THEATRE

Bring on the Cavalcade

The Shaw Festival revives a pageant

John Bemrose July 10 1995
THEATRE

Bring on the Cavalcade

The Shaw Festival revives a pageant

John Bemrose July 10 1995

Bring on the Cavalcade

THEATRE

The Shaw Festival revives a pageant

It is Nov. 11, 1918, and the news that the Great War has ended has just reached London. A surging crowd of celebrants has invaded Trafalgar Square, creating a bacchanalia of cheering, hugging and dancing.

From somewhere, triumphal music soars into the stratosphere. In the midst of the chaos a woman, unnoticed by others, is steadily and desperately screaming. It all looks like a scene from a Hollywood epic, or perhaps from some Andrew Lloyd Webber megamusical. But in fact it is part of a stage play: Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, in a new production by the Shaw Festival in Niagaras n-the-Lake, Ont., a two-hour drive south of Toronto. The logistics of staging Cavalcade are so daunting—there are several scenes on the Trafalgar Square scale—that the work has been produced only twice since its 1931 London première. The festival was responsible for one of those versions, which ran in both 1985 and 1986. It proved so popular that Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton has decided not only to bring the show back but, in a major stategy shift, to keep it in repertory so that the moneymaker can be easily revived in future seasons. “We should have done this with Peter Pan, Cyrano de Bergerac and Heartbreak House as well,” Newton says, referring to festival hits of the past decade. “Opera companies have been keeping shows in repertory for ages. Why shouldn’t we?”

In the past, the festival has cannibalized its shows as soon as their runs are over, dismantling sets and splitting up wardrobes for use in other productions. By keeping them intact (a practice once followed by many 19th-century theatre companies), Newton can hold remounting costs down and ensure a certain degree of financial stability for future seasons. That is crucial at a festival that has suffered losses in recent years, and is currently struggling with an accumulated debt of just over $800,000. Still, Newton is not completely sure the idea will work. “I don’t know if it’s money in the bank,” he says. “It should be, but we’re playing with the tastes of real live people who change—so you never know.”

So far, the public has reacted well to Newton’s experiment. Cavalcade"s July 8 to Oct. 28 run is already 60-per-cent sold out—an excep-

tional figure in an industry where a sale of 50 per cent by opening night is considered excellent. Audience members who saw the 19851986 version will find the new production quite similar. Both were directed by Newton. As well, the 46-member cast includes 15 veterans from the earlier staging. Fiona Reid has returned to star as Jane Marryot, the upperclass woman who makes her first appearance as a young mother in 1899, and by the end of the play in 1930 has endured the worst the new century can throw at her. As in his version a decade ago, Newton has chosen to mount the sprawling story of Marryot, her family and their servants on a revolving stage, which allows scenes to follow each other with extraordinary rapidity. In one typical transition, an intimate kitchen scene is replaced by a wintry outdoor vista in Kensington Gardens. People dressed entirely in black move solemnly behind a wrought-iron fence, mourning the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

The accumulated effect of such scenes cre-

ates a moving sense of the great river of British national life—with which many Canadians have had intimate connections. The production ends on a rather nihilistic note as Jane Marryot and her husband, Robert (Andrew Gillies), sit disconsolately in a nightclub filled with noisy, jaded couples. The climax comes as the patrons whirl on the revolving stage while singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It is a strangely ambiguous moment, since the celebratory music—a touch added by Newton—also foreshadows the German conquest of Europe in the Second World War.

By contrast, the 1931 première of Cavalcade ended with the patriotic singing of God Save the King. As well, Coward used elevators rather than a turntable to move scenes into place. He also employed a total of 400 actors, including an entire regiment of guards for the war scenes. Still, Newton’s use of 46 performers is impressive by contemporary standards. (The hit musical Les Misérables has a cast of 37.) And many of Newton’s actors play a variety of parts. With its shifting eras and fashions, the show requires 350 costumes—compared to a total of 250 for the 10 shows on the bill last year. The Shaw Festival’s head of wardrobe, Sharon Secord, and her staff of 30 made many of the outfits (some worth as much as $2,000, taking materials and labor into account), while others were borrowed or rented from other theatres. Storing them is a logistical nighmare. ^ Every backstage nook and cranny o is hung with Cavalcade costumes, 8 and when the play is in perfor> mance, the area seethes with bodQ ies as seven dressers hurry to clothe and unclothe the constant stream of actors moving to and from the stage.

Meanwhile, seven stage crew members work constantly throughout the show, moving heavy scenery into place on the revolving wheel. Besides avoiding the crush of actors, they have to work in complete silence with extraordinary speed and accuracy. “There’s a whole other world going on back there,” says technical head Ivan Habel, explaining that the crew has to undergo an especially rigorous rehearsal process in which they learn to co-ordinate their moves.

Although it is impossible to calculate Cavalcade's exact cost—most of the people in the production are employed in other festival shows as well—the sheer size of the enterprise makes it an undoubted financial risk. If it pays off, other Canadian companies might follow the Shaw’s lead: the days of repertory theatre could well be in for a revival.

JOHN BEMROSE