This is Not a Review: Stratford Festival 2012

We had tickets for 42nd Street, Much Ado About Nothing, A Word or Two and The Matchmaker…and at the last minute I decided to add a matinee of Henry V for myself.

42nd Street was the first thing we saw, and it was a fun beginning: a show about putting on a show (a plot device I always enjoy!), with amaaaazing dance numbers, a fabulous orchestra (visible, for once; normally you never see the band in the Festival Theatre) and of course the polished, lavish production values that, for me, are always as much of a thrill as the actual content of anything I see at Stratford.

Much Ado About Nothing was beautiful to look at, with a setting that suggested 19th c. colonial Brazil (I think?) and incidental music and dancing to match. Many things about it were lovely, and funny – but overall…I don’t know. It felt a bit…flat, to me. Possibly I have seen the Kenneth Branagh film version too many times, so that the way lines and jokes and things were delivered felt off because different from that. The overall tone of this production was more restrained – there was still lots of feeling but not so much of the lusty, busty, over-the-top melodramatic emoting that makes the film so entertaining. I found that interesting, and in some ways a relief – the film is a bit much, sometimes! – but was just never quite as engaged as I wanted to be. Again, maybe it was over-familiarity on my part – I’ve just remembered that I also recently saw Much Ado at Bard on the Beach, with a rather similar Mediterranean/Spanish setting and one of the most charismatic actors I know playing Beatrice. Tough act to follow.

A Word or Two, Christopher Plummer’s show, was a marked contrast to the first two: from comedy, convoluted plots and huge casts performing splashy production numbers to an evening of literature, poetry and autobiographical anecdotes performed by one man on a minimalist set in shades of cream, white, brown and black. I loved the main set piece, a huge pile of books spiralling up into the flies like a staircase, and the use of projections against the upstage wall to make words, or running water, or trees appear as needed. I also thought the content was really well put together; from what I understand the idea was basically for our Mr. Plummer to tell the story of his obsession with the written word (and through it, some of the story of his life and career, inevitably), so it started with children’s tales and imaginary friends, and progressed through snippets of poetry and philosophy and Shakespeare and all manner of other favourite bits of writing. He slipped in and out of dozens of different characters, with accents and dialect and a very little bit of movement (but no costume changes and only a few props). One of my favourite bits was a whole chunk done in extremely authentic joual that I’m sure had a lot of the audience mystified…but I loved the reminder that he’s a Quebecois by birth and upbringing. It was a masterful performance overall – engaging and funny and touching – and I’m very glad to have seen it.

Funny side note: there was a bit of a distraction throughout the show, provided by what I think was a small bird and Dad thinks was a bat – fluttering and swooping around the theatre. It appeared quite close to the beginning, flying around over the audience, and kept disappearing temporarily and reappearing throughout. A couple of times it flew right onto the stage and into the wings – yikes. Christopher Plummer never blinked or faltered, of course; it’s possible he didn’t notice it because of the lights and such, but he’s also a consummate professional, so. But I could just imagine the SM and crew swearing about it on the headset and trying to figure out if there was anything they could do to catch the blasted bird or shoo it out a window or something.

The Matchmaker was the last show we saw, and it was a ton of fun too, laugh-out-loud funny almost right from the start with a lot of excellent, colourful performances. It was neat to see Seana McKenna in the title role, so different in pretty much every possible way from her performance as Richard III last year. I also had to laugh privately at first sight of Tom McCamus – subject of a bit of crush for both my sister and I back when we used to come to Stratford as teenagers – in character as the male lead: wispy grey hair, beer belly and curmudgeonly to the max. We grow middle-aged, all of us!

I’ve left Henry V till last, even though chronologically it was the second last thing I saw (I bought a ticket at the last minute and went to the matinee by myself, the afternoon before we saw The Matchmaker), because I probably have the most to say about it. It was my favourite by far of all the things I saw on this trip – and probably also one of the best productions of any Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen. And to think that I almost didn’t go! Henry V has never been a special favourite of mine; it just happened to be the show that interested me most out of the few that were playing that afternoon. I hadn’t even read anything about the production in advance, and that actually turned out to be kind of fun – walking into the Festival Theatre and sitting down, without any real idea of what I was about to see.

