Theatre

BETTING ON MACBETH

Desperate for winners, Stratford has a lot riding on the play’s homegrown star

John Bemrose June 21 2004
Theatre

BETTING ON MACBETH

Desperate for winners, Stratford has a lot riding on the play’s homegrown star

John Bemrose June 21 2004

BETTING ON MACBETH

Theatre

Desperate for winners, Stratford has a lot riding on the play’s homegrown star

JOHN BEMROSE

GRAHAM ABBEY turns up for his interview looking like the elite volleyball player he once was. Damp hair pushed back, he takes exhausted swigs from his water bottle as if he’d just come off the court. But he’s been doing something he rates as far tougher than diving for an opponent’s spikes—playing Macbeth at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. This afternoon he’s just finished a matinee for a volatile audience of high school students. “Some kids come in here to be shit disturbers,” notes Abbey, settling into a chair backstage. “And with this group, when the lights went down they were screaming. But they came ’round—the story held them.” His success in focusing the attention of the

Abbey is superstitious about his role, and never refers to the Scottish king by name

hormonally challenged sounds a welcome bright note for the $52-million festival. Stratford has been struggling. Last year, with SARS and other crises, it took a beating at the box office, though in the end it managed to pull out a small surplus. This year, inexplicably, ticket sales are lagging well behind last season’s. Stratford desperately needs some winners, and the festival is banking that Abbey’s Macbeth is one of them. In his nine seasons at Stratford, Abbey, 33, has excelled at young, attractive male leads. He’s created a memorable Romeo and a com-

pelling Henry V, infusing them with his distinctive blend of strong feeling, clarity and earnestness. But the renegade Scottish king represents a whole other level of difficulty. Macbeth with his tortured ambitions demands more intelligence, emotional openness and richness of personality than most actors are able to give. “Playing this role terrifies me,” Abbey says. “Any actor has to be humbled by trying to fill such a character.” Abbey grew up largely in Stratford, where he spent a couple of seasons as a child actor at the festival. But he was also a fine volleyball player who competed internationally for Canada. Later, when he went off to Queen’s to earn a poli-sci degree, he kept

playing until knee injuries ended his career as a jock and sent him back to the stage. Today, he sees his athletic skills as a great asset, especially in Macbeth. “At the end of this three-hour emotional journey, you have to do this monstrous fight with swords. It helps if you know how to handle yourself.” As well, the play is so demanding vocally that after every show, he has to nurse his voice with steam treatment and special exercises.

Abbey seems haunted by the role. A selfdescribed extrovert, he now spends a lot of time alone winding down from one performance or preparing for the next. And the current play can crop up at the most unlikely moments: “Suddenly, I’ll find myself angry at people I’m talking to. I’ll think, ‘Where’s this coming from?’ And then I’ll realize I’ve got too much Macbeth in me.”

Like many actors who believe Macbeth can be a source of bad luck, Abbey is superstitious about the play. He won’t say Macbeth’s name outright, but refers to his character as “this guy.” His precautions haven’t protected him, however, from some very odd occurrences. A few nights before the premiere, he was reading the play in bed when the lights in his house started flicking on and off for no apparent reason. The next day, he found Nicholas Pennell’s makeup box sitting on a stool in a secondhand store. The Stratford veteran, who died in 1995, had been Abbey’s mentor—as well as starring in the first Macbeth the young actor ever saw. “Playing this guy,” the actor says, shaking his head, “is by far the strangest, most intense thing I’ve ever done.”

SEVEN SHOWS are now up and running at Stratford, with eight more to come in a season that stretches into early November. So far, the standout drama is director Stephen Ouimette’s powerful Timon of Athens. Like Macbeth, this rarely performed Shakespearean work sinks or soars with its star, and Ouimette has found an astonishing Timon in Stratford veteran Peter Donaldson. The tale of a rich, overly generous man whose friends desert him when his fortunes turn, the play demands an actor who can move from charming worldliness to a bitterness both witty and moving. Growling his way through Shakespeare’s stark poetry, Donaldson turns the drama into an end-of-theworld tragicomedy that out-Becketts Beckett.

Another thoroughgoing success is director Kelly Robinson’s explosively joyous ver-

sion of the classic musical Guys and Dolls. This story of Broadway gamblers and their molls has its share of famous songs (I’ve Never Been in Love Before and Luck, Be a Lady) but derives most of its verve from the eternal youthfulness of its four main characters. Sheila McCarthy, Geordie Johnson, Cynthia Dale and Scott Wentworth share the spotlight, each outbidding the other in warmhearted wackiness and charm.

One of the most anticipated shows this year is Leon Rubin’s A Midsummer Night ’s Dream. Last season, Rubin made an unlikely hit of the Bard’s difficult, rarely performed Pericles, so it seemed likely this gifted English director would make gold of the perennially popular Dream. Certainly, Rubin’s version is inventive and broadly entertaining, with fairies painted up like Amazonian Indians soaring high above the stage on trapezes. On opening night, the youthful cast seemed to be trying too hard,

but this production should soften and deepen with time. Thom Marriott’s Bottom steals the show, offering a take on the vanity of actors so funny you may miss half his lines from laughing.

The cast of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Andrey Tarasiuk, is also quite young. But although this family-oriented tale of romance, sword fights and high intrigue lacks the fuller timbre more experienced actors might have given it, its energetic storytelling should convince adults they’re eight years old again—and children that the world is an interesting place indeed.

And what of Abbey’s Macbeth? The actor gives an intense, often convincing performance. But he has yet to find all the danger and soulfulness necessary to completely animate the evil king. Meanwhile, the production veers between enlightening innovation and the wrong-headed addition of scenes Shakespeare never wrote. Lucy Peacock’s Lady Macbeth, however, is a revelation. Her sleepwalking scene, delivered on a vast white sheet, in a blinding light, seems ripped from the very heart of darkness. ]

GROWLING the

stark poetry, Donaldson turns Timon into an endof-the-world tragicomedy that out-Becketts Beckett