The Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario turns 35 this year, and its survival must be counted no less than a miracle. In a region where entertainment usually runs to drive-ins and agricultural fairs, Stratford has boldly based its repertoire almost exclusively on the classics. But despite the theatre’s persistence, it still has to wrestle
with major contradictions between its mandate and its market. The opening week of the 1987 season featured plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Brecht—geniuses whose work, when mounted in the world’s cultural centres, frequently inspires passionate interest and debate. But Stratford’s Canadian and American patrons often give those same plays a lukewarm response, even in the rare instances
when the productions are first-rate.
Last year the festival’s best offering, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, sent critics scrambling for superlatives and viewers groping for their handkerchiefs. But the play averaged an attendance of only 51 per cent—well below the 62 per cent chalked up by the festival as a whole. Most Stratford productions, for all their beautiful costumes and generally respectable acting and directing, lack the edge that would make them truly memorable. No theatre can rise to its potential in a vacuum: excellence also requires a critically demanding audience.
With such low box-office figures, Stratford has been dogged by financial problems as well. For that reason, the festival has begun staging its perennially popular musicals on the largest of its three stages, the main Festival Theatre. Last year’s frothy The Boys From Syracuse helped bring in the dollars, but it suffered from poor singing in the lead roles. This year’s production of the pithier Cabaretchosen to begin Stratford’s gala opening week earlier this month—is far more rewarding.
Led by Brent Carver’s hypnotically feline Master of Ceremonies, the chorus of the decadent 1930s Berlin night spot, the Kit Kat Klub, provides an entertaining background to Cabaret’s tale of love and politics. Scott Wentworth is also impressive as Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer who falls heavily for ^ one of the Kit Kat girls, the b flamboyant Sally Bowles. But as § Sally, Sheila McCarthy is a malí jor disappointment. Although 1 she can be a superb character “ actor, McCarthy lacks the single ing voice to carry the big musiï cal numbers and the sensual magnetism necessary to tempt Cliff convincingly away from his
Cabaret is unusually incisive for a musical, but it barely breaks the surface of male-female dynamics when compared to Nora, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Drastically streamlined for the German stage by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Nora stars the magnificent Lucy Peacock as the young wife who rebels against her paternalistic husband, Tor-
vald (Joseph Ziegler). Peacock projects the kind of charisma that makes her seem twice as real as anyone else on stage. When she throws aside respectability to clamber onto a couch and yell “Kiss my arse,” she imbues the line with a wonderfully childish wickedness that presages all the volcanic revolt to come. But her incandescent performance is not matched by Ziegler, who
is unable to project the bourgeois solidity and self-importance that Torvald should have in order to make his final collapse truly affecting.
But although Ziegler makes a poor leading man, he demonstrates in Anton Chekhov’s great drama The Cherry Orchard that he can excel in character roles. Playing the sickly, impoverished student Peter Trofimov, he generates considerable sympathy—expressing revolutionary ideas with a force that seems stronger than his feeble body can bear. His speech predicting a brighter future for mankind—an echo of Chekhov’s own views—is one of the play’s most deeply moving moments.
Ostensibly, the business of The Cherry Orchard turns on whether estate owner Madame Ranyevskaya (Pat Galloway) will be able to hang on to her heavily mortgaged property. But the play’s real subjects are love and loneliness, treated with Chekhov’s usual unique blend of ironic humor and tenderness. Although several of the male actors draw those qualities beautifully from the script, Pat Galloway and the actresses playing her two daughters, Anya (Peggy Coffey) and Varya (Wenna Shaw), all seem to strike the same shrill emotional tenor, driving much of the warmth from the production.
Chekhov’s gentle humanity contrasts
sharply with the hard ironies of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. His antiheroine, Mother Courage (Susan Wright), is one of the great characters of 20th-century literature, a resourceful pedlar whose prodigious talent for survival is not enough to save her own children from dying in Europe’s Thirty Years War. Wright brings great gutsiness and humor to the role, but her
voice sounds disappointingly small—a lost bleat rather than a commanding, mythic bellow. That shortcoming reflects the limits of the production. Although it features several fine performances, director John Neville’s rather gimmicky production fails to embody the seething anger that fuels Brecht’s vision.
But this season’s other antiwar play, Shakespeare’s sardonic Troilus and Cressida, is a definite success. Directed by David William—who mounted last season’s superb The Winter's Tale—the Stratford version of Troilus and Cressida heavily caricatures the grossness and decadence of both sides in the Trojan War.
William has placed special emphasis on the play’s homosexual undertones. Achilles, impressively played by Stephen Russell, argues with the Greek commander Ulysses (Nicholas Pennel) while languorously rubbing suntan lotion on the back of his lover, Patroclus (Eric Coates). Meanwhile, the Trojans stage an orgy where the women wear military uniforms and the men ballroom dresses. The costume reversal emphasizes the perverted sexuality of a society devoted to war: the female principle is overridden by men who love to preen and strut in their capacity for destruction. Such staging is arguably
excessive, but William and his cast have galvanized a play notoriously difficult to perform: this Shakespeare is coarse, colorful and highly effective.
It would be difficult to imagine a more striking contrast with William’s production than Robin Phillips’s graceful rendition of an 18th-century social comedy, Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. On a stage covered with white tiles and furnished with pale chairs, Phillips beautifully exploits the tension between the smooth demeanor of Sheridan’s characters and the swamp of lies in which their amorous adventures mire them.
The production abounds in fine performances—including Sheila McCarthy’s coyly winning Lady Teazle, an accomplishment that proves beyond a doubt that McCarthy deserves to star at Stratford. But the evening belongs mainly to two veterans of the festival— Douglas Campbell as the blustering Sir Oliver Surface and William Hutt as the droll, amusing Sir Peter Teazle. The way that they play off each other is stage humor at its best. Hutt in particular is superb in a role ideally suited to his talents: time and again he brings the house down with a glance at the audience, a single word growling like a caged beast in his throat. People tired of productions at Stratford that do not quite rise to the mark should see The School For Scandal—and Hutt especially—to remind themselves of how exciting a theatre devoted to the classics can be.
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