Monday, 28 September 2015

The Beethoven Marathon

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra launched their 70th anniversary season this weekend with a unique Beethoven marathon.  Three concerts (Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening) presented the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos plus several other works.  The piano soloist was the young Canadian virtuoso, Stewart Goodyear.

It was a remarkable weekend of music, not least for pulling up a few real rarities of Beethoven's that are almost never performed live.

So I'm going to start with some comments about those other works before getting to the main events, the concerto performances.

Friday night's concert opened with the Grand Philharmonic Choir joining the orchestra for Beethoven's brief cantata, Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt (most accurately translated into English as "Becalmed sea and prosperous voyage").  This work sets a pair of short poems by Goethe, the first describing the edge of terror besetting sailors who are stuck at sea with no wind to fill the sails, and the second describing the rise of the wind and the resumption of the voyage, up to the point where land is sighted.  The choir and orchestra alike performed the slow, quiet opening portion with incredible precision -- essential when combining staccato sung notes with pizzicati from the strings. The rush of the rising wind was played with beautiful realism, and the choir swung energetically into the joyful allegro of the prosperous voyage.  Fine performance of a true rarity.

Since the Saturday afternoon concert involved only one concerto, this was the performance which really showcased the orchestra.  The concert opened with a work which is probably better known, but not much more often played: the overture to Coriolan.  It's an intense, stormy piece, accurately depicting the vehemence of mood of the title character, and with a quiet ending which almost perfectly pictures his death.  This work has many sudden silences built into it, and many sharp attacks by the full orchestra so precision is essential.  Music director Edwin Outwater led a fiery, edgy account that emphasized these dramatic contrasts.

This concert also included the so-called "little" Eighth Symphony.  It may be the shortest of the famous nine, but that certainly doesn't make it an also-ran for either structural or emotional interest.  I'd bet that when Beethoven described this creation as little, he was being heavily ironic to someone who couldn't tell that legs were being pulled!

Outwater and the orchestra made the most of the sudden loud-soft contrasts and silent pauses which pepper this score as much as Coriolan.  The use of the so-called European seating plan with first and second violins on opposite sides of the conductor paid stereophonic dividends in some of the antiphonal passages.  Throughout the symphony, tempi were brisk and the music always went with a lift and a swing.  It wouldn't be far wrong to describe this as a playful reading, even if some of the jokes are on a practically gigantic scale.  Only in the finale did the music become perhaps a shade too hectic.  The gimmick is that the rich resonance of the Centre In The Square can make mush out of rapid passagework which might sound clear in another venue.

The Saturday night concert opened with another rarity, the overture to King Stephen.  This incidental music was composed late in Beethoven's life for a play presented as a companion piece to The Ruins of Athens.  I think it's best described as "quirky", at least in terms of the odd chord progression and the little organ-grinder-type tune which opens it and interrupts the flow from time to time.  The main theme, allegro, is more conventional but good and lively all the same.

And then, of course, there was the centrepiece of the entire weekend: the five Piano Concertos, spread out with # 1 and # 4 on Friday night, # 3 on Saturday afternoon, and # 2 and # 5 on Saturday night.  All of these performances were noteworthy for the close communication between conductor and soloist and for the consequent tightly-integrated performances.  No less noteworthy or fascinating for the audience was the giant overhead video screen giving a live camera feed focused on the piano keyboard -- for once you didn't have to be sitting on the left side of the hall to see what the pianist was doing!

Although the big, dramatic passages may be more remembered by many, this series of concerts has reminded me forcibly of how important the quieter pages are in Beethoven -- not just in the slow movements, but also in many passages of the outer movements.  In the first two concertos we are still in the world of Mozart, and the music we encounter is scaled appropriately.  By the time we reach the last two we are completely into the world of Beethoven, the Olympian world of musical drama that we have come to know by his name.  Even there, though, the piano spends a surprising amount of time playing quite quietly.  Many of the most important structural features of these works also occur in quiet passages.  Think of the three quiet rising scales played by the piano at three key points in the opening movement of # 5, the so-called Emperor Concerto.

Already in Concerto # 1, Goodyear's quiet playing indicated something special.  As always, I couldn't help getting annoyed at the cadenza which goes on and on and on, and is far out of scale with the rest of the first movement!  The slow movement was captivating in its lyrical inwardness, and the finale brimmed with life and vigour. 