The set was exciting, right from the get go: the thrust stage had become a massive medieval drawbridge, with thick brown timbers stretching out and up, framing the proscenium. It was stark and gloomy and striking, and could not have been more different than the sunny garden set for Much Ado (what Stratford’s crews can do in what must be a crazy tight changeover is a bit magic in itself).

The show had a “soft open”, in which actors started making entrances at around the 5-minute mark, seemingly at random. They wandered in one or two at a time from the voms and the wings, sometimes carrying period props (bales of hay, bundles of wood, etc.) but all in present-day street clothes, and took up positions sitting or standing all over the set. Sometimes they interacted, but often they just came to their places and stayed still, looking off into the middle distance, in contemplation. The effect reminded me of students arriving to class and waiting for the teacher to arrive, but with more mystery in the atmosphere. It was so simple, and yet SUCH a clever way of subtly drawing the audience in and building up anticipation. It also gave us an impressive view of just how large the cast was – often it’s kind of hard to tell because the ensemble folks play so many different characters that you can never be sure whether you’re seeing someone new or just the same actor for the nth time in a different costume.I’m sure I wasn’t the only one looking at each actor as he or she arrived, and trying to guess who would play who…and also wondering who would be last, and how things would start for real.

There was no highlighting of the recognizable cast members; e.g. the actor playing Henry entered just like the others, no fanfare. He stood out only because he was wearing a red Team Canada hockey jersey…and right after I noticed that, I started noticing that several other actors had red pieces or accents in their outfits (which were otherwise casual street clothes in neutral tones, mostly browns and greys)…and then I noticed that others had blue accents, and started wondering if I was seeing a sneak preview of who would be playing English vs French later on.

Finally, as the lights started to go down, the last actor appeared, at the top of the drawbridge, with a flaming torch. That distracted us all from the entrance of the musicians, two drummers and two trumpeters (I think? in pairs on either side of the prosc) – so that the first drum roll cracked into total silence like a gunshot. I jumped; the lady sitting behind me gasped audibly. The fanfare continued, and then we were off: “O, for a muse of fire…” But in this case it wasn’t just one person playing the Chorus – the whole cast delivered the speech, each taking a couple of lines from their places scattered all over the set. Again – so simple, but different and amazingly effective.

I’m not about to talk through the whole show in this much detail – but it WAS a very memorable opening! And I think it struck me so much in part because it was exactly the kind of theatre that I look forward to from Stratford, that I had been waiting for on this trip but had not really yet seen (although A Word or Two came close): beautifully executed in every detail, of course, but also creative, outside-the-box in its staging; powerful storytelling that grabbed me hard enough to (mostly) silence the stage manager part of my brain and let me just watch with wonder and anticipation.

The rest of the production was full of similarly magical staging moments: the use of literal sawhorses, saddled and bridled, for scenes in which characters conversed while on horseback (with clever lighting, physical acting and sound effects – our awareness of the staginess of it just disappeared)…actors carrying banners that looked like ships’ sails, processing down the stage and up all the aisles, to suggest the English fleet crossing the Channel…the hanging of Pistol right at the end of the first half, in which the block was kicked out from under him and the noose, hung from high up in the grid, tightened swiftly so that the (discreetly harnessed) actor flew kicking and struggling high into the air above the stage…and hung there, “dead”, for the first few minutes of intermission.

The acting was uniformly excellent, as it usually is at Stratford. I’m sure I’ve said in every post I’ve ever written about the Festival; it’s such a rare (for me) gift to see a show with no discernible weak links in ANY department, whether it’s cast or production values or overall audience experience. Even rarer still, though, is the experience of seeing a show that’s uniformly strong across the board AND still feels real and fresh, still has vision and heart and passion in it. Most of the theatre I see in Vancouver (and that includes the occasional touring Broadway production and the shows I’ve done myself) succeeds at one or the other; the best shows manage both in certain shining moments, but can’t sustain it. It’s something to strive for, indeed – so inspiring.

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