When Shaw Festival veteran Tony van Bridge talks about the difficulties of acting with a theatre company, his thoughts turn immediately to music. “Performing in an ensemble should be like playing in a symphony orchestra,” the portly, avuncular van Bridge, 71, said recently as the annual festival opened for its 29th season. “You have to listen to the whole piece and not just your own instrument. On the other hand,” he added, “you wouldn’t want an actor without ego. Actors are showoffs by nature—they’d put on a pretty dull show if they weren’t.” Blending individual talents into a seamless performance has become something of a specialty at Shaw, located in Niagaraon-the-Lake, Ont., 50 km south of Toronto. Said Barry MacGregor, another of its leading actors: “If there is a star here, it is the play we put on stage.” At the start of the current season, five shows are vying for stardom, including outstanding productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance and Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’.
All of the current plays feature actors who have appeared at Shaw for several years. While the rival Stratford Festival has suffered a heavy turnover of performers, the Shaw company has remained remarkably stable. For the 1990 season—which opened on May 23 and runs until Oct. 21—only nine new actors have arrived, joining 56 veterans. Van Bridge credits artistic director Christopher Newton, now in his 11th year at the helm, with keeping the company together. “Even when an actor takes a year or two off, Christopher makes sure his name still appears on the program,” said van Bridge, who has spent 10 seasons at Shaw. “That’s a very clever idea that works. It makes people feel they belong, and stops any violent dislocation of what we’ve created here.”
Such stability has been a great help in weathering the current hard times at Shaw, where a disastrous 1989 box office has swollen the deficit to $1.1 million—and, according to Newton, led him to program more of the British comedies, which have a proven ability to draw audiences. Having a stable company has also allowed the festival to develop its distinctive character. “We have mastered the oratorical style of Shaw,” the silver-haired artistic director, 54, told Maclean ’s. “But we have had to rediscover how to act some of the other plays of the period—the highly structured, so-called well-made plays by writers like Pinero and J. B. Priestly.” According to Newton, such works require a much brisker attack than most contemporary actors are used to. “We have had to resurrect an old style of acting,” he said. “It’s rather louder and faster than the more realistic approach of today. Fortunately, some of our older, British-trained members have remembered how to do it.”
Van Bridge is such a performer, and in the current season he directs and acts in one of the “well-made” plays, Priestly’s farcical When We Are Married. The actor, who plays a drunken photographer in the comedy, lays tremendous stress on his craft, the consciously applied techniques of holding an audience. “You have to leave a part of yourself out, so you can perform and watch at the same time,” he said. “The old idea of losing yourself in the role is one of the most dangerous ideas in the world.”
Another festival veteran, Jennifer Phipps, agrees that technique is important. But she also insists that luck can play a crucial role. “Sometimes, there’s a god on stage with us,” said the red-haired, middle-aged Phipps, who in person is much more nervous and self-effacing than the ebullient characters she plays in Misalliance and Emlyn Williams’s 1934 thriller, Night Must Fall. Added the actress, who has worked at Shaw for 10 seasons: “You can feel it. It’s like cream. It just pours." And then there are the unlucky times, which Phipps sometimes blames on the ghost of an actor she claims haunts the festival’s main stage. “I think he likes to kick people,” she said. “He’s kicked me twice this year: I’ve actually fallen down.” But, gods and ghosts aside, the festival runs mainly on mundane, hard work. In the middle of opening week, with its tuxedoes and glittering gowns, rehearsals continued as usual for the Cole Porter musical Nymph Errant, opening on July 6. In a grim, windowless community hall, six male actors and a single woman—singer Rosalind Keene—pumped out a song-anddance routine called Solomon. It all looked and sounded highly polished. But choreographer Bob Ainslie—a trim, worried-looking man in a tight T-shirt—clapped his hands, stopping everyone cold. “No, no. Peter, Bill: that’s four steps to the left,” he told them, demonstrating how he wanted them to move. It was the 11th time in 20 minutes he had halted the routine. Someone cracked a joke. The piano started again. Tired bodies resumed their positions. There was something nightmarish about the constant repetition, and something that spoke of a quiet, boundless dedication. It is how, at the Shaw Festival, magic is made.
The most deeply satisfying of the current productions is Newton’s version of Shaw’s Misalliance. Leslie Frankish’s impressive set looks like a jungle gym for Tarzan, with its forest of hanging vines and exotic plants. But it is exactly the right background for Shaw’s debate between the luxuriant longings of youth and the tangled intricacies of age. MacGregor is rivetting as Mr. Tarleton, the wealthy underwear merchant who frequently appears more lively than his children. When he draws himself up and declares, “There's no such thing as decay to a vital man,” MacGregor gives the line such potent, physical conviction that it seems true. And Phipps plays his wife, Mrs. Tarleton, with such warmth and ample skill, she seems the very soul of doting motherhood.
Any production featuring William Hutt would seem to be a guaranteed success. The former star of the Stratford Festival—he switched to Shaw a year ago—is a superb technician who can achieve impressive effects with the subtlest understatement. But he seems too cool and restrained for the role of the blustering, womanizing Léon in Jean Anouilh’s 1951 black comedy, The Waltz of the Toreadors. Hutt is far more effective as the peevish Sir William Gower in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, a play that has been a favorite for 93 years because it so warmly portrays the life of the theatre. A celebrated young London actress, Rose Trelawny Qulie Stewart), must choose between a safe but dull marriage to Gower’s nephew, Arthur, and the risks of the stage. The play has a Dickensian wealth of character, which Newton’s cast conveys with great liveliness and affection.
A harsher spirit prevails in When We Are Married, a 1938 comedy satirizing middleclass respectability. Set in 1908, it opens as three well-to-do couples gather to celebrate their wedding anniversaries. They are the sort of people who upbraid the local church organist because he has been seen courting young women. But an unexpected event blows all of their self-satisfied certainty to bits. As dated as it might sound, the play works because it offers such a trenchant picture of hypocrisy. Among a strong cast, van Bridge’s dissolute Henry and Sherry Smith’s acid-tongued maid, Ruby, serve up some particularly funny exchanges on the subject of axe-murderers.
Murder is at the heart of Night Must Fall, which combines old-fashioned plotting with some up-to-date truths about psychopathic killers. Peter Krantz is a hypnotic presence as the cold-blooded Danny, whose charm is nothing but a mask to his own emptiness. And Sharry Flett makes a convincing Olivia Grayne, the young woman who intuits the truth about Danny—and falls in love with him anyway.
The plays opening later this season mostly reflect Newton’s need to reverse last year’s financial losses. The artistic director said that he would have liked to program some groundbreaking European drama, but he has opted instead for less risky fare, such as Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Village Wooing. Still, those choices make up the sort of playbill that Shaw Festival actors have excelled at for years. When it comes to delivering robust, intelligent comedy, they have few peers.
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