Theatre

Passion for the past

John Bemrose June 9 1997
Theatre

Passion for the past

John Bemrose June 9 1997

Passion for the past

Theatre

JOHN BEMROSE

Christopher Newton—actor, gardener, history buff and artistic director of Ontario’s Shaw Festival—sips tea at his kitchen table, telling a visitor about the human skeleton exhumed several years ago from the grounds of his cottage in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a two-hour drive south of Toronto. “There was a rusty bayonet buried with it,” Newton says, “so I think it must have belonged to a soldier who had been killed and buried on the spot during the 1812-to-1814 war with the States.” And he launches into a complicated speculation about the origins of his Regency-style workman’s cottage, which he thinks was built on the foundations of an earlier structure destroyed when a retreating American army burned the entire town in 1813. It seems entirely in character that Newton has looked into the matter so thoroughly. Over his 18 seasons as head of one of the Englishspeaking world’s finest theatre troupes, he has explored the festival’s mandate—which is to perform the works of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries— with a passion for the past that has unearthed much that is obscure and forgotten.

Take the first week of the festival’s current season, which opened on May 21 and runs until Oct 26. It features the usual play by Shaw—this year, his 1894 drama about prostitution, Mrs Warren’s Profession, and a remounting of last year’s successful production of J. M. Synge’s 1906 Irish classic, The Playboy of the Western World.

But typically, Newton has also resurrected such rarities as Vernon Sylvaine’s 1950 farce,

Will Any Gentleman ?, and Martin Vale’s 1935 murder-mystery, The Two Mrs Carrolls.

And then there is Harold Brighouse’s 1915 tale of a drunken shoemaker, Hobson’s Choice, which proved so popular last summer that Newton is trotting it out again as a surefire moneymaker.

For the silver-haired Newton, still youthfully enthusiastic at 61, half the pleasure in mounting such plays seems to be finding them in the first place. “I love a paper trail,” he says of his researches. “I’m like a magpie picking up one thing after another. At the moment, I’m interested in a musical for the 1998 season that Vernon Duke wrote in London in the 1920s, called The Yellow Mask.

The Shaw Festival’s leader hunts down drama

Where the hell do I find a copy of this thing? And what on earth was it like? And do we have an audience that would trust me if I announced we were performing it?” With the confidence of someone who knows the festival’s $6.3-million box-office sales to date are 15-per-cent ahead of last year’s (and the 1996 season was a record-breaker), he adds, “I think we do have that audience.”

Not everyone appreciates Newton’s taste for obscure old plays and musicals. The Globe and Mail recently chastised him for wasting the skills of his troupe on too many fluffy minor works, and failing to stage enough “great productions of great plays.” TEe newspaper has a point, and yet that criticism overlooks the tremen| dous pressure on Newton to prori duce a certain number of crowd| pleasers in order to keep the % festival afloat (today a mere eight ¡i per cent of its $13.3-million bud“■ get comes from government grants, as opposed to around 30 per cent in the profligate 1960s). Newton’s festival has also shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. “Nine or 10 years ago, it seemed to plateau out and lose direction a bit,” says Bob Baker, artistic director of Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company. “But Newton brought in new directors, and in the last several years, it has really gone through a renaissance. I’ve never seen the festival more confident, more sure of its audience.” Baker also praises the new version of Mrs Warren’s Profession as “one of the most solid, fresh, alive, innovative productions I’ve seen in a long time, anywhere.”

Besides Shaw, Newton’s troupe has also dared to tackle such difficult playwrights as Harley Granville Barker, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Still, such challenges are rare at the festival. Much more common are the old, middle-of-the-road British works that Newton revives (he mounts a lesser number of American ones as well, but hardly any Canadian plays, since few good ones predate 1950). Inevitably, these shows receive exquisitely recreated period settings—in the case of Hobson’s Choice, the Victorian streets and interiors of Salford, England. Even the accents are localized. To teach his actors the hardedged Lancashire pronunciation required for Hobson’s Choice, Newton sometimes opened rehearsals by showing them a few minutes of Coronation Street, which is set in the same city. And then there are the programs distributed with each performance: crammed with informative essays and photographs, they reflect Newton’s belief that each play can be a doorway of discovery to a particular era.

