After two seasons of proffered resignations and as many returns, the Stratford Festival’s Robin Phillips has again announced he will not continue as sole artistic director. He should be taken at his word. Six years in command is enough, and the provocative excitement of his early productions has withered away under the sheer weight of Stratford’s massive theatrical machinery. Among the opening trio of plays directed by Phillips this season only the world premiere of Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, based on the life of Virginia Woolf, demonstrated he can still enthrall an audience.
Phillips’ and co-director Gregory Peterson’s production of John Gay’s 18thcentury The Beggar's Opera is, however, a cluttered failure, a parody of Stratford at its worst. The Avon Theatre’s limited stage is stacked high with bawds and bodies wreathed in alien clouds of carbon dioxide vapor. Also in attendance is the festival’s latest contribution to inflation, the new Stratford Youth Choir, all 32 of them, cast as extras transforming the simple street ballads of Gay’s time into irrelevant complex harmonies. The directors seem to have attempted portraiture instead of theatre and, although the visual effects are often striking, the highwayman Macheath, his cutthroat band, and Gay’s satire on human pretentiousness are smothered in a welter of swirling hoop skirts and bulging bosoms.
Since the original play wittily skewers contemporary politicians and mores, Phillips and Peterson have commissioned their own satirical numbers, Pierre Trudeau, the Pill and diet cola all falling victim to the lyricists’ dull lash. The need for contemporary relevance also extends to several dance routines whose aborted choreography could only have been inspired by bootlegged Bob Fosse videotapes. And, oh yes, the poor are always earthy and liberated, so what better way to suggest same than by interrupting important dialogue with nonstop crotch-grabbing?
Macheath is played by Jim McQueen, a bog of a performance into which the rest of the cast inexorably sinks despite inspired efforts to keep fun alive by Graeme Campbell and Jennifer Phipps as the scheming Peachums. Edda Gaborek delivers such a prissy Polly it’s a mystery that Macheath would want her for anything, least of all marriage. But her singing is powerful. By pure chance, enough space gets cleared around her sprightly duets with rival Lucy Lockit (Alicia Jeffery) so that the audience can actually see who’s singing, and the two temporarily inject glowing plasma into the bloated proceedings.
Thoughtfulness is the keynote of Phillips’ Twelfth Night, but the production gives us excess of it. When the shipwrecked Viola is washed up on the shores of Illyria, she finds a rational 18th-century community Voltaire might have envied. But Shakespeare’s text, with its repeated references to excesses of bile, spleen and folly, clearly suggest that Illyria is a romantic utopia populated by bewitched and self-deluded fools of both high and low degree. Little of this remains. From the chopped logic of Count Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on” to the fool Feste’s academic witticisms, the play unfolds its muted tawny greys like
¡ a dowdy dowager curtseying before the j throne of Reason. Sir Toby Belch (Barry ¡MacGregor) is so cool and measured he ¡dishonors the family name, and only ; Richard McMillan as an hilarious jAguecheek has been permitted comic : rowdiness.
The staging is uninspired: dominated by an unsightly tree-cum-gazebo, the Festival Theatre’s celebrated thrust stage has been transformed from an open arena of infinite possibility to a narrow plot where movement is truncated and confined. There are irritating bits of gratuitous stage business too. Malvolio the misanthrope gets a cheap laugh when a teddy bear drops from beneath his dressing gown. Feste’s songs have been miked and orchestrated instead of accompanied by solo lute or guitar, and it just doesn’t work— the lyrics are overpowered despite William Hutt’s strong and melodious rendering. Finally, what is the point in Feste taking a real shower in the gazebo after his last song, “Hey ho, the wind and the rain”? Dunno—must be symbolic, I guess.
But those not overly concerned with the indignities perpetrated on the text will enjoy this production’s soft musicbox charm. Patricia Conolly as Viola/Cesario is suitably supple and boyish, and the reunion with her lost brother, Sebastian (Lome Kennedy), is moving and magical. Brian Bedford’s Malvolio is a malevolent masterpiece, cold and funny, yet too much of a cameo, a raised profile aggressively jutting out from a contemplative backdrop. And again, although the text strongly hints that the union of lovers at play’s end will not bring them any greater selfawareness, here the gazebo’s prisonlike gates are finally opened to release the light of Reason upon all concerned.
The first hour of Virginia is heaven. Edna O’Brien’s text exquisitely probes Woolf’s soul, and the re-creation of her tortured thoughts is so apt it’s almost impossible to separate O’Brien’s lines from Woolf’s. Maggie Smith, hair in a halo-like bun, her olive-drab dress and tan cardigan looking as if only Virginia could have worn them, doesn’t just eerily resemble the woman—she is possessed by her spirit. Phillips has drawn from her a brilliant performance, delicately constructed of fluttering hands and acid one-liners cemented together with repressed morbid passion. Phillip Silver’s floaty set, with its translucent Japanese screens and scrim limning the fatal opposition of town and country, perfectly complements the action.
After intermission the audience returns, greedy for more of everything. A few brief exchanges, a long monologue, then suddenly on the sound track a trickling stream, the instrument of Virginia’s suicide, and she’s gone—it’s over, and the emotional climax promised in the first half has been dissipated. What happened? Did O’Brien run out of ideas? This seems impossible, given the enormous amount of available material she chose not to explore. Or perhaps Smith wouldn’t have been able to sustain such a fevered pitch for more than two hours. Whatever the reasons, the incompleteness is disappointing, especially when expectations have been raised so high.
Nicholas Pennell plays both Virginia’s father and her husband, Leonard, completely devoted to her even though their marriage was chaste. Patricia Conolly is her lover, Vita SackvilleWest, and both provide excellent support for Smith’s extended aria. Although Leonard presents a sympathetic and witty foil for Virginia throughout, Vita’s role is far too limited—she appears to be little more than an aggressive seductress to whom Virginia responds in kind. “Pm growing old—I want more mustard with my meat,” she bluntly tells Leonard, who forgives all. Much more could have been done with Vita and her relationship to the Woolfs
without unduly shifting the focus away from Virginia.
Despite Virginia’s brevity (as it stands the play should run without an intermission), the production shows that Stratford’s immense potential to mount first-class theatre has not been exhausted. Phillips’ creativity may not be sufficiently stimulated by the festival environment anymore, but he’s not at all to blame. Stratford is too big. It costs too much. The actors are not a unified company but a collection of individual stars and minions, and this lack of cohesiveness is achingly obvious in the larger productions. Already there is talk of budget trimming (after several profitable years the festival now runs a substantial deficit) and a reduction in programming. Whoever succeeds Phillips will have a lot to answer for from the rough beast, hulking in Stratford, waiting to be bled,
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