In a rehearsal hall deep in the labyrinth of rooms at the back of the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont., David William was patiently leading several young actors through a scene from Hamlet. His five students were all apprentices: in the Stratford Festival’s 38th season, which opened on April 30, they will hardly speak onstage, appearing only as servants or anonymous faces in crowd scenes. It seemed astonishing that the phenomenally busy artistic director of Canada’s largest theatrical enterprise would spend so much time on them. But ever since he took over last year from John Neville, William has taken an all-consuming interest in even the minute details of the festival’s workings.
According to his credo, the only way to have a great theatre is to constantly rebuild it—from the ground up.
Young actors must be trained. Standards must be vigilantly maintained. As a result, he appears to be everywhere at once, teaching, administering and directing two of Stratford’s six opening productions—Shakespeare’s Macbeth, on which he collaborated with Robert Beard, and William Congreve’s Love for Love. He is also playing the melancholy Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
The slender artistic director, 63, shrugs off
any suggestion that he has _
taken on too much at the festival, with its three theatres, 15 productions and $20.3-million budget. “The important thing is to get a good night’s sleep,” the British-born William told Maclean’s. But it is obvious that his energy also flows from some passionately held beliefs about the importance of good theatre—something for which Stratford, located 150 km west of Toronto, has won an international reputation.
William argues against the
view that the arts are simply decorative, endof-the-day amusement for tired business people. “We are very different in our dreams and aspirations from what we are in our daily lives of getting and spending,” he said. “The gap
_ between our two lives has
become tragically large in the 20th century. But it is a gap the theatre can help bridge.” In William’s opinion, the Stratford Festival must build those bridges primarily with language. But there are obstacles. “Today, words are used more inaccurately and insensitively than for hundreds of years,” he said. And even the festival, he claims, has fallen victim to the general deterioration. “The quality of speaking here has been very erratic,” he said.
“That’s why I have quadrupled the number of voice coaches [to four] this year.”
Bom in London, William decided to be an actor early on, despite the objections of his father, a wine importer, and his mother, a former actress. A sympathetic headmaster at his private school nourished his theatrical ambition, and he eventually went on to act and direct at Oxford. He first appeared professionally as Rosencrantz in a 1953 Old Vic production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton. Since then, William has acted and directed at Britain’s finest theatres. In 1966, he began his long association as a guest director with Canada’s Stratford Festival, where he is best remembered for his haunting 1986 version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
The unmarried William has also taught extensively at universities throughout North America: he has a fervent interest in introducing young people to the theatre. At Stratford, he has extended the season to Nov. 11, mainly so that more student audiences can see the plays. “The young know instinctively that modem life has deprived them of something very essential,” William said. “They hunger for the mythic scale, a reference to things of ultimate importance—and the classic theatre can give them that.” And he recalled walking home from the theatre in Stratford one night, when a young man stopped him and asked for his autograph. “He had come all the way from Manitoba to see the plays,” William said. “There was a special light in his eyes the plays had helped kindle. I suppose when all is said and done, to see that light is really what I’m working for.”
William seems ready to take more chances than his predecessor, John Neville, in waging Stratford’s annual campaign to lure audiences, which reached 470,000 last season. While Neville largely pitched his choice of plays and musicals to popular tastes, William—cushioned by a surplus last year of $352,000—has ventured into slightly less familiar territory. Besides the usual musical (Guys and Dolls) and large serving of Shakespeare (Macbeth, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, The Merry Wives of Windsor), his 1990 season includes a modem, tough-minded British play, David Storey’s Home, and a 17th-century French classic, Jean Racine’s Phaedra (opening on July 6). He has also chosen American dramatist Eugene O’Neill’s little-known comedy Ah, Wilderness! (opening on Aug. 3). And while Neville, in his four-year tenure, offered only one Canadian play, William is producing three: Michel
Tremblay’s Forever Yours, Marie-Lou and John Murrell’s Memoir, both opening this week, and Sharon Pollock’s One Tiger to a Hill, which will be produced in August.
Of the six plays that launched the new season, Home could well prove the dark horse. Director Marti Maraden has set the austerely funny comedy on a nearly bare stage. In front of a broken iron fence, there are two garden chairs and a small table. Two middle-aged, middle-class Englishmen, Harry Games Blendick) and Jack (Nicolas Pennell), sit exchanging pleasantries. On the surface, their talk is just polite chitchat about the weather and their pasts. But Storey has woven their speech into an amusing, subtly poetic tapestry of contemporary life, with all its underlying terrors.
The current playbill also features Richard Monette’s romantic rendition of Shakespeare’s woodland comedy As You Like It, successfully transported to 18th-century Quebec. On a stage decorated with scarlet maple boughs, the followers of the deposed Duke (Victor Young) break into bittersweet French-Canadian ballads and dress in deerskins. That approach is deeply moving: establishing Shakespeare on Canadian soil gives the audience an unprecedented intimacy with the play.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a much frothier comedy, written by Shakespeare to capitalize on the popularity, in two earlier plays, of its leading character, Sir John Falstaff. The play is usually done in the full spirit of Elizabethan bawdiness. But the Stratford version, with its Edwardian costumes, is light, witty and filled with nostalgia for the pre-First World War era. Colm Feore makes a wonderfully pathetic Frank Ford, the Windsor merchant who suspects that Falstaff Games Blendick) is having an affair with his wife.
Of the remaining plays, the biggest crowd pleaser will undoubtedly be Stratford’s brassy remount of the 1950 Broadway hit Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and script by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Director Brian Macdonald has saturated the tale of gangsters, gamblers and their “dolls” with his hallmark stylishness. The cast pumps so much life into such old favorites as A Bushel and a Peck and I’ve Never Been in Love Before that it really does seem like 1950 again.
Macbeth is the stronger of William’s two productions. It has a workmanlike solidity and a few inspired moments, such as the stylized battle scene at the beginning. And while Brian Bedford (Macbeth) and Goldie Semple (Lady Macbeth) often seem dwarfed by their gigantic roles, William and Beard’s version of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy sustains attention. But, in Love for Love, William’s direction seems off the mark. The comedy about foolish fathers and wayward children should sparkle like champagne. The new Stratford version is coarse and only mildly funny. William has proven himself a fine director in the past. But running the Stratford Festival and tackling two productions simultaneously may be more than even his expansive talents can handle.
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