The flavours of the Stratford Festival 2014

Gordon
Gordon Jones
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Returning to the Stratford Festival to review for The Telegram was a no-brainer, since six Newfoundland artists are involved in productions this year. So, last week I took in five plays in three days.

First up was “King Lear,” the most savagely brutal of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, featuring an aging king who yields his power and responsibilities to two ungrateful daughters, a nobleman who gouges out the eyeballs of another peer and a psychopath who casually orders the hanging of Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter.

“Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth” are simply stations on the way. “King Lear” is Shakespeare’s tragic terminus.

Directed by festival director, Antoni Cimolino, the Elizabethan-costumed production is spare and bleak, full of darkness pierced by light. Rejected by his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, and fleeing to the barren moor and into an epic storm, Lear runs mad. Colm Feore’s Lear is compellingly believable, both as a headstrong monarch and as a witless outcast, finally and sadly coming to recognize his own faults and guilt, and dying of a broken heart, with the dead Cordelia in his arms.

Sara Farb’s rendition of honest, if priggish, Cordelia is steady, although not overwhelming. But, as a theatrical friend remarked, Cordelia is not much of a part. The two wicked sisters, on the other hand, are quite another matter — as wicked as any figures in a fairytale, with Maev Beaty’s Goneril being majestically statuesque, as well as frightening in her fury. Not to take anything away from Lisa-Repo-Martell’s astute and sharp rendering of Regan, Beaty is an exceptional Goneril.

With no expectations of inheritance, Edmund, the illegitimate half-brother of Edgar (Evan Buliung) is intensely bitter and envious. Newfoundland actor, Brad Hodder, in his third Festival season, creates an intense Edmund, scheming and plotting, sharing thoughts and intentions with the audience, acting almost as narrator. But he is outdone in evil by Mike Shara’s Duke of Cornwall, who plucks out the eyeballs of Gloucester.

This bravura production is fast-moving and exciting in the first half, in the second half slower and more reflective, as blind Gloucester (Scott Wentworth) is reunited with his virtuous elder son and with his revered monarch, while Lear is reunited with his treasured Cordelia, only to be cruelly deprived.

“King Lear” is indeed terminal.

•••

The second play on my schedule was “King John,” whose reign spanned the 12th and13th centuries, though the colourful Stratford costuming was more Tudor than medieval. One of the less well-known of Shakespeare’s English history plays, Shakespeare connoisseurs would likely rank it down with “Henry VI, Part 1” and “Henry VIII.” Nevertheless, it possesses some interesting features, the portrayal of the monarch in particular.

Directed by Tim Carroll, “King John” is performed in the Tom Patterson Theatre, where the stage runs the length of the hall, with audience on three sides, seated on risers. Idiosyncratic as it is, imposing restrictions on blocking and performance, the narrow stage nevertheless brings audience and actors physically and emotively closer together.

A royal marriage to end warfare between England and France is banned by Cardinal Pandulph, envoy from Rome, with King John’s intransigence being rewarded by excommunication. So the age-old sport of England and France beating up on one another resumes. When a Vatican-sponsored invasion of England is undertaken, the French invaders are joined by disgruntled English barons, defying John’s authority — although they later change their minds.

The sole hard-rock patriot is the heroic Bastard (Philip Faulconbridge, fathered extra-maritally by crusading King Richard I). King John serves as anti-hero, the king we love to hate. In performance, the Bastard often overshadows King John. But not in this production, where Tom McCamus creates a smiling, smirking, lip-twitching John, who is equally likely to burst into tears or fits of rage.

The facial tics are a clever way of defining and focusing the passive-aggressive monarch. Nobody is going to upstage this King John.

Filled with flags and uniforms and pageantry, the play is also full of dry debate, speechifying, and argument over war claims, together with sermonizing from the Cardinal, not to mention lamentations by Constance over the death of her young son, Arthur. A good quarter-hour of back-and-forth rhetoric is exchanged between the defiant citizens of Angiers and besieging armies.

This very talkative play ends with the death of John (poisoned by a monk), the accession of his young son, Prince Henry, and a patriotic closing speech by the Bastard (“Nought shall make us rue/If England to itself do rest but true”). A singing procession by the full cast led into a curtain call by actors who, after three hours of “King John,” seemed more tired than elated.

The same might perhaps be said of the audience, whose applause was respectful, but scarcely tumultuous.

•••

The following day, at the Avon Theatre, the Wednesday matinee was filled with excited, bused-in students, with teachers riding herd. The show they had come to see was a delightful “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” directed by Jillian Keiley, Newfoundland emigre and head of the English section of the National Theatre Centre in Ottawa.

