Entertainment

Stratford Casts a Spell

A stellar production of The Tempest heads the annual Shakespearean festival

John Bemrose July 5 1999
Entertainment

Stratford Casts a Spell

A stellar production of The Tempest heads the annual Shakespearean festival

John Bemrose July 5 1999

Stratford Casts a Spell

A stellar production of The Tempest heads the annual Shakespearean festival

Entertainment

John Bemrose

When a great actor at the height of his powers meets Shakespeare—who is always at the height of his—the result can be spellbinding. It’s happening right now at the Stratford Festival, which recently opened its 47th season in the pretty former railway town of Stratford, Ont., a two-hour drive west of Toronto. The play is The Tempest, the late work traditionally viewed as the Bard’s farewell to his art. The actor is 79year-old William Hutt, who is approaching the end of his own stellar career. As Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan who rules an island kingdom by magical powers, Hutt is nothing less than miraculous. He speaks Shakespeare’s verse from such a deep place within himself that it reaches out and touches the same deep place in the listener. Hearing this Prospero is like eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts, expressed in a voice as resonant as a sea cave and as subtle as, well, thought itself.

Asked to explain the secret of Hutt’s performance, The Tempest's director, Richard Monette, simply shrugs and says: “That’s just greatness.” True enough. But Monette—speaking in the cluttered, smoky office where for five years he has worked as Stratford’s artistic boss—also knows as well as anyone how hard Hutt works in rehearsal. And he is aware how the actor is drawing on his experience with The Tempest, a play he has appeared in two times before at Stratford. In fact, Hutt’s current performance (which runs to Nov. 7) could stand as a crowning emblem for the way theatrical experience accumulates and deepens, not just in one actor’s lifetime, but across the generations. “The younger people are very lucky to be in this production, because it will be one of their last chances to work with Bill,” says Monette, once a Shakespearean lead actor himself. “That whole generation of actors—Hutt, Butch Blake, Douglas Campbell, Douglas Rain and so on—who have been at Stratford from the early days are verging on retirement now. It’s extremely important that we find a way to carry on their inheritance.”

Monette is very big on the place of classical actors in a tradition he traces right back to Shakespeare’s own players. “Unless you’re connected to other actors who are connected to older ac-

tors, who have handed the skills down, you have no grammar, you have no history,” Monette declares. And he stresses that that tradition, even at Stratford, is in danger as never before. “This is an era where there’s no great respect for the word made flesh, as I call the theatre,” Monette says, sketching out a scenario in which most people seeking entertainment—and most actors seeking employment—are drawn into the dominant world of films and videos. By contrast, he maintains that the marvellous thing about the senior actors who have spent most of their careers at Stratford is that they have been largely free of these influences: “They weren’t distracted by appearing in bad television or commercials. They just got better and better at their craft of putting on the classic plays.”

To ensure that the veterans can pass on what they know to younger actors, Monette has just founded the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. Backed by a $6-million fund, this outgrowth of earlier programs such as

Stratford’s Young Company will train an annual selection of the finest young actors from across the country. During a 16week course, they will get intensive instruction in such vital arcana as speaking iambic pentameter and looking at the world from an Elizabethan point of view. “When my tenure’s over,” comments Monette, “I think the conservatory will be the most important thing I leave behind. It’s an investment in the future, and a living tribute to Shakespeare.”

Monette has made another kind of tribute to Shakespeare with his poignant, strongly acted Tempest, enhanced by Meredith Caron’s eccentrically beautiful props and costumes. This production turns on the moment when Prospero, prompted by his attending spirit, Ariel (Michael Therriault), decides to forswear revenge and forgive the men who took his Dukedom from him—and who have been shipwrecked on the island where he is serving out his banishment. The moral note, sounded so deeply and memorably here, suffuses the entire show. Time and again, this Tempest demonstrates that love is about granting freedom to others. Yet, paradoxically, it is the monster Caliban (Peter Hutt, William’s nephew)—the one creature Prospero does not set free—who remains the most memorable of the island’s inmates. Hutt gives Caliban a centaur-like dignity and his delivery of the famous speech evoking the strange music that haunts the island is exquisitely moving.

Meanwhile, Monette’s exuberant if rather opaque production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to Nov. 3) is fun to watch, but fails to equal the magical charm of the festival’s f 993 version, shaped by visiting Irish director Joe Dowling. At times, the humour leans so far overboard it almost swamps the show. Yet Brian Bedford’s subtly naive, pie-faced Bottom—he seems as comically far from self-awareness as he is from the moon—is one of the delights of the new season.

There is also comedy in director Diana LeBlanc’s truly awful version of Macbeth (to Sept. 26)—though it is surely unintentional. Rod Beattie mysteriously opts to play the title role in such a mumbling, understated way that he sounds about as

dangerous as Mr. Dressup. It doesn’t work— and neither do LeBlanc’s odder directorial choices, like having Macbeth interrupt his murderous career to serve snacks in a barbecue apron. Beattie’s real-life partner, Martha Henry (as Lady Macbeth), and the rest of the cast turn in some impressive work—to no avail.

Romeo andJuliet. Tyley Ross plays Tony and Ma-Anne Dionisio plays Maria—the focus of Tony’s haunting love-ballad Maria.

While this production never quite touches the highest realms of pathos, it’s potent enough to make the most jaded watcher tremble again with the pangs of first love.

Stratford’s other musical, Dracula (to Nov. 7)—from Canada’s Richard Ouzounian (book, lyrics and direction) and Marek Norman (music)—could use fewer songs and some more, and better, dialogue to overcome a certain dramatic sluggishness. But with an electrifying Juan Chioran in the title role, this pocket musical of only seven performers still manages to evoke the profoundly erotic undertones in Bram Stoker’s 1897 tale. Another recasting of a famous book, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (to Nov. 6), has been strongly staged by Jeannette Lambermont. Austen purists may find the comedy a bit broad, but the busy matchmaking life of the Bennet family is affectionately caught. By the time Austen’s befuddled heroine, Elizabeth Bennet (the magnificent Lucy Peacock), ends the play in her true love’s arms, the handkerchiefs are out and the festival has a bonafide hit on its hands. EH

Stratford is having better luck with its musicals. Those two famous gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, rumble again in the festival’s explosive version of Leonard Bernstein’s classic 1957 musical, West Side Story (to Nov. 6)—itself a retelling of Shakespeare’s