Stratford Observations

Apologies East and West: this is a blog for central Canada. The world’s largest reparatory theatre is in Ontario.

  • What’s happening in Stratford under the new management? The Festival is back in the red. Richard Monette balanced his budgets. He was proud of it; he published his financial statements in the general program guide. He survived bad-weather seasons, economic downturns, the high Canadian dollar; he restored the three major theatres and built a new one; he started an ambitious new theatre school. And still came out in the black. He used to boast about how little money he received from the various levels of government. He boasted about not getting grants! Under the management of Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff it’s back to the old ways. They’re in the red and whining about how little they get from the province and the feds. There’s no financial statement in the program guide for 2009.
  • Monette cracked the whip on play directors who betray the playwright. In the Festival’s distant past – before Monette; I’m writing from memory – directors sometimes used the script as excuse to show off their personality – their cherished, brilliant selves. (Imagine Love’s Labour’s Lost done by actors encased in red plastic boxes. I am exaggerating only slightly.) I admit that Monette lost a few battles with directors, but in general as long as he was in charge we saw the plays as written by Shakespeare, or Racine or Chekhov. Performances might be innovative, astonishing, unexpected, but you  knew you were seeing the real thing. The story lines were clear; the human situations were, well, human. A person who had never before seen one of the “Henry” plays, or read one, someone who knew nothing about English history, could still come away from the show with a marvelous appreciation of what had been happening during the “two-hour’s traffic” of the stage. Monette was something of a miracle and now he’s gone. He was Director of the Festival from 1994 to 2007.
  • There were good experiences this year. The best? Perhaps West Side Story. I remember the complaints about the Festival’s decision to mount Broadway shows. People said that Monette was only doing it for the money and that in any case the Americans would stay away because they could see better productions at home. Now one hears Americans saying that Stratford does the shows better than Broadway. (And they’re such good shows, aren’t they!) It makes a difference that the Broadway productions are done in the Festival Theatre on the famous Shakespearian thrust stage. Jerome Robbins’ choreography looked fabulous. The energy of the thing!
  • The Ben Jonson play was a downer. Oh, those poor women gulled into prostitution; and the wretched young men who do their best to keep up a façade of enjoying themselves while being robbed blind and subjected to one humiliation after another. The play’s called Bartholomew Fair, and everyone’s there to have a great day; the players race around the stage, singing, dancing, eating, buying, selling. They practically kill themselves laughing. And they all end up shabbier, unhappier, poorer. And do you know? The audience is made to look shabby too: cheap, dirty. Of course there was lots of applause; it was a play after all; great costumes, surprising effects. But I think some people left the theatre with a sour taste in their mouth. If we didn’t admit it, it was because we were afraid of being laughed at. One goes to the theatre – one goes to a fair – to have a good time.
  • For years critics begged Stratford to do Shakespeare’s contemporaries, especially Jonson. A few years ago we saw The Alchemist; it was not a success. This year it was Bartholomew Fair and now I for one am convinced that there’s a reason why Jonson is done so seldom. There’s a kind of theatre, present in Shakespeare’s day and still current in ours,  that thinks it’s a playwright’s job to show us how despicable, gullible and downright hopeless humans are. Shakespeare knew how to do it. But in Shakespeare’s plays we see other dimensions of the human spirit too.
  • We had a lift to Stratford on our last visit this year and went by highway 403. I had no idea a highway could be so beautiful. Rolling farmlands right and left. No wayside buildings. No overhead wires. And best of all, an endless broad wild garden of gold, mauve, white, deep purple on either side of the road; mile after mile. I used to take highway 5 or 8, under the impression that old roads are bound to be more picturesque. I was wrong. It’s the 403 West for me from now on. I have seen the future and it works.

1 Response to “Stratford Observations”

  1. 1 Stephen MacLean October 9, 2009 at 7:29 am

    Ah, no fears, the East knows all about the doings in Upper Canada!

    Condolences to the family and friends of Douglas Campbell, one of Stratford’s greats. Of course, I knew of Campbell as Inspector Alistair Cameron from CBC’s ‘The Great Detective’ — A fine actor whose dramatic heft allowed audiences to appreciate one facet of early Canadian history. R.I.P.

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