Through a revolving mirror, from drawing room to Wonderland, Alice is followed by a chorus of flame-whirling Alice clones, who emerge from the fireplace; and, arriving in Wonderland, she is met by eight Alices on bicycles, bearing outsize, extravagantly colored flowers that talk.

Accosted by the Red Queen, Alice joins the grand chess game, starting as a lowly pawn on QP2. Next, she encounters a giant gnat, which comes to an untoward end, followed by a talking fawn on a bicycle. Tweedledum and Tweedledee then turn up, together with the Carpenter and the Walrus, the latter consuming an unfortunate chorus of cockleshells.

After the intermission, Alice visits rude and arrogant Humpty Dumpty, perched on a high pyramid of paving stones. Rolled offstage on his pyramid, a loud crash signals his fall, with a white and yellow mess of egg squirting onto the stage floor, to be carried away by a horde of eager maids with frying pans.

  A prolonged — perhaps too prolonged — boxing match between red lion and white unicorn follows. Then maids run through the audience, scattering sweets from their baskets. I got a treat!

Red-and-white knights joust on bouncing horses, accompanied by a phalanx of maids on dancing horses. And Alice finally reaches the eighth square, winning her queendom. So a celebratory feast is held for Wonderland’s denizens, and, in an incredibly swift change of scene, Alice returns to the drawing room from whence she came.

The dancing curtain-call drew hooting and hollering from up-standing kids in the audience, applauding an outrageously colourful production full of marvels and surprises.

•••

My Wednesday evening play was one in which I acted many years ago, Bertolt Brecht’s old warhorse, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” the story of a crusty trave’ling pedlar, who sells from her wagon, at exorbitant prices, goods and provisions to troops engaged in the Thirty Years’ War between catholic and protestant Europe.

Enter Mother Courage’s canteen cart, drawn by her two harnessed sons, driven by Seana McKenna, a fresher and younger Mother Courage than I expected. In Brechtian alienation style, date and location of action are paraded before the audience on hand-held placards, first 1624, when Sweden is recruiting for its Polish campaign. Year after year, the war drags on — 1629, 1631, 1632, 1634, 1636. And, for year after year, mercenary Mother Courage trails after the armies with her two sons (E. Smith, Antoine Yared), then one son, then her mute daughter (Carmen Grant in the very affecting role), and then she is left hauling the wagon alone.

This is a hard-working show, with the family interacting with Cook and Chaplain (Geraint Wyn Davis, Ben Carlson), with the recruiting officer (Wayne Best — far better in the role than I was), and with Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, in her first Stratford season, playing Yvette, the bouncy camp-follower, who later turns up as a well-married grande dame.

Well-shaped and well-performed as the show may be, I left reflecting that I no longer care much for Brechtian alienation effects and anti-naturalistic conventions.

•••

My last show at the Festival was Dale Wasserman’s “Man of La Mancha” in the Avon Theatre. The matinee performance, packed with oldies and goldies, had a double Newfoundland connection — the late Maxim Mazumdar’s mounting the play in Stephenville and St. John’s a long time ago, and the female lead, Robin Hutton, who hails from here.

As you seat yourself, you are overawed by an imposing set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, of an immense dungeon for prisoners of the Inquisition, with moving vanes of a windmill behind, reminding us of the knight who tilted at such monsters. A huge drawbridge can be lowered to admit new inmates, the latest of whom join the thieves and murderers, carrying a hamper and a book.

The new arrivals are an actor and his manservant, who curry favour with their fellow inmates by plucking costumes from the hamper to become Don Quixote (Tom Rooney) and his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza (Steve Ross). Robin Hutton, an extremely fine singer, actor, and dancer, is Aldonza, one of the tough, smart tavern-maids who sell beer and personal services to the inmates.

To Aldonza’s consternation, Don Quixote becomes her devoted admirer, claiming her as his courtly mistress, Dulcinea. Angrily repudiating the name and the role, she nevertheless succumbs finally to the courtly persistence of the knight errant, who dies in the prison (“onward to glory I go”). I suspect more than a few teardrops were shed in the darkened auditorium.

But then the drawbridge is lowered for the last time as soldiers of the Inquisition reclaim the actor who has been Quixote in this entertaining and, ultimately, moving story.

  Five plays, five Newfoundland actors. And the sixth?

•••

Charlie Rose Neis, a fairy sprite in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” sharing the stage with her father, Brad Hodder. She complained that she had no lines. But she was proud of the wand she carried.

  Charlie Rose is 4 1 /2 years old.

Organizations: Tom Patterson Theatre, Avon Theatre, National Theatre Centre Red Queen

Geographic location: Newfoundland, England, France Wonderland Rome Vatican Angiers Looking Glass Europe Sweden La Mancha Stephenville

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