Shakespeare Stratford Festival 2018, Ontario Canada

Scotsgay Arts in Canada!

Our Mary was invited to the Stratford Festival in Canada and this page covers all her adventures, and reviews, with thanks to the Board, Staff, Creatives and Cast and Crews of all the productions.

Stratford, Ontario: Shakespeare an Introduction.

Stratford, Ontario, started its life in 1832 as one of the townships established by the Canada Company as they began ‘developing’ an area previously only inhabited by indigenous people.  It stayed pretty small till 1871, when it became a division point for the Grand Trunk Railway, and might simply have grown into an undistinguished industrial town – but the foresight of Tom Orr, who fought off all opposition – even the Canadian Pacific Railway – ensured that his vision of parkland along both banks of the river Avon came into being, and is still there today.

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Another Tom, Tom Patterson, in 1944 began to share his dream of a Shakespeare Festival in ‘the other Stratford’ which culminated in the opening season in 1953.  Performances of Richard III took place in a specially-designed marquee over the newly-built thrust stage – the first to be constructed since Shakespeare’s own time – and starred Alec Guinness and Irene Worth.  Directed by Tyrone Guthrie and designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the production was acclaimed by press from all around the world.

Fast-forward to today, and the Festival has grown into a massive undertaking – the leading classical repertory theatre in North America which attracts roughly 500,000 visitors from around the world each year.  Under the leadership of Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and Executive Director Anita Gaffney, the Festival now presents an annual season of about a dozen productions of works by Shakespeare and other great dramatists past and present, while also commissioning, developing and premièring new Canadian plays.

Over its 66-year history, the Festival has welcomed more than 28 million people to its theatres and actors who have played there include Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, Maggie Smith, William Shatner, Alan Bates, Julie Harris, James Mason, Paul Scofield, Jason Robards, Jr., Douglas Campbell, Peter Donat, Jessica Tandy, Brian Bedford and Martha Henry.

This year’s Festival offered 12 productions in three theatres The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, The Music Man, The Rocky Horror Show, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, An Ideal Husband, To Kill a Mockingbird, Napoli Milionaria!, and world premieres of Brontë: The World Without and Paradise Lost.  The overarching theme was ‘diversity’ and explored the concept of ‘free will’.  The  2019 season’s 12 productions share the theme of Breaking Boundaries: Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry VII, Billy Elliot the Musical, Little Shop of Horrors, The Front Page, Private Lives, The Neverending Story, The Crucible, Nathan the Wise, Birds of a Kind and Mother’s Daughter (world premiere).

The theatres used in 2018 are the Festival Theatre – the permanent structure built to replace the custom-made marquee that covered the thrust stage for the first three years of the Festival; the Avon Theatre, a one-time vaudeville theatre which retains its proscenium arch; and the Studio, a smaller performing space with steeply-raked seating and a very intimate atmosphere.  The Avon and Studio theatres back on to each other, and are in the centre of the downtown: the Festival Theatre is about a twenty-minute walk away along the banks of the Avon river.  All three are delightful spaces in their own way, and each superbly served the productions I saw there.

Stratford is well-served with hotels, B&Bs, and, as I found, some airbnb accommodation – the last being somewhat new to Canada.  My own experience was of a warm, friendly and helpful welcome, both from my hosts and from everyone I met in Stratford.  There are plenty of good places to eat, ranging from excellent cafés to ultra-plush dining places, together with a fair number of pubs and bars should you wish to imbibe [bear in mind that you can’t buy alcohol in most shops – you have to go to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s well-stocked emporia for that] and in many places you may well have the opportunity to hang out with the actors from the play you saw this afternoon or last night…  For those of you who want to stay in the bright lights of Toronto, there is a special Festival bus which you can book and which takes you to and collects you from each performance – 2018 price is $29 dollars [Canadian] return.

What is my overall impression of Stratford?  It’s an interesting place with a lot going on: if you have arranged to see seven shows in four days, as I did, there is a lot you will simply have to ignore!  There are plenty of theatre-related workshops, tours, and talks in addition to the plays.