In # 4 (my personal favourite of the cycle), Goodyear's performance of the first movement was imbued with distinction, and an air of fantasy that suits this more lyrical music very well indeed.  Not that his playing of the louder passages was lacking anything, far from it, but he showed on that first night that he knew what could be done in the quieter music (other than just marking time until the next big showpiece moment arrived).  The dialogue of the slow movement between orchestra and soloist, a truly unique conversation in music, was nicely balanced although perhaps lacking the last degree of intensity.  The opening of the finale was almost too quiet, but still filled with energy, and the volume came soon enough -- yet without abandoning the essentially lively, joyful tone of the music.

In the more dramatic and fiery # 3, Goodyear worked on the widest scale of tone and treated us to a remarkable cadenza at the end of the first movement.  He then gave a lovely, inward account of the hymn-like opening of the slow movement.  The finale sparkled joyfully at the opening and gradually grew in power until the final pages flashed fire through to the rousing ending.

The best was kept for last.  Saturday evening's concert contrasted the second concerto (which was actually the first in order of composition) with the fifth and last.  And what a contrast it was!  The finale of # 2 is one of the lightest, brightest, most playful rondos Beethoven ever wrote.  But # 5 is of a totally different order, the prototype for the later concertos of Brahms -- more on the scale of a symphony with a piano part embedded in it.  Nothing symbolizes this change quite so much as the fact that Beethoven wrote out the cadenzas in full -- no improvising allowed here! -- and kept them terse to the point that one almost doesn't notice them in passing.  More to the point, Beethoven actually opens the work with its biggest solo cadenza, an innovation which was duly noted and stretched right to the limits by almost every composer of a piano concerto for the next hundred years.

And here was also where we got the biggest range of playing style and scale of tone, from both soloist and orchestra.  In keeping with its lighter character, Concerto # 2 was played with wit, flair, and a strong sense of fun -- especially in the central episode of that rondo finale.  Piano and orchestra alike took on a totally different sound, richer, weightier, and altogether larger in # 5.  Indeed, Goodyear's piano sound was so full that in the infamous fortissimo scale passages in the first movement the accompanying bassoon figure had trouble making itself felt.  Despite that, there was no doubt in my mind that the performance of # 5 as a whole was the most strongly integrated, the most fully realized, of the entire cycle.  The intensity generated in the huge opening movement was sustained through the quiet slow movement and the quick transition into the finale. 

Right at the end of that third concert, when both orchestra and soloist could reasonably be expected to start flagging a bit, the finale of the "Emperor" was treated to a fire-eating performance that sacrificed nothing of clarity or musicality while still achieving a hair-raising intensity.  The standing ovation with four calls by the soloist and conductor and volleys of cheering from all over the auditorium was richly earned and deserved.

I think I was most surprised by how tired I was after it ended.  I'm used to attending multiple concerts a day at the Festival of the Sound, but this was an experience of a wholly different kind -- intensely musical and fascinating insights into well-known and well-loved music, but also very demanding on the listener.  I'm sure that the sizable number of music lovers who took in all three concerts all felt themselves amply rewarded for their time, as I did.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Shaw Festival 2015 # 3: An Unconventionally Conventional Comedy

In some ways, You Never Can Tell is one of Shaw's most conventional plays.  It thrives on the devices of nineteenth century romantic comedy -- the confused identities, the missing persons rediscovered, the peculiarly crossed wires of relations between the middle class and the servant class, and so on.  But underneath all that are other and more unusual elements already visible, elements which were destined to come to fullness in succeeding works.

One of the unusual elements is the setting.  Instead of the conventional drawing room location so beloved of all his contemporaries, Shaw opens up the atmosphere by locating this play in a seaside resort, at the "Marine Hotel" -- a typical seaside-resort-hotel name of the period.  These resorts were the ideal getaway for the Victorians of all classes except the very wealthiest (who did the Grand Tour of Europe instead), with different resorts catering to people of different economic stature.  So Shaw manages at the same time to respect and subvert the conventions of his day, a trick which he was destined to raise to an art form in its own right.

