Until this year the Stratford Festival, Canada’s largest and best-known theatrical enterprise, had been falling further and further into artistic decline. The festival, which likes to call itself “Canada’s national theatre,” was presenting poorly acted exercises in kitschy dramatic reverence. The tiresome Shakespeare productions were clearly geared to a critically unnoticing summer tourist crowd eager to soak up culture. Jean Gascon had been artistic director of the festival for seven years; as a director he was occasionally responsible for a stunning production, but the festival went into doldrums under his tutelage. Stratford didn’t come close in reflecting the excitement in Canadian theatre that was developing elsewhere during that period. When the physically and artistically exhausted Gascon announced his departure there was a general sigh of relief and hopes for a vibrant Stratford were rekindled.
It was assumed that when the festival’s board of directors went scouting for Gascon’s replacement they would seek out someone from the string of regional theatres across the country, but after looking over the domestic crop the board finally chose Robin Phillips, a Briton.
Phillips’ appointment as the festival’s new artistic director brought an angry reaction from many who considered the choice an insult to Canada’s burgeoning theatre community. The Canadian Theatre Review reflected a large body of opinion when it editorialized: “It’s an appointment which, if nothing else, is at least historic; no other country in the world has a foreigner running its national theatre.” There were angry demands that the appointment be withdrawn. The festival’s board had interviewed a couple of Canadians before picking Phillips, who tactfully observes: “I may be just a stopgap while young Canadian directors develop muscles which aren’t quite there yet.” Phillips, now 34, left behind an acting career in England (The Forsyte Saga, David Copperfield) and a directing career that included West End hits and a famous innovative production of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Still, there were those who doubted his credentials and especially doubted he could turn Stratford around, but when he announced plans for his first season — 1975 — it was obvious that Phillips was out to transform the festival. He created what he called the “Young Company,” bringing to Stratford some of the most talented actors from across the country, such people as Jackie Burroughs, Gale Garnett, Nicholas Pennell and Mia Anderson. The Young Company works under Phillips’ direction at the Avon, Stratford’s medium-sized house, which has been groping for an identity since it was taken over by the festival. He announced that he wanted to make the festival’s three theatres more integrated in their operations, thus taking away some of the emphasis traditionally placed on the 2,258-seat Festival Theatre.
“We have to find ways to share Shakespeare with a modern audience,” Phillips says. “We cannot do Shakespeare in a cage — and have the audience look in and say, ‘Aren’t the Crown Jewels wonderful!’ Stratford is not an exhibition. It is a home of live, relevant theatre.” He proved his point with the two Shakespearean productions he did with the Young Company at the Avon (which in itself was an unconventional move since Shakespeare had previously belonged exclusively to the Festival Theatre).
Both productions are invigorating, witty and sophisticated — an altogether new approach to Shakespeare at Stratford. He moves the plays forward in time, thoughtfully extracting and developing fresh humor and pathos, but retaining, always, the language as the predominant feature. The Comedy Of Errors is set in the West of the 1.9th century (the productions did tour western Canada last winter). The stage is dominated by a huge covered wagon, and the cast bursts into rousing song on numerous occasions. Phillips populates The Two Gentlemen Of Verona with elegant, sexy jet-setters; there’s a troup of sunbathers in the background (and one character who’s a dead ringer for Robert Redford). On the Festival stage Phillips personally directs a splendid Measure For Measure, set in Edwardian Vienna; he manages, beautifully, to pull out exciting new strains in the cumbersome play. Also on the Festival stage is British director David Jones’ production of Twelfth Night, given a more traditional interpretation, but nonetheless lucid and delightful. These four productions represent a refreshing switch from the old Stratford and its pompous, costume-pageant approach to Shakespeare. Unfortunately there’s still a lingering taste of the old Stratford —William Hutt’s production of Saint Joan. It’s pretentious and full of spectacle and lacking emotional depth. And in the title role, longtime ¡Stratford leading lady Pat Galloway gives a stiff, posturing performance, the sort that will hopefully soon be banished from Stratford.
Phillips’ success has not gone unnoticed; the festival hasn’t received such a string of critical raves in years. Influential American critic Clive Barnes visited Stratford in the summer and wrote, “No theatre company has changed so much in one year. Mr. Phillips has worked wonders.” It seems, based on early returns, that Canada’s top theatre has been saved from the fate of turning into a theatrical warhorse.
If Phillips has failed at all, it is in finding and presenting Canadian plays. And if it is failure, it is one that he shares with his predecessors. For years the Canadian theatre community has been grumbling about the lack of Canadian drama at Stratford. Even before he arrived, Phillips vowed to do something about that, but so far he hasn’t: only one Canadian production, Michael Tait’s Fellowship, is featured this season. Especially because he’s a foreigner, Phillips will have to rectify this situation or face heavy — and in some ways, justified — criticism.
He may even find himself, some misty morning, on the banks of the Avon, crossing sabres with west coast director John Juliani, who was so infuriated when Phillips’ appointment to Stratford was announced that he immediately challenged him to a duel.
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