Much of my all-too-short visit to Stratford was occupied with shows: now I know how much else there is to do, which is all the more incentive to come back in 2020

The Music Man   Meredith Willson – REVIEW

Tuesday 2 October 2018

***** 5 stars 

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What a way to begin my acquaintance with the Stratford Festival! A high-octane, no holds barred, quite literally all-singing, all-dancing, exhilarating, colourful, and life-affirming performance which gripped the audience from the opening rap-like chorus of salesmen chugging their way by train into Iowa to the triumphant closing scene and brought them to their feet to salute a performance which was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more.

My sole previous live experience of a North American musical was seeing Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really trying – but I’ve seen countless movies in which the whole cast delivered their performances with a zip and zing often missing from the stage this side the pond.  Dan definitely delivered the goods, and the whole cast reached out and grabbed us: so I was expecting something of the same quality – and oh boy, did I find it!

The basic story line is simple.  “Professor” Harold Hill is a conman who comes to a small town and sells it the idea of a boys’ band as the solution to all its problems: parents willingly subscribe to purchase instruments and, in the latest addition to the scam, uniforms only to find the professor skips town without teaching the boys to play a single note.  Hill arrives in River City, Iowa and sets about trying to exercise his charm on the music teacher, Marian Paroo, who is also town librarian – but she is not a woman to be easily won over.  Everyone else scrambles to applaud him and part with their money, and though the local mayor is suspicious and tries to establish Hill’s credentials, the conman finds a succession of ingenious ways to wriggle out of the situation.  There are a number of interesting sub-plots, the most moving of which is that the librarian’s little brother, Winthrop, has hardly spoken since the death of their father two years ago, and has a terrible stutter.  In addition, the local ‘no good’ young man is walking out [in secret] with the mayor’s eldest daughter; the mayor’s wife has pretensions to artistic grandeur; four sworn enemies who are charged with investigating Hill are under his influence transformed into a [brilliant] barbershop quartet; and another now local man has in the past helped Hill run his scams.

Pack this delightfully complex narrative with a never-ending stream of good musical numbers, a surprising number of which I found I knew very well, and have even sung – not just 76 Trombones but also Ya Got Trouble, Goodnight my Someone, My White Knight, Till There Was You – and a constant stream of delightful and in some instances moving songs: the opening near-rap about the life of a travelling salesman which led into a song about the stubbornness of Iowa people; the exquisitely-rhymed serenade to Marian, the Librarian; the gloriously chromatic harmonies of the barbershop quartet and the clever way songs were combined  – especially Goodnight my Someone and  76 Trombones.  Meredith Willson’s score and libretto, which began its life as vignettes remembered from his youth in rural Iowa, manages to avoid the uncomfortably outdated gender stereotypes of many ‘classic’ musicals [think Seven Brides for Seven Brothers] and instead presents situations we all can identify with today.

The performances were all superb with the utterly plausible and charismatic Hill [Daren A Herbert] at the centre of it all, slowly finding to his own surprise that he has a heart and a conscience, and Marian [Danielle Wade], resisting Hill’s charm with every fibre of her being but slowly succumbing – knowing he is a rogue and willing to say goodbye to him, acknowledging that the joy he has brought to her is invaluable even though she will never see him again.  Each character on stage was fully-rounded and excellently played: but for me the outstanding performance has to be that of Alexander Elliott who played lisping Winthrop – in his first season at Stratford, but surely going to go far.  It was a joy to watch him emerge from his silent isolation with his discovery of music, and in the wonderfully syncopated short song Gary, Idaho [almost completely lacking the “s”s which so trouble the boy] which Hill taught him Alexander shone centre-stage as if he’d been born there.

Then there was the dancing – energetic, acrobatic, jaw-dropping: inventive choreography and such a concentration of talent in a relatively small stage.  So much was going on all the time one would need a second performance to be able to see it all – and the enjoyment would be even greater second time around.  The thrust stage brought the cast right out into the audience; the production made excellent use of the permanent balcony structure – the balcony of the town hall, an upper level of the library, etc; and moveable stage furniture and imaginative lighting created the library, the librarian’s house, and the bridge over the creek.

