I have been going to the Stratford Festival since 1964. I saw King Lear with a Canadian All-star (of the day) cast including John Colicos, Leo Cicero, Bruno Gerussi, William Needles, Douglas Rain, Frances Hyland and Martha Henry. I may not have realized then that I was watching the creme de la creme of Canadian Theatre but the effect on me was lasting. And I have probably gone to 30 productions or more there since that time.
Last weekend I took in three plays at Stratford.
Romeo and Juliet
I wondered how to write about this one. Everything has been said. It also made me realize how it must be daunting to put a unique spin on it as a director. I have been in the play twice and seen it another two times. What was new? Well, this time I was certainly more aware of Romeo and Juliet’s teenage youth than I usually am. Most productions tend to make their quick infatuation with each other ooze with sexual tension and palpable emotion. In this one, both Romeo and Juliet seemed like impetuous teenagers who made impulsive silly decisions that led to their eventual demise. Juliet screamed at her nurse in a hissy-fit more than once. Romeo lay on the floor like a five-year-old bawling his eyes out and thrashing. Whereas I am used to the Friar’s lines “Art thou a man?…Thy tears are womanish…I though thy disposition better tempered” given in a sort of avuncular empathetic fashion, this Friar delivered them with a “Grow up, you wimp!” tone.
I did enjoy the interaction between the Nurse and Juliet and I also liked the Friar. They were able to accomplish the play in less than three hours (we never did) but sometimes that was because they thrashed through some lines without taking a breath. I am very familiar with this play and still missed some of the lines. If you were at all hard of hearing it would have seemed like garbled nonsense. The couple beside me left at intermission.
Later in the week someone asked me if the acting at Stratford was that much better than the productions I have been in. I thought for a moment and then realized that we likely did as good a job on the acting. It is all the rest of the production accoutrements that comes with a big budget that makes a difference to the how the show looks.
(Remembering our Kingston production of Romeo and Juliet in April 2013.)
My friends will be glad to know that they put the intermission just before Prince Escalus returns to asks “Who are the vile beginners of this frey? – presumably so he would not miss his entrance (See an earlier post in this blog – Better late than never) as it started the second act and the actor had all intermission to be in his place. I give this production three stars out of five.
I also have wonderful memories of Gilbert and Sullivan productions at the Avon Theatre, particularly recalling the late Richard McMillan and Eric Donkin in the Mikado (1982) or a hefty Maureen Forester as the Fairy Queen gliding in on a rope in the 1988 Iolanthe.
This production took me by surprise. Mainly because I thought it was Pirates of Penzance and only realized on my way to the theatre that it was a different G&S. No matter. They are kind of all the same anyway.
And it was delightfully silly and airy and visually lovely. What is not to like about a good G&S? I give it 4 out of 5 stars since it is hard to go wrong with a good cast and orchestra and, once again, money for costumes and staging.
I was happy to take two of my granddaughters to this and we had a fun day that started at 11 with a “Treasure Hunt” lunch where we dressed up as pirates, met one of the pirates who later was seen in the show, got tattoos and then walked through town stopping at various places on our map to say “Arrh” to a pirate and get more candy or a cupcake or ice cream. By the time we reached the theatre for the production the kids were high on glucose and food colouring.
The show was pretty thin on plot and dialogue and anything meaningful but it was entertaining. Paper mâché birds flying in from the balcony. A trap door to the belly of the ship, a boat sailing through dry ice fog, pirates giving lines from one of the boxes with wide-eyed audience now in the show.
The kids liked it and I did too, but only because there were lots of kids in the audience who got into yelling back at the actors and looking for the treasure on their maps. Maybe the highlight of the weekend for me was when my six year old granddaughter whispered to me during a particularly vigorous storm scene in Treasure Island “It must be fun to be an actor in this.” and then “I think that their fights with those real swords were all planned”. I know my theatre friends will smile at this, knowing that this is why we do it! I hope that some day Maia joins the fun of participating in theatre. Her happy discovery made the weekend for me. Treasure Island as a production, however only ranked 3 out of 5 for me.
I was a bit disappointed in professionalism at a couple of spots in two of the plays. Once, in a quiet part of Romeo and Juliet, there was laughter and talking going on in the hallway behind the audience that was quite noticeable. Not sure if it was ushering staff or even actors who soon after entered through the audience doors. Twice I momentarily saw actors in the wings waiting for an entrance. Nevertheless it detracted from the show (as did the mobile phone that went off for a minute at least). In Treasure Island I could see some backstage light and movement and actors waiting to come on stage and one could see in a gap in the curtain by the orchestra pit where actors were descending down through the stage floor. These things tend to spoil the magic and really are not expected in a professional production company like the Stratford Festival.