After 23 years, there’s a changing of the guard at a festival showcasing the great playwright
Christopher Newton is sitting where he always does on the Shaw Festival’s opening night, in the high box on the south wall of the Festival Theatre. Over the years, the actors on stage have grown to expect the sight of his silverhaired, bespectacled figure looking down on them, offering quiet support amid the uncertainties of launching a new show. Tonight, the members of Newton’s company—a close-knit bunch who like to call themselves a family—are kicking off the festivals 41st season with his own richly staged production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. As laughter rolls through the theatre, Newton grins
with pleasure. His love of the theatre seems as fresh as when he first arrived as artistic director 23 years ago.
There’s a poignancy in the air tonight because this is Newton’s last season as head of the Shaw, which runs every year in the pretty colonial-era town of Niagara-onthe-Lake, Ont., a two-hour drive south of Toronto. The longest-serving artistic director in the country, he’s also, beyond a doubt, one of the most successful. Despite years of government cutbacks, he leaves to his successor, Jackie Maxwell, a financially robust festival and an internationally respected acting ensemble with a reputation for vibrant, intelligent productions of the plays of Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries.
A few days before the opening, I dropped into Newton’s office to chat with him about his departure. The English-born director sat behind a desk buried under books and papers, gesturing freely with his large hands as he spoke in his ruminating, rather dramatic way about his plans. “What I’m looking forward to most about leaving this job,” says the 65-year-old, “is telling the truth. As artistic director, you spend your whole life selling the institution you’ve committed yourself to. It’s your job to sell your vision of the place, if you’ve got one. So you don’t actually confront the truth. You’re selling an idea of what might be. I can’t wait to be able to say of a show or an idea or a performance, ‘I hate that!’ ” And Newton throws back his head and laughs heartily.
His first two seasons at the festival were so controversial that the good burghers of Niagara-on-the-Lake nearly ran him out of town. The problem was, he’d taken their respectable dramatic hero, George Bernard Shaw, and scandalized audiences by introducing nudity into productions of Shaw’s Misalliance and Saint Joan. “I was trying to
blow the cobwebs off what was possible here,” Newton says. “I was trying to get this rather conservative little theatre to rejoin the rest of the theatrical world.” It wasn’t easy. The noted American Shaw scholar, Dan Lawrence, stormed into Newton’s office and accused him of cheap titillation. “I practically threw him out physically,” Newton recalls.
Newton has often acknowledged that, at first, he didn’t value Shaw highly enough. But he soon discovered that under the talky, drawing-room surfaces of Shaw’s plays was a passionate, questing intelligence with a great deal to say to contemporary audiences. He turned himself into one of the world’s most original directors of Shavian drama: his great 1985 version of Heartbreak House is still talked about, with its Michael Levine set featuring a drawing room that uncannily grew larger as the first scene progressed. Even now Newton finds fresh evidence of the Irish playwright’s relevance. He speaks excitedly of Cleopatras portrait of realpolitik in the Middle East: “These characters—these soldier politicians—they’re saying things in this play that Ariel Sharon probably said yesterday.”
For all his own fieriness about the relevance of theatre, Newton has grown into a self-described “conservative artist” who believes in connecting intelligently with audiences, as opposed to shocking them. In fact, the ambience at his festival is rather genteel, from the black-tie opening nights (“one of the things an audience can do to show their respect for the work in front of them is to actually dress properly”) to the manicured gardens that surround the Shaw’s main theatre (one of three). Then there are the program essays that carefully lead the reader into Newton’s vision for the place, which is to show how Shaw and his contemporary playwrights reflected and helped shape the birth of the modern world.
And what of the shows themselves? Over the years, Newton’s festival has struck a lighter note than some might wish. It’s true, the theatre has tackled—often successfully—some major works by some of Shaw’s greatest contemporaries, including Chekhov, Ibsen and Synge. And director Neil Munro’s electric presentation of the under-appreciated works of Harley Granville Barker has been a revelation. But Newton’s main emphasis—aside from Shaw—has been on minor British plays
such as this year’s 1935 social drama The Old Ladies by Rodney Ackland, or last summer’s hit from 1905, The Return of the Prodigalby St John Hankin, which is being repeated this year. Such works, usually presented with brio and insight, have given Newton’s festival a quasi-English feel—in fact, his company has become expert at mimicking regional British accents.
A Canadian nationalist, Newton bristles at any suggestion that the Shaw—which also does some American musicals and plays—is some kind of colonial implant. But at the very least it has a strong international anglophone flavour, a reflection of Newton’s interest in the English-speaking countries that have evolved from die British Empire. After he steps down, Newton, who shares a local Regency-style cottage with his companion, Nicholas McMartin, wants to write a book about the arts in New Zealand and Australia, and he remains fascinated by the United States as a breakaway part of the old Empire. “How do the
parts of the empire fit in?” he says. “What does the English language mean? The diaspora of the English language is one of the most extraordinary things in world history.” Down the hall, I find Jackie Maxwell struggling with the program on her laptop. An amiable woman of 46, the artistic director designate has a long track record that includes running Toronto’s Factory Theatre for nine years. “I’m well aware of the size of the shoes I have to fill here,” says Maxwell, who has two daughters, 13 and 10, with her husband, actor Benedict Campbell. “But at the same time, I feel there’s a wonderful organization behind me—people who trust Chris’s choice of me. I feel if I go out on a limb there’ll be good people out there with me.”
Is Maxwell hinting that major changes are on the way? She measures her answer carefully. “Just as Chris developed his acting company slowly and organically, I want to change things gradually. One thing we won’t change is the spirit of rigorous investigation the company brings to every piece they do.” Besides the usual works by Shaw, Maxwell envisions staging more foreignlanguage dramas (to be presented in fresh translation by Canadian writers), more contemporary plays (including some Canadian ones) about Shaw’s period, and perhaps more American drama similar to William Inge’s Picnic, mounted in a steamy production last year by Maxwell herself. “That piece played at a higher emotional temperature than the actors are normally used to here,” she says approvingly. “There’s something wonderful about that emotional, overwrought, 1950s Americana. It’s a rich vein I’d like to explore further.” In the meantime, Maxwell is directing this year’s Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, as well as Shaw’s Candida. And then there’s the matter of her clothes. Maxwell favours oversized white blouses, slacks and her trademark black leather jacket, but she feels she needs a new wardrobe for those fancy premieres and encounters with corporate sponsors. “At the moment I think I’m as worried about my clothes as about my own openings!” On the season’s first night she turns up in a crisply tailored charcoal grey suit, and seems supremely at ease as she circulates among various groups of theatre-goers and actors. The signal seems clear: Dad may be leaving, but Mom is poised to take charge. As far as anyone can tell at this point, the Shaw family remains in competent hands. CD
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