There were so many magic moments: the piano so expertly played by wee Amaryllis Dunlop [Sarah DaSilva] during her lesson with Marian, the chattering gossips of the town with their Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little, the near-rioting teenagers in the library – and the crowning delight of the final magic moments when the band, in uniform, comes on stage to support Marian’s moving plea for the town to recognise and applaud the joy that Hill has brought into their life.  Every number got warm applause and at the final ‘curtain’ the audience rose as one to salute a triumphant and life-affirming performance that sent everyone out into the darkness with a smile on their face.

The Tempest   William Shakespeare – REVIEW

Wednesday 3 October 2018

**** (4 stars)

the tempest

After the exhilarating razzmatazz of the previous night’s The Music Man, this was a slight disappointment – it was a very good production of Shakespeare’s play, with some good acting and some exciting special effects, but which somehow failed to sparkle.

Prospero, Duke of Milan [in this production, Duchess of Milan, played by the veteran Canadian actress Martha Henry] has been exiled by his brother Antonio, with the help of Alonso, King of Naples – Prospero had handed Antonio power to rule, while she immersed herself in her study of the magical arts.  Prospero and her infant daughter Miranda were meant to drown, but they were washed up on an island originally ruled by the witch Sycorax.  She being now dead, Prospero enslaved her monster-son Caliban and released the spirit Ariel from the tree in which he’d been imprisoned by Sycorax.  Prospero discovers by her magic arts that Antonio, Alonso and Alonso’s son Ferdinand are at sea: she conjures Ariel to create a mighty storm and cast these three on various parts of the island’s shore.  Ferdinand and his father each suppose the other to be dead: Miranda encounters the grieving Ferdinand and falls in love with him, and he with her; the Duke’s brother plots with Sebastian to kill the king and take the throne; Caliban encourages  two other travellers from the vessel to kill Prospero; and Ariel leads all these people awry until they finally are all brought face to face with Prospero who has learned to let go of her desire for vengeance and instead forgive all those whom she had felt had wronged her.  Finally she abjures all her magic, breaks her staff and burns her books, and frees Ariel.

It’s a complex plot, which was clearly told: the Shakespearean language was expertly delivered and brought many laughs; and the comic parts were well done without being overdone.  Miranda’s adoring reaction to the first man she had ever seen was delightfully adolescent, and Prospero’s love for her daughter was plain to see.  The sprites who attended Ariel were charmingly elfin, and some of the magic effects – particularly the giant crow with glowing red eyes – were very splendid.  Once again the thrust stage was used to good effect, with entrances and exits into all parts of the auditorium as well as backstage, and I really liked the giant tree among whose roots was Prospero’s cave.

I think it was a case of many good things not joining up to make a totally engrossing whole – and maybe a slight feeling of anticlimax after the glorious Music Man the previous evening.  There was some splendid acting, good staging, lighting and costumes, and the tale was well told: it simply didn’t catch fire for me.  The audience applauded loudly, and many people rose to their feet at the curtain calls – both appreciating the performance and paying homage to the grande dame of Canadian theatre, Martha Henry.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird   Harper Lee / Christopher Sergel – REVIEW

Wednesday 3 October 2018

***** (5 stars)

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I’ve read the book, and I’ve seen the film, and still I was gripped by the drama, desperate to find out how the trial would end…

The stage version of Harper Lee’s book begins just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  We see newsreel footage of the segregation riots, and photos of the time, including distressing images of lynchings.  The grown-up Jean Louise Finch [known as Scout when a kid] looks back at her youth in Alabama, when the Klu Klux Klan were a visible force, terrorising the black community as they took the law into their own hands and dealt out what they saw as ‘justice’.  Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, the local lawyer, is a lone voice of sanity, calling for tolerance and understanding even for the poor white nigger-hating Bob Ewell and his numerous offspring.  When Bob’s daughter Mayella accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of raping her, Atticus is the only person who will defend Tom.  The novel is narrated from the point of view of six-year old Scout: in the play Jean Louise is able to observe things as an adult while narrating and setting the scene for the audience.

Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill are central to the drama, and I was hugely impressed by the talent and confidence of all three actors – Clara Poppy Kushnir, Jacob Skiba, and Hunter Smalley.  Clara and Jacob were making their Stratford débuts, while this was Hunter’s second season: I’m sure all three will go on to great things.  It’s a hard job to follow Gregory Peck, but Jonathan Goad gave a mesmerizing performance as the man who stands by his own principles regardless of any opposition: definitely someone you’d want fighting your corner in a tight situation!  The rest of the large cast was superb – heroes and villains alike – and the drama kept us all gripped to the final moments when the sheriff advises Atticus to “let the dead bury the dead” and accept the fiction that Bob Ewell fell on his knife…

The Festival Theatre’s thrust stage brought the action right out into the audience, with entrances and exits through us as well as off-stage.  The trial scene was magnificently staged: most of the white people were treating it as a great social event and greeting each other without any doubt of the outcome of the trial.  The balcony was filled with the coloured people who wanted to be present at the trial but who were not allowed to sit downstairs – and it was among them that Scout and Jem slipped to watch their father fighting for Tom Robinson’s life.  The interval was cleverly brought in by the judge announcing that some people had raised the question whether women and children should be cleared from the court: the judge refused to order this, saying “you will have to decide whether or not you want to hear these things” and announced a ten-minute recess.

There were so many other brilliant scenes – the mad dog’s shooting, when Scout sees that her father is a brilliant shot, though he normally refuses to touch guns; the dark night through which Jem and Scout have to walk to take part in the school pageant, and in which Bob Ewell tries to get back at Atticus by attaching his children.   It was a gripping and moving account of a novel which invites us to reflect on what we take for granted as ‘the norm’ and to consider the possibility of standing in another person’s shoes and thus gaining a better understanding of them, and another superb Stratford production which was greeted with loud applause.

An Ideal Husband   Oscar Wilde -REVIEW

Thursday 4 October 2018

***** (5 stars)

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I was delighted see this production in the Avon Theatre, whose proscenium arch framed lavishly detailed sets in which gorgeously-costumed actors gave an excellently acted performance of Wilde’s political drama.  They acted with total conviction, not a shred of tongue in cheek, as they played out a tale which speaks loudly to us today.

Sir Robert Chilton, Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, is lauded as both an honest politician and an ideal husband.  Mrs Cheveley, a glamorous woman with an intriguing accent and an unknown past, attempts to ‘persuade’ Sir Robert to falsify his report to the House of Commons on an Argentinean canal scheme so that she and her associates can make a fortune.  He scorns to do so – but is reminded of a less-than-honest moment in his past when, as a young aspiring politician he used inside information to make his own fortune in a speculation.  A letter he wrote at the time is in Mrs Cheveley’s hands: she will exchange it in return for his promise to uphold the Argentinean scheme…  Matters are complicated by Sir Robert’s need to conceal his dishonesty from his wife Laura and his sister, Mabel, who is herself trying to bring her romance with Sir Robert’s friend Lord Arthur Goring to a successful conclusion – a proposal of marriage.

Underlying the Wilde witticisms and comic entanglements is a serious reflection on the human tendency to put the beloved object on a pedestal, and be completely gutted when they turn out merely to be human like the rest of us, and tries to teach the lesson that we all have feet of clay and that “Pardon, not punishment, is our mission”.