You Never Can Tell is one of a group of plays published in a volume entitled Plays Pleasant -- a successor to the original Plays Unpleasant which had posed such a forceful challenge to social mores in the established theatre around the end of the nineteenth century.  With You Never Can Tell, Shaw determined to write a commercially successful play without sacrificing his socialist and modernist principles.  It was first performed in 1897.

Lighthearted this play may be, yet it is truly Shavian in its continual reversals of conventional expectations.  Consider as an example the relationship which develops between Valentine, the self-described "duellist of sex", and the deadly-serious "new woman", Gloria.  At first glance, a most unlikely couple.  And yet, in the end, this proves to be the first and one of the funniest of Shaw's numerous stage relationships in which (as John Tanner later would remark in Man and Superman):  "Woman is the pursuer and the disposer; man, the pursued and the disposed of."

But it's easy to get distracted from the prototypical Shaw relationship so presented when you are confronted with the sometimes-ineffectual "modern" blusterings of Mrs. Clandon, the breezy antics of the young twins Dolly and Philip, and the delightful philosophic musings of the waiter, one of the prize comic roles of the entire Shavian canon.

The play interests me in another way -- namely, that I find it impossible to discern a single character who is Shaw's mouthpiece for his own views (Tanner again being an obvious example).  Instead, the Shavian lessons are spread across several different people from time to time, a fact which reduces the tendency Shaw displayed in others of his early plays to forget the theatre and slide back into socio-political pamphleteering.

So, to the current production, which is the Shaw Festival's seventh staging of the play.  In this production, designer Leslie Frankish has made the most of the confined stage space of the Royal George Theatre by suggesting expanses of space in front of the stage (i.e. in the auditorium).  The terrace scene features a staircase down to the beach (running down into the underworld right across the front of the stage), with the implication that the beach is out where the audience happens to be sitting.  Another useful and sensible trick is to place the dentist's chair of the first act on a small rolling platform which can simply be wheeled off stage to reveal the set for Act 2.  The final scene at the masquerade ball uses brilliant colours to suggest the festive atmosphere.

Director Jim Mezon has nudged and steered the company into one of the strongest ensemble performances I've seen at the Shaw -- no mean achievement when this company is renowned for its strength of ensemble playing!  Not least of his achievements is the avoidance of some of the excesses of "acting" suggested by Shaw's prolific stage directions in favour of a purely natural, human-scaled manner for all of the characters.

The effortlessly charming Valentine is played by Gray Powell with an understated air of Don Juan about him.  The understatement totally suits the character but also suits the overall tone of the play.  His one over-the-top moment comes when Gloria is first ushered into his room and he completely loses it and stands staring at her with his mouth hanging open.  The contrast is both striking and hilarious.

Gloria, the young woman of icy self-control and formidable intellect, comes across powerfully as presented by Julia Course.  Indeed, "icy" and "formidable" are the perfect descriptive words for her entire performance, until the final scene when the thaw sets in -- not swiftly but at a believably human pace.

Her mother, Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (we are never told the origin of this intriguing name), is a character type found from time to time in Shaw's works: a person who was advanced in her day but has now been left far behind by the march of "progress".  In her case, the excuse is that she has been living in Madeira with her children for 18 years.  Although by nature a woman of considerable force of character, she simply cannot stand up to her children.  This is a complex and tricky role to bring off, and Tara Rosling is definitely the person to do it.  Particularly appealing in her performance is the perennial air of being thrown off balance by everything that happens.  Rosling plays her ongoing sense of discomfiture very effectively, as a subtle undertone to everything that she says and does.

Patrick McManus strongly presents the growling, fuming Fergus Crampton (Mrs. Clandon's long-separated husband).  From his first appearance in Valentine's dentist chair he exactly treads the line between appealing and maddening -- and this balancing act is the essence of the character.  A fine performance indeed.

Peter Krantz turns in a well-nigh perfect portrayal of Finch M'Comas, the family solicitor -- the very epitome of the man who is constantly pushed, pulled, bullied and buffeted by everyone around him.  He protests mightily (Krantz's deep, big voice here put to great use) but to absolutely no avail.

