Like Jesus, the Stratford Festival’s artistic director Robin Phillips is intent upon saving the good wine until last, “last” referring, of course, to his final season there next year. Word has it that he’ll bring back some of the big guns—Maggie Smith, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy—and lavish protean portions of time and energy on those forthcoming productions, to add further glory to the fanfare surrounding his departure. Meanwhile, in saving the best until last, Phillips has allowed the current season to lie fallow, devoting much time to petal-picking ponderings regarding his tenure: “I’ll go, I won’t go, I’ll go ...” Some ears can almost hear, “I won’t dance, don’t ask me.” Those ears that have survived the onslaught of Stratford’s second opening last week, ears that expected to come into contact with theatre of international calibre (thanks to Phillips’ efforts during the last few years), have been sent home with a slight ache.
To look on the bright side, the festival has indeed nowhere to go but up. Three new productions run the gamut from good (a decent rendering of Canadian playwright Steve Petch’s decent new play, Victoria) to bad (an inadequate North American premiere of Edward Bond’s The Woman) to worst (a somewhat disgraceful Othello).
Shakespeare’s most sexual play, Othello makes gale-force emotional demands on its actors. And it requires a tireless conviction from its director, who should be obsessed with showing us the startling and sad spectacle of a splendid human being reduced to the modus operandi of a monster. Director Frances Hyland, one of Canada’s best actresses, hasn’t brought that conviction to bear on the play, delivering instead “a pageant in false gaze.” What this Othello has to offer is the dull thud of loud words.
Alan Scarfe, using a West Indian accent that sometimes slips all the way over into the Eastern hemisphere, begins beautifully as the Moor: he’s sensual and vocally musical—flaunting the
composure of a man who’s truly happy. It’s during the second act, when his subaltern, lago, contaminates him with the suspicion that Desdemona is unfaithful, that his rhythm goes askew. With all the eye-rolling, ranting, raving and frenzied rumination, Scarfe’s Othello becomes a snivelling fool. There’s no emotional gradation in the performance, no sense of a fine man slowly losing communion with his better instincts.
Throughout the play, Hyland has made much of Iago’s “honest” appearance—so much that it becomes a running joke. The rest of the actors keep bearing down heavily upon those references, inflecting them beyond the call of duty. And that, in turn, turns lago into a bit of a joke, hardly enhancing Nicholas Pennell’s brave stab at the role. You never really feel that this man has shaken hands with evil; he’s whining and vindictive, merely out to even a score. (When Pennell and Scarfe go at each other in the second act, it’s like watching human plant-misters. There’s a marked tendency in this production for the actors to spit their lines and talk at each other rather than to each other.) As for Domini Blythe, how can one so eminently qualified to play The Greer
Garson Story be the sweet, seduced and frightened Desdemona? Her line readings are stilted and staccato—the dull thud of soft words.
Certainly more tolerable than Othello is the more modest Victoria by Steve Petch (Turkish Delight, Sight Unseen), one of Canada’s most interesting young playwrights. Sparely and carefully written, Victoria charts the caterpillarlike progress of a family coming to terms with itself while returning for one last look at their summer home in the Baja desert. The mother, Elizabeth, is a middle-aged widow who can’t understand her children and has fallen into the trap of caring too much. Vicky, who is going through some unidentified emotional crisis, has arrived with her lover, a strong-and-silent ex-con. The son, Robert, has been hanging out for weeks with a dope-buddy he picked up on the road. Since it’s a family drama the only weapon brandished is an ironic tone.
Petch is a good, slithery juggler of words when it comes to handling that tone, but he might have remembered the obverse of Tolstoy’s observation— every family is dull after its own fashion. The characters seem to be going through a kind of emotional eclipse, their deepest feelings obscured. Petch admits he was “going after the undefined feeling” and admits as well that
he’s “usually not aware of an emotional reason for writing a play.” Perhaps that’s the problem. Caught in the genre of the family drama he says he wanted to write, he has emerged relatively unscathed. The fights and reconciliations, the “remember when” speeches, the guilt and the family ghosts (in this case a father killed in a car accident) are too restrained for this kind of thing.
