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If 'twere done then 'twere well it were done ... well: Canadian Shakespeare
by Keith Garebian

Any Shakespeare production both belongs to the history of that work, and is a new creation. Olivier's flamboyantly heroic Henry V was different from Branagh's grittier one, just as Scofield's Lear was a fresh Beckettian reading of a role once titanized by Wolfitt. All productions form part of stage tradition, and a new interpretation of a classic is a way of handing over the past to the future, while simultaneously shaping an intercultural reversioning of the original. The crucial question is, just what theatrical idioms are passed on and how authentic are they?

Apart from the undeniable acting legacy of William Hutt, it was difficult to discern from the four Shakespearean productions of the 1999 Stratford season just what is most valued in Canadian reversionings of original Shakespearean plays. While the productions of Richard Monette, Martha Henry, and Diana Leblanc often spoke strongly in the idiom of theatre, their work tended to be an erratically compromised negotiation between text and performance. Monette's most vivid impulses were towards showmanship by way of broad comedy, visual effects, and extroverted acting. Henry went after stripped-down theatricality, but her problem was the radical contradiction between the essentially iconic text of Richard II and her all-too-plain presentation. Leblanc's ludicrously messy vision of Macbeth dramatized W.B. Worthen's assertion in Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance that "[t]he only thing we can be sure of is that as audiences change, as a culture and its theatres change, Shakespeare will speak in different accents, in different forms of visibility and embodiment that may (or may not) assert their own (in)authentic claims to `Shakespeare.'"

All productions "betray" a text, but the crucial question is, to what degree and to what effect? In the case of Leblanc's Macbeth, the betrayal was virtually total; it was certainly catastrophic. From the mixed-period half-costumes of John Pennoyer (in his lycra bicycle shorts, Peter Hutt's splendidly played Macduff looked as if he were missing the bottom-half of a kilt) and the woefully minimalist setting of Astrid Janson (whose dais and throne-room looked rickety), down to the generally slovenly acting and crazy touches of contemporaneity, this Macbeth crystallized the flaws of conceptual theatre when the brains are out. The three witches, one male, omnipresent but totally lacking in true mystery, looked and acted like amateur gymnasts. Martha Henry's Queen had busy hands; but she had to act for two as Rod Beattie flattened the title-role into a nullity, remaining completely unbelievable in almost every scene. Henry, at least, attempted an interpretation, falling bathetically short in the banquet scene as she doffed her futurist shoulder pads and scarlet-feathered cap, collected left-over dregs from the departed guests' red, acrylic goblets, and staggered off, singing a low-key "Our love is here to stay"! Hampered by the ugly, impractical dais, whose high steps were a hindrance to both her and Beattie, she couldn't execute the sleepwalking scene in any interesting or moving fashion; she settled, instead, for a pantomimic recitation on the platform, wringing and rubbing a long, red banner as if it were blood on her hands. Her husband, meanwhile, sleepwalked almost throughout.

Instead of a provocative central idea, the production had crazy gimmicks: Macbeth in a pinstriped apron, serving canapés to his guests; a Porter, high on "weed" and booze, who sounded like a Beatnik relic and who whizzed by on a skateboard; a Scottish soldier who carried a cricket bat inscribed "Butch" (appropriate, of course, to any upcoming England-Scotland test match); Malcolm and Donalbain disguised like squeegee kids when fleeing Scotland; and the literal shootout between Macbeth and Macduff at the Dunsinane "corral". All of these put me in mind of the burlesque strippers' lyric in Gypsy: "Do somethin' special;/Anything that's fresh'll/Earn you a big fat cigar./You're more than just a mimic/When you got a gimmick-/Take a look how different we are!"

Martha Henry's production of Richard II erred in a different way, giving rational pragmatism a new name and revealing an unexpected banal austerity. The play is a set of rituals (verbal jousting, banishment, deathbed elegy, military siege, and abdication), but the textures and tropes are achieved primarily through a highly-charged poetry, often as formally versified as it is sentimental. Henry's production banished English history and Shakespearean verse by providing no palpable sense of the political turbulence of the time and by denying the text an opportunity to glow with tremendous majesty or pain.

Astrid Janson's ugly set of high, black walls and panels, sometimes translucent, and an inelegant metal throne that no vain king would ever entertain in a castle, signalled a refusal of embellishment. But less is not necessarily more, especially if the playing space is unoccupied by actors who can sound Shakespeare's notes. This was no real English court, let alone one at odds with itself.