Bohun, a lawyer who appears as a kind of deus ex machina in the final act to sort out all the confusions and resolve all the questions, has to be imposing.  Even without Shaw's stage directions, the mere lines of the part make that very clear.  His job is to put every other character in his or her place, as often as necessary.  At one key moment, when four people all begin talking at once, he simply shuts them up by saying, "One moment."  Of course, this has to be done in a very commanding tone!  (Shaw's stage direction here is "Thunderously.") 

I wasn't at all sure that Jeff Meadows was the man for the role, as I'd only seen him hitherto in rather more affable parts.  But no fear.  He dominated the stage effortlessly, throughout the scene, and his voice drowned out the other four with no trouble at all -- and with no artificial amplification either, thank goodness!

Now, all of this is very well and good as far as it goes.  But this play absolutely stands or falls by the performances of the three remaining principal characters.  All three of them were simply magnificent.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski was flippant, voluble, inquisitive and high-spirited as Dolly, the younger Clandon daughter.  Her partner in crime, her twin brother Philip, was played with equal flippancy, energy and high spirits by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff.  These two aren't meant to be two of a kind at all.  Rather, they share between them an intriguing range of characteristics -- Dolly the more childlike and manipulative, Philip the more self-possessed and mock-pompous.  It's easy to take these two characters and push them right over the top, but here more than anywhere else was where the human scale of the performance as a whole paid enormous dividends.  The twins were full of life and energy, but always believable and very lovable human beings -- never did they descend into comic caricature.

And finally, the presiding genius of the Marine Hotel, William the waiter.  Out of all Shaw's characters, this is the one I would want to play myself.  He's an absolutely delightful man: warm-hearted, philosophical, funny, observant, and thoughtful.  He goes far beyond mere waiterly skills in making his hotel a friendly, comfortable, sane environment for everyone.  As I said earlier, an absolute prize of a comic role.

Peter Millard crowned this show with a wonderful assumption of the role of William, full of little nuances of speech and grace notes of physical mannerism and facial expression.  It would be useless to try to single out particular moments in such a consistently and fully realized portrayal.

Really, that could stand as my reaction to the show as a whole.  Of the three times I have seen this play staged, I felt this was by far the most accomplished, the most enjoyable, and certainly the most uniformly excellent.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Shaw Festival 2015 # 2: Polishing Up the Icon

There's an almost iron-clad rule in the arts that creative artists who are highly praised and famous in their own lifetimes must go through a kind of artistic purgatory after death -- during which period their work is then scorned and derided as fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, antiquated, or just plain out of date.  At some much later date, the qualities which made their work so valuable in their lifetimes may come in for a fuller appraisal and then be deemed of high quality and worth again.  This rule applies in the worlds of music, painting, sculpture, and all the stage arts, and the theatre is no exception.
It seems to me that George Bernard Shaw's plays are currently suffering through this artistic purgatory.  Whether this is fair and reasonable or not, only a couple of centuries of further time will be able to fairly determine.  But at the moment, it is fact.  And it poses some interesting problems for his namesake Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Originally founded at a date when Shaw had the highest reputation in the English-speaking theatre world, second only to Shakespeare (and not even second to him, in Shaw's own mind!), a festival devoted to the works of this literary giant seemed like a totally natural development.
Tempora mutantur.  As Shaw's works have fallen farther and farther out of public esteem, the Shaw Festival has necessarily had to keep changing and broadening its mandate.  The results have certainly been intriguing, and often much more than just that.  But the fact remains that Shaw himself has become so unpopular that his plays in recent years have more often been consigned to the intimate Royal George Theatre rather than the more spacious and capacious Festival Theatre.
All of which brings me around to the current production of Pygmalion, which the management has -- rather daringly -- placed back in the main stage space.  I classify this as a daring move because the play itself has become largely unknown even to the bulk of the theatre-going public -- the ongoing popularity of the offshoot musical My Fair Lady notwithstanding. 

The musical took this intriguing parable of male attempts to reshape women, and managed in the end to reshape the play itself as a more conventional romantic comedy.  But that was not Shaw's intention, and he himself made that abundantly clear.  To me, the reference which Pygmalion more often brings to mind is Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew -- a tale which similarly looks at a man in the process of moulding a woman to suit his ideas.  But of course, both process and results are quite different in Shaw.  The result is one of Shaw's oddest endings.  The play just... stops.  There's no sense of any final resolution of any of the elements in the story.  Indeed, the outcome of the play is sufficiently uncertain that Shaw later wrote a lengthy prose epilogue outlining what he foresaw as the future of the Eliza-Higgins-Freddy triangle for many years yet to come.