Tim Campbell, in his tenth Stratford season, gave a strong performance as the noble man with upright principles whose past behaviour threatens his present exalted position.  His wife [Sophia Walker]’s accent slipped from its cut-glass Englishness from time to time but was otherwise very good as the wife whose rigidly upright principles take a beating as she too is forced to realise that she has been worshipping false idols.  Zarah Jestadt had a ball as the lively and irrepressible Mabel, playing off the luckless Tommy Trafford against her intended future husband, and Brad Hodder shone as Arthur Goring, the suave and mildly decadent man-about-town who ends up saving the day for his oh so upright friend.  Bahareh Yaraghi as Mrs Cheveley, the villain of the piece, wound her serpentine coils round just about everyone else in sight, and had all the best frocks as well…  Special mention has to be made of the complex choreography of the scene changes, in which major furniture removals and alterations took on the shape of a ballet for domestic servants – a gloriously entertaining spectacle in itself.

The intricate plot was superbly handled, each successive twist on the rollercoaster ride being greeted by the audience with cheers, groans, and applause, until they leapt to their feet at the final curtain.  It was a thoroughly satisfying show and I loved every minute!

The Rocky Horror Show – REVIEW

Thursday 4 October 2018

***** (5 stars)

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Rocky Horror continues to be completely indescribable – those of you who know the plot, know it, while those of you who don’t probably wouldn’t get it from anything I could write!  The show obviously has a huge cult following the other side of the pond, and some of them were out in force – only  a few in costume, but with some  significantly brilliant get-ups – jeering, cheering, heckling and joining in with a cast who were throwing heart and soul into the ridiculous plot and making the most of their opportunities to shine.   At times the volume was so great it was impossible to make out the words – but then most of the audience knew them anyway!  I do wonder what the grey-haired stalwarts of the Festival made of this show, so very unlike anything else on offer this year – but maybe this was what they had come for?

The show was magnificent and the cast were all splendid.  Rocky [George Krissa] was understandably delighted with his [incredible] body and his tiny shiny underpants – think Kylie’s 50p charity ones shrunk in the wash; while Brad [Sayer Roberts] and Janet [Jennifer Rider-Shaw] were superb as the goofily naïve couple, so shocked yet at the same time so thrilled by their initiation into a world that exceeds their wildest [and probably previously unimaginable] dreams.  Tiny Kimberley-Ann Truong as Columbia gave an outstanding performance among a cast who were all exuberantly OTT, while Steve Ross’s Narrator dealt effortlessly and scintillatingly wittily with the abuse hurled at him through the show.  But of course the star of the show was Dan Chameroy as the towering muscular and irresistible Frank N Furter himself, effortlessly dominating the stage both physically and vocally, seducing everyone in sight and obviously having a ball.  The voices were uniformly fabulous, the sets were very inventive, and there were many superb lighting effects – a glitterball sending gorgeously twinkling specks of light spinning round the auditorium as Brad sang his plangent lament, and producing a stunning galaxies-spanning cosmos into which the spaceship disappeared.

My companion knew every note and nuance of the film version, and felt that Dan Chameroy wasn’t a patch on Tim Curry – but for everyone else his performance was stunning.  They were obviously over the moon about the whole show and took to heart, wildly cheering and applauding its fundamental message: Don’t dream it: be it!

The Comedy of Errors   William Shakespeare – REVIEW

Friday 5 October 2018

***** 5 stars 

The Comedy of Errors – On The Run 2018

Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, has come to Ephesus in search of his son Antipholus, who has himself been searching for his brother, from whom he was parted in a shipwreck many years ago.  He is accompanied by his servant Dromio, who is also seeking the brother from whom he was separated in the same disaster.  .  Egeon is instantly in trouble, his life being in danger as a Syracusan who has dared enter Ephesus: his only hope is to raise a large sum of money in the next 24 hours.  He is unaware that his son and his servant have recently arrived in Ephesus: they are unaware that another Antipholus and Dromio, their long-lost brothers, have long lived in the city and are well-known there.  The scene is set for a riot of confusion, mistaken identities and more…