Richard is a part meant expressly for a star actor who can colour design through rhetoric. Geordie Johnson, alas, seemed to take to heart Lady Bracknell's advice in The Importance of Being Earnest: "The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn." Johnson's chin was worn very high, and the result, at its best, was a decorative photograph of a matinée idol, and, at its worst, a monotonously cold recitation, often so low-key as to be negligible. Not helped by a platform that was an insult to royalty, he could not descend like "glistering phaethon", but only as a rather peeved prefect.

Apart from one homoerotic scene, where Bushy padded around barefoot and topless while wearing a woman's headpiece, this Richard II was close to the sort of Deadly Theatre defined by Peter Brook-not because it failed to be nobler than life or intellectually provocative or because it did not confirm a particular scholar's pet theory, but because the playing was decidedly conventional despite being contemporized.

Monette's A Midsummer Night's Dream could have been a corrective to what Henry neglected to explore: the failure of harmony in various kingdoms. Shakespeare's Dream isn't simply about the travails of love or the problems of fantasy; there are real power struggles in the fairy, courtly, and proletarian worlds. This layering of correspondences was missed in Monette's production. The lovers' quarrels and contretemps were played as farce and slapstick (particularly in the case of Michelle Giroux's Helena, a thin, tall cut-up), replete with zany business and freestyle wrestling antics, eschewing nightmare emotions that lie within the text. The quartet had no poetry and little sexuality, but their physical dexterity and agility played well to the audience.

Monette sought romantic enchantment rather than political or social satire. Just as there was no hard edge to Theseus' dominance over Hippolyta (Jonathan Goad's Duke being uncommonly mild, and Diane D'Aquila's Queen of the Amazons rather domesticated), there was little acridity in the Oberon-Titania clashes. Rather than being a "rash wanton" with a distinctly sexual rhythm, Seana McKenna's Titania was a witty charmer, titillating in her intimacy with Bottom, but no medium for fiery ecstasy.

Director and cast divorced the parody of the Pyramus and Thisby sections from its real action of sustaining themes that develop as a whole in the play. Where Peter Brook correctly discovered that Pyramus and Thisby was "the most inner portion of the whole dream", containing what is "behind the whole play", Monette seemed to take the amateur theatricals as a farcical affront to theatre art. There is perhaps nothing as unprofessional as professionals mocking amateurs. Nowhere have I seen amateurs perform as badly or as broadly as the Stratford cast did. The "mechanicals" shambled on in rustic costumes, rife with raffia, almost as if the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz had mutated into these caricatures. There was no sense of what a real carpenter, joiner, weaver, bellows mender, tinker or tailor would have looked, sounded or acted like in Shakespeare's day.

Bottom is, of course, the crucial figure, and not simply for his aggressive hamming. He raises questions about an actor's transformation, as well as a man's. His name suggests anality, as does his metamorphosis into an ass. He is no simple stereotype-no mere "ham" actor or boisterous bully-but a being capable of desire beyond licit limits. Brian Bedford had the comic eagerness of the bad amateur actor, the high dudgeon of a prima donna, and the radical innocence of a working-class type who is unblessed with self-knowledge. But the weak staging of his transformation scene hurt him: he was unable to be fearful and fearsome, truly terror-struck and terrifying. His case was a capsule comment on the production, which rarely transcended the pantomimic.

Unlike this Dream, Monette's The Tempest justified itself on two fundamental counts: first, it was a signal way of handing the past to the future-not simply the canonical Shakespearean past, but an acting style, size, and power that are becoming increasingly rare on modern stages; second, despite being unable to sustain the idea of a continuing storm in Prospero's mind, it had a unified dialectic, constructed around the vanity of art. Monette shaped his interpretation around the figure of William Hutt, who played Prospero neither as an angry god or power-hungry demiurge, nor as an El Greco hermit or Dante with a beard. The production made admirable sense of the play, and, apart from a kitschy masque, avoided empty spectacle. All eyes, including the cast's, were on Hutt, who showed that Prospero isn't simply a vocal part.

Hutt's Prospero was a tender, concerned father, wounded duke, and plotting magician harmonized into one man who, rich in imagination and feeling, was brought to full awareness of his own humanity by Michael Therriault's tender Ariel and Peter Hutt's darkly sexualized, yet vulnerable, Caliban. It was Ariel's poignant sounding of the word "human" that set up vibrations of sympathy and grace in Prospero. In the sudden, startling flash of insight into the vanity of his own power-"Our revels now are ended"-Prospero renounced all wondrous spectacle in order to hold fast to his true divinity as a being capable of forgiveness and more life. With great simplicity, facility, and power, Hutt conjured up the sounds of The Tempest such as had not been heard before. It was sheer Canadian genius. 

Keith Garebian's most recent book is The Making of `Cabaret'.


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