So, then, to this particular production.  I was concerned ahead of time about the Festival's description of this Pygmalion as being reimagined for modern times.  That very ambiguous wording made me wonder just how much rewriting the creative team intended to do in Shaw's work and I wasn't at all sure I wanted to attend a production of Pygmalion if it were substantially altered.  I must not have been the only one so concerned, as the Shaw Festival began advertising the show in June as having "not one word altered" from Shaw's original text!  It certainly isn't necessary to alter Shaw's text as the issues with which the play deals -- issues of social standing and the language and behaviour which determines it -- are not really as far different today as many people thoughtlessly suppose.
(In practice there were a few alterations to words not currently in use such as "fire irons", to amounts of money specified in the text in order to bring them into a more realistic relationship with the present day value of money -- and one other much more noticeable change which I will mention below.)
With director Peter Hinton at the helm this was sure to be a bracing and invigorating reading of the play.  This I expected.  What I did not expect was that it would tilt so strongly towards the dark side, with the most actively disagreeable and nasty Higgins I have ever encountered, and with Doolittle played (in his first scene especially) as a very vehement and angry man rather than the affable philosopher so often depicted in this role in the past.  It's all there in the script.  What counts is the presentation of the material, with less of a nod and a wink than usual.  None of which stopped people from laughing at favourite lines and moments. 

One element of the production grated on me in particular, and that was Eo Sharp's glossy (literally), cubic, black and white set.  Totally appropriate for Mrs. Higgins' home and studio (since she was reimagined as a couturiere), it struck me as completely wrong for Professor Higgins and his study -- particularly when that man had been portrayed as more than usually sloppy and slovenly in his dress.  I admired the imaginative use of computers as a tool of his trade, but was grateful when I heard that a whole bank of TV monitors above the proscenium hadn't made their appearance due to the damage caused by a rain-in a few days ago.  I like the idea of incorporating technology into the theatre in theory, but I also find that its easy to go to town and end up with altogether too many distractions from what is happening on the stage.  Bad enough that actors have to compete with the multi-track minds of modern audiences, without also forcing them to fight against their own production for a share of the attention.

The opening scene of the play features a whole crowd of over a dozen street people with distinct and different personalities, modes of dress, voice and action.  This scene was admirable for the clarity of the staging that kept the key characters visible when they needed to be without emptying the stage for their benefit.

Julain Molnar as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill was as crisp and neat as her very precise dress and hat.  Her daughter, Clara, played by Kristi Frank, came across as the wannabe echo of her mother, but with an added veneer of what can only be called "stereotypical blonde."  Clara's brother, the likable but somewhat vacuous Freddy, was well cast with Wade Bogert-O'Brien who has made something of a specialty of playing the likable, vacuous young male characters which litter the British theatre from the 1800s to the present day.  For those thinking in terms of My Fair Lady, forget it:  Freddy's part in that show and film was greatly amplified as part of the transition to traditional romantic comedy.  In the original play his part is not large, and while on stage he does little but stare, goggle-eyed at Eliza and suffer the slings and arrows of his mother and sister.

In some ways the most thoroughly up-to-date character in the play was Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.  As played by Mary Haney, she abandoned the politesse of the well-bred woman of the servant classes in the original in favour of a put-upon, frustrated, even petulant woman who has no problem telling it like it is.  Her accent, understated but clear, underlined the difference in upbringing between her and Higgins.  No difference in intelligence.  This Mrs. Pearce sees much farther and deeper than her employer.

Colonel Pickering was played by Jeff Meadows as a pleasant gentleman whose politeness to Eliza didn't always match her description of it -- it was as if he turned his manners on and off like a bathroom tap, an intriguing approach to the part.

Peter Krantz played the dark, unconventional Alfred P. Doolittle to which I referred earlier.  His imposing stature and booming voice abetted the impression of an angry man, and the anger came right into the open on his last words to Eliza in his first scene.  In his second appearance, his facial expression took on the mournful look of a starving bloodhound as he described how his life was over, thanks to middle class morality.