Under Kathryn Shaw’s direction the actors (Tom Wood, Richard McMillan, John Cutts) do decent, honest work in what is essentially a decent, honest play. But the mother-daughter relationship—the fulcrum—has been miscast and misplayed. As Elizabeth, Jennifer Phipps seems to have been infected by a bug called Maggie Smith: fingers twirling hair, limp wrists flapping, the mocking adenoidal voice. It’s a mannered, busy performance and Phipps, going for powerhouse, is just a bit too bullying. Karen Austin plays the title character catatonically, arms motionless at her sides virtually throughout. If there are people who let their arms hang by their sides all the time that’s no reason to force a captive audience to watch them. Austin holds too much back. And so, for that matter, does Petch. In theatre it’s not enough to show how people behave—you have to show why.
That is the special province of British playwright Edward Bond (The Sea, Early Morning). There are two reasons to go to Stratford now: one is to see the first staging in North America of Bond’s new play, The Woman; the other is to marvel at Martha Henry’s performance in it. The Woman is a massive piece of theatre, weighty with ideas, mighty in effect. At three hours it’s almost onerous to watch, but it compels you to think. Bond breaks all the rules in terms of structure, language and pace. The Woman groans under its own mass: it runs, jumps, hobbles, crawls and sleeps.
A reworking and extension of The Trojan Women, it deals with the most pyrotechnical form of name-callingwar. What Bond is saying is that the pursuit of happiness is a simple activity complicated by aspirations for power and the constrictions of pride—plain old Greek tragedy. The Greek soldiers, under Heros (Craig Dudley) and the ancient Nestor (William Hutt), have been waiting outside Troy for years. Priam has just died; they want the statue of a goddess returned and will leave if they get it. Heros’ wife, Ismene (Clare Coulter), is sent with a delegation to Hecuba (Henry) to retrieve the statue, but the women’s lucid minds make a pact to stop the nonsense. Ismene, tried for treason, is walled up in Troy and Heros kills Hecuba’s young son. In the face of such horror, the grieving Hecuba gouges out an eye.
By undressing the language, Bond achieves force and a Homeric simplicity; by alternately modernizing it, he attenuates the absurdities:
Hecuba: One day you 'll be queen.
Ismene: Athens is a republic.
Hecuba: That's right, you're called something else.
And by having the climax occur at the end of the first act, Bond has done something daring, but has left the play to whimper to an end.
Shut away from the world in the company of Ismene, who has gone mad, Hecuba ekes out the rest of her life with an equanimity only imbalanced by Heros’ return for the statue. She waits for her chance for revenge by arranging a race between Heros and a crippled mine worker (Jim McQueen) who will care for Ismene when she is gone. Hecuba’s triumph is her knowledge that it is the cunning, not the meek, who inherit the earth. As Bond told Maclean’s, the play is “a rhapsody, a celebration of human sanity and human courage, initiative and cunning.”
A difficult play that begs a second sitting, The Woman is a passionate polemic, Shakespearean in its references (Lear, The Tempest) and its range. But directors Peter Moss and Urjo Kareda have modernized it rather than human-
ized it. And the actors are too weak for it. Clare Coulter’s light, flute-like voice, while fine for childlike madness, can’t reach declamatory heights. As Heros, Craig Dudley doesn’t speak his lines, he bays them.
It’s left to the magnificent Henry to make sense of Bond for us. As the middle-aged queen of Troy (though got up to look like Aretha Franklin after the Scarsdale diet), she defines queenliness—a highly developed disdain for the obfuscation of reason and the paucity of style in other people—and there are still glimmers of it even as she stumbles, blind, along the island. Her pleas for her child’s life are heartrending: you watch the hands trying to find expression for her disbelief, trying to unravel the mystery of why someone would want a “final solution.” When she tells Ismene, “When I was your age I was sensational,” you believe her. She decimates everyone on the stage, plays lion to their Christians. When her voice rises to meet Bond’s words you hear the music of fireworks and the soft beating of the heart that has set it off. That, very briefly, is what Stratford should be about.
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