The relentless rain that accompanied the Stratford Festival's recent series
of openings seemed to be appropriate. For several years the classical theatre in Ontario has languished under a dark cloud of internal political strife, declining standards and dwindling audiences. As a result, the festival now has an accumulated deficit of $1.9 million. The rain last month meant lower ticket sales to Stratford’s new artistic director, John Neville, the acclaimed former head of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. But the low attendance for some of the premières could not be blamed on inclement weather alone. Although Neville is mounting such perennial crowd-pleasers as Hamlet, the director is also gambling on relatively unknown and difficult-to-stage Shakespearean plays, including Pericles and Henry VIII. That unusual program, coupled with the mediocre quality of several productions, may limit Neville’s plans to bring about a major turnKeith around in Stratford’s fortunes. -
One of Neville’s most daring gambles has been to open the season with a revival of a frothy 1938 musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, The Boys from Syracuse. Based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and set in ancient Greece, Boys is a tale of confused identities. The cast clowns its way beautifully through author George Abbott’s dated repartee, turning the Festival Theatre stage into a swirling, streamer-festooned one-ring circus. But the production has one serious flaw: many of the lead actors cannot sing. Wandering off pitch, they sound more like lost lambs than robust Greeks. The most outstanding exception to that bleating was Marion Adler as Luciana, who brings a real poignancy to her half of the well known duet This Can't Be Love.
The next evening Stratford settled down to more traditional fare with Hamlet, directed by Neville himself. There is much that is praiseworthy in the production, particularly some superb work by the supporting cast. Still, the play founders badly on Brent Carver’s portrayal of the melancholy prince. Although he ranges over his lines with virtuoso shifts of tone and
pitch, he sounds more like a self-conscious elocution student than a young man in moral agony.
But the disappointment of Carver’s
Hamlet only made the next evening’s offering more delectable. The Winter's Tale, eloquently directed by David William, has all the magic, grace and emotional impact associated with Stratford at its finest. From the first
scene, when Mervyn Blake, as Time, leads the cast on to the strobe-lit stage, the play creates an unbroken spell of enchantment. The actor most responsible for the evening’s success is Colm Feore as Leontes, the king who mistakenly suspects his friend of cuckolding him—and who so cruelly and tragically punishes his innocent wife, Hermione (Goldie Semple). The role of Leontes demands an extraordinary shift of heart from jealousy to sudden remorse, but Feore meets the challenge with a masterful intensity that will stand as one of the high points in the current season.
Still, Feore has company in his triumph. Semple, too, stirs the audience deeply: after Leontes throws Hermione into prison, her reappearance as a sickly but unbowed survivor cuts to the quick. Semple’s strong performance finds a match in that of Susan Wright as Paulina, the noblewoman who eventually engineers Hermione’s salvation. Paulina is among the strongest female roles that Shakespeare created, and Wright dominates the stage as she gives full rein to her character’s relentless honesty.
The Winter's Tale closes with one of
the strangest events in Shakespeare: the magical transformation of a statue of Hermione into a living woman. If poorly done, it is likely to produce giggles. But director William infuses the scene with a slow, majestic reverence, making it a moving revelation of the mysterious connections between love and art.
Compared to such a memorable production, the next evening’s version of the modern classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a mere trifle-amusing but insubstantial. The play by British writer Tom Stoppard turns two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet into existential clowns caught in the whirlwind of great events surging around them at the court of Elsinore. But the sense of doom that should overshadow the two bewildered friends is largely missing. Some of the blame rests with Keith Dinicol, whose Guildenstern is too mechanical. It is much easier to sympathize with William Dunlop’s more vulnerable Rosencrantz. But the two get little help from the other actors, who camp up their parts so vigorously that they turn tragicomedy into vaudeville.
The final two offerings of Neville’s opening week, Pericles and Henry VIII, were not strong enough to win converts among those unfamiliar with the works. Certainly, Pericles is a difficult play to mount: the rambling tale of a long-suffering prince often lacks dramatic necessity, and the company’s uneven production fails to create the white heat necessary to fuse the disparate parts together. Still, Geraint Wyn Davies as Pericles and Kim Horsman as his lost daughter, Marina, forge a deeply moving duet in the scene where they slowly recognize each other after years of separation.
A few outstanding performances were also high points in Henry VIII. The first half of Shakespeare’s somewhat static examination of power politics moves especially slowly, although anyone who was bored could always enjoy the sumptuous court pageantry. As well, Elizabeth Shepherd’s passionate Katherine and William Hutt’s brilliantly paced and understated Cardinal Wolsey electrified the production whenever they were on stage.
Sadly, such excellence was in short supply during Stratford’s opening week. Only The Winter’s Tale and a few bright scenes in other plays soared above the poor-to-acceptable range. Neville and his company should study those successes closely in order to gird themselves to the standard that will restore the faith of audiences in what should be the country’s single most valuable theatrical asset.
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