to honor their husbands as their kings and governors. As the happy couple go off to bed, it seems that their relationship will continue to evolve, and that in the long run, Katherina may well prove the stronger of the two.

It is a delight to see Peacock return to the Stratford stage after a two-year absence. Her Katherina, appearing dramatically in a scarlet blouse and form-hugging black pedal pushers, generates a scalding in-your-face bitchiness that in no way diminishes her sexiness. And

Donaldson’s balding, middleaged Petruchio has a rumpled charm, an attractive, slightly roguish masculinity that has no need to preen or strain. Although it owes much to Monette’s poetic, modern-dress Shrew of 1988, this production cuts exciting new ground of its own.

Little Women, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s book by Marisha Chamberlain, directed by Marti Maraden.

Alcott’s 1869 novel has been treasured by generations of girls and women who have found an echo of their own hopes and fears in the fictional March family. With their father away fighting in the American Civil War, the four March daughters and their mother create a world in which the female spirit is dominant, and men merely gallant helpers on the periphery. In a patriarchal society, there is something almost subversive about this vision, as though Alcott were serving up a secret nourishing cordial to her readers. American playwright Chamberlain has adapted the story flawlessly. All the characters are intact: prissy Amy (Cassie Fox), shy Beth (Claire Jullien), romantic Meg (Fiona Byrne), tomboyish Jo (Kristina Nicoll) and, of course, Marmee (Dixie Seatle), the

wise and loving mother of the clan. In creating a snug, almost dollhouse-like setting for the Marches, designer John Pennoyer has caught Alcott’s sentimental tone exactly. Tragedy does intrude—as in the book, Beth contracts a fatal fever— but ultimately this is a world where the harshest swearword is “Christopher Columbus” and forgiveness reigns. The delicate tissue of this dream is beautifully handled by director Maraden and her cast, who turn what might have been maudlin into a tale of some poignancy. Nicoll is particularly fine as Jo, the teenager with literary ambitions and a deep aversion to marriage. Jo seems even more of a misfit than she herself is aware. Today, she might well be announcing to her mother that she had more than sisterly feelings for other girls. No doubt the indomitable Marmee could have handled it. □

Also running: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, directed by Diana Leblanc. Opening later in the summer: Richard III by William Shakespeare (June 25), Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey (June 26), Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (June 27), Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (Aug. 8), Wingfield Unbound by Dan Needles (Aug. 8), Filumena by Eduardo De Filippo (Aug. 9), and Equus by Peter Shaffer (Sept. 10).