The dominant British note in Newton’s festival clearly pleases most of its patrons. But many cultural nationalists are critical, arguing that the artistic director is recreating the experience of a younger, colonial Canada, where Canadians watched actors with British accents put on British plays reflecting the superior culture of the motherland. The irony is that Newton himself sometimes talks like a cultural nationalist about the need for Canadians to reflect their own culture and history—and moreover, he has better credentials for his position than many of his critics suspect. Although he has a British background—he was born in 1936 in the small town of Deal on the southeast English coast—he has been in Canada since 1961, following an acting and directing career that parallels the meteoric rise of the country’s theatre scene.

He has acted in many important theatres across the country. And in 1968 he became the founding artistic director of Theatre Calgary where, among his other accomplishments, he staged a play he helped write, about a real-life balloon voyage made in the last century from the Stampede grounds.

Newton’s successful threeyear stint in Calgary was followed by six highly creative 2 years as the artistic director of £ the Vancouver Playhouse, where he nurtured some of the same actors who are with him at Niagaraon-the-Lake today. Known as something of a firebrand, Newton presented several controversial productions in Vancouver, including director Derek Goldby’s version of Bertolt Brecht’s A Respectable Wedding, which climaxed with the groom trying to rape his bride with a wine bottle. When Newton took up the artistic directorship of the Shaw Festival in 1980, he tried to revive the stumbling, debt-written organization with the same kind of raunchy, in-your-face theatre. The experiment was a spectacular failure. Critics and patrons alike called for his dismissal (he still makes jokes about having to barricade himself in his cottage in order to escape the angry burghers of Niagara-on-the Lake) and the debt grew. But in his third year, he turned around the festival’s fortunes with some solid productions, including a memorable staging of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac starring Heath Lamberts.

It was around that time as well that New-

ton began to change his opinion of Shaw and his works, which he had once dismissed as so much rhetorical hot air. He told Keith Garebian, author of the 1993 study George Bernard Shaw and Christopher Newton, that he discovered “there was more to Shaw than I ever dreamed of: surreal, resonant, troubling. A look beneath the surface, and I glimpsed unimagined demons.” Newton gave such masterpieces as Heartbreak House and Man and Superman productions of revelatory originality and power. And, in return, Shaw gave Newton something of his pantheistic religious notions. “I believe in what he believed in: the Life Force,” Newton says, “I think he was right. There is a power flowing through life that connects all of us.”

During his 18 seasons at the festival, Newton has lavished a great deal of life force on developing his troupe of actors. He has always refused—unlike Ontario’s Stratford Festival—to bring in British or American guest stars, not wanting to upset the delicate ecology of what he calls his “ensemble.” According to veteran Shaw actor Michael Ball, even within the company “there isn’t a star system operating. Nobody goes around considering himself a star.” In fact, festival actors will often shift back and forth between major and minor roles—which in some ensembles would signal a rising or falling status, with all the attendant bad feelings. But Ball says that Newton has been successful in promoting an amicable atmosphere: “If there are any jealousies or rivalries, they’re certainly very much under the surface.” Newton says he worries constantly about getting too comfortable in the job, about no longer being able to rock the boat a bit. “As you get older you become afraid,” he says.

Afraid, and attached to the comforts that come with success. “There’s one part of me that enjoys my life here,” he adds, “enjoys having been able to save the money to buy this house.” He feels that one of his best defences against complacency is his own willingness to take criticism from his actors, even the younger ones, whom he sometimes affectionately calls “the kids.” Says Newton, who has no children of his own: “I do hope they have enough faith in the fact that I’m not going to dismiss them if they’re critical of what we’re doing. I mean, I like the normal amount of praise, but if something isn’t working, if it’s dying on its feet, I do hope they tell me.”

Newton has other ways of keeping himself sharp. He is returning to acting this year, taking on the lead role of Evan Strowde in

The Secret Life, which opens on Aug. 13. (“You have to lead from the front,” he remarks of this foray into his old profession. ‘You have to take the bullet.”) And he has plans to produce some more of those lost, old plays he keeps digging up. Yet he is also aware that retirement, at least from the festival, is in the offing. “I’m coming to the end of my time,” Newton says, “I don’t think I should go past the year 2000, or 2002 at the very limit. I’ll be in my mid-60s then, and with any luck there’ll be somebody appearing who can take over.”

When that day comes, he will no doubt have plenty to do reading the hundreds of books he has accumulated, or tending his beloved gardens around the cottage he shares with his companion, Nicholas MacMartin. But he cannot see himself leaving theatre entirely. “I’d like to direct some difficult things, some odd things,” he says, contemplating life after the festival, “something completely off the wall.” □