This production of a play with a constant succession of twists and turns was given yet further twists by an extravaganza of cross-dressing and gender-bending.  Each pair of twins in this production were brother and sister, adding an extra frisson to the efforts made by Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, to win back the ‘husband’ she thinks has turned ‘his’ eyes elsewhere, and the resistance of Adriana’s sister, Luciana, to the shocking advances of the person she thinks is her sister’s husband.  The Duke of Ephesus obviously liked dressing in female garb, with a slit up the skirt of his riding habit which displayed a gorgeous pair of legs above splendid knee-length high-heeled boots, while the Courtesan with whom Antipholus of Ephesus’ life gets tangled unashamedly displayed the whole length of his stockinged and suspendered legs below a pair of lovely, tiny, gold-and-black puffed breeches.  Other smaller roles followed suit in cross-dressing or simply gender-bending, adding to the general diversity of the inhabitants of Ephesus.

Played without an interval, this was an exhilarating romp through a wonderfully well-plotted comedy played by a cast whose energy, commitment, and comic timing were a joy to behold.  Jessica B Hill and Beryl Bain were outstanding as they swaggered across the stage as the ‘men’ from Syracuse, while Qasim Khan and Josue Laboucane did a brilliant job as their Ephesian counterparts.  The whole cast was superb, with each actor making the most of their chance to shine; the gorgeously flamboyant costumes were visually stunning and the time simply flew by until the audience exploded into applause as everything came right in the end.

Fast, furious, fantastic fun – an absolute delight!

Julius Caesar   William Shakespeare – REVIEW

Friday 5 October 2018

**** (4 stars)

Julius Caesar – On The Run 2018

Another thoroughly good, standard production which simply didn’t catch fire…

Julius Caesar returns to Rome for a hero’s welcome after successfully defeating his rival for power Pompey.  His friend Mark Antony offers him a crown, which upsets some of the senators: some are jealous of Caesar’s influence and power, others are simply concerned that Rome’s republican system of government.  One of the latter is Brutus, who is eventually persuaded by the jealous Cassius to join in a plot to murder Caesar – but this doesn’t solve the situation, merely sparks another violent civil war which ultimately leads to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

The pivotal point in the play is when Mark Antony delivers Caesar’s funeral oration, a stunning example of the way words can appear to say one thing but end up at its polar opposite – continually calling the conspirators “honourable men”, he rebuts the notion that Caesar deserved to die because he wanted to be king and manages to twist everything the listening crowd hears into a condemnation of these same “honourable men” as traitors, against whom the crowd explodes into violence.  It’s an impressive example of political manipulation…

The staging was effective, with well-handled crowds and well-disciplined armies: a suitably murky atmosphere for the plotting, and centre stage for Caesar’s murder.  The costumes were an interesting blend of Elizabethan breeches, bronzed breastplates, white togas and scarlet cloaks, and the tale was well told – so why was I not more involved?  I don’t think that it was because a large number of the traditionally male roles were played by women – Caesar, Mark Antony, Cassius, Octavius were all women: but that didn’t affect the quality of the acting or make the characters any less convincing.

Could it have been that I was too busy following the plot to fully comprehend the emotions, or that the constant procession of small scenes with constantly changing characters and situations meant I was less involved with any one person?  Or simply that I couldn’t identify with any particular character or their situation… I certainly found it hard to care much for Caesar [Seana McKenna], or to sympathise with Brutus [Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch in doublet and hose] and I cordially disliked the whiningly envious Casca [Joseph Ziegler adding his third Stratford role this season to those of Lord Caversham in Ideal Husband and Judge Taylor in Mockingbird].  Irene Poole swapped her female attire as the grown-up Jean Louise Finch in Mockingbird for the armour of Cassius, who organises the conspirators and manipulates Brutus into joining them – another unlikeable person very well played.  In previous repertory situations I’ve really enjoyed seeing actors playing different characters, but here it seemed to work against their credibility, being a distraction rather than a tribute to their versatility.

There seemed to be an awful lot of people falling on their swords – would that current politicians would feel the same way about their failures!  All in all, it was a thoroughly competent production which made the narrative easy to follow, but it failed to move me – as the cast took their applause I felt rather that I had done my duty by Shakespeare than that I’d had the time of my life.

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For more information on the festival go to : https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/