Donna Belleville made a magnificent Mrs. Higgins, at once magisterial, concerned, caring, and incisive in dealing with her temperamental son.  It was a prize performance of a prize role.

And this brings me to Harveen Sandhu as Eliza.  This role poses exactly the same problem as the part of Lady Bracknell in Earnest:  how in heaven's name are you supposed to come up with a way of playing it that doesn't make everyone think you're copying a famous performer of the past???  Sandhu's assumption of the character was fresh, brisk, and made much of the considerable mental and emotional backbone which keeps Eliza going through all her trials.  This was, in fact, a strong-willed woman who was every inch a match, and more than a match for Higgins -- and how often have we seen her played that way?  The final scene made that point painfully clear, as she repeatedly skewered him on the points of her forceful sentences.

I must describe her finest moment, because it highlighted an important point.  Hinton chose to underscore the show with a wide range of different music styles at various points.  Some of the underscoring continued into dialogue scenes and interfered with audibility of the lines.  But there was one scene that reached a rare degree of emotional intensity.  At the opening of Act IV Eliza roams around the room in her formal gown, having just returned from the ambassador's garden party (which in the original was an embassy ball, the sort of event that just doesn't happen anymore).  As she moved slowly about, obviously trapped in a whirlwind of emotions, the opening bars of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia played.  I would never have guessed, but it made a remarkably apt counterpoint to her slow, sad walking about -- an intense and beautiful stage moment indeed.

And certainly not least, Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins.  As already indicated, this is a very sloppy, very casual Higgins, a man who feels quite at home sitting around in khaki shorts with his bare feet propped on a chair.  His vehemence boils over at every opportunity.  His behaviour towards Eliza goes beyond the unthinking and right into the actively abusive at times -- an impression which is part face, part voice, and part action.  It undoubtedly gave her a good strong opposition to force her to draw out her own strength.  But I can't help feeling there is more to Higgins' character than that.  It was very difficult to take him seriously in the last scene when he spoke of having learned from her, and said that he would miss her.

These two strong characters undoubtedly struck sparks off each other, as they must, but each in turn descended into silly cartoonish foolery at times -- and that worked against both of their characters.

The language: in the first London performance of the play, Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza created an absolute sensation (and one of the longest timed laughs in the history of the theatre at 105 seconds!) when she uttered the legendary line, "Not bloody likely!"  Hard for a Canadian audience to relate to just how offensive that word would have been in Britain in 1913, so this production very sensibly altered it to "Not f___ing likely!"  The uproarious laughs ensuing proved the point.

All in all, I thought this was a good strong production of a play whose very familiarity disguises the traps that abound in the script.  Some of the excesses worked against the performance.  Sophisticated plays like this one, though, had much better never receive a perfect production -- because there would then be no point in anyone else taking it on again!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 4: A Voyage of Discovery

One of the rarely-staged Shakespearean romances, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is receiving only its fourth production in the six-decades-plus history of the Stratford Festival (previous mountings were in 1973-4, 1986, and 2003).  As with so many of the Bard's plays, the exact circumstances surrounding it are far from clear but it's generally believed to have been co-written with another author -- George Wilkins the most likely candidate.

It shares with the other late romance plays some common thematic streams: the essential nature of reconciliation and forgiveness, the concept that a wayward world needs to have its balance restored, and the use of a divine or magical intervention to assist in restoring that desired order and harmony.

Unlike the others of the group, Pericles has no sub-plot.  Its single story line unfolds instead over a period of many years, and in many places around the Mediterranean world.  As Pericles makes his way through this literal journey, he's also being taken on a metaphorical voyage of exploration to discover the qualities of an ideal state and ideal society by experiencing the less-than-ideal conditions prevailing in many of the states he visits.  The play also displays an oddly modern preoccupation with the unsavoury treatment of women in a patriarchal society.

The curious parallels prevailing among the many scenes of the story naturally suggest to a modern eye the idea of archetypal figures.  Director Scott Wentworth has deliberately underlined this part of his interpretation by using parallel casting of the same actors in different scenes. 

And that's precisely where I found the greatest weakness of this production.  It involved the use of Deborah Hay playing both the wife of Pericles, Thaisa, and his daughter, Marina (they only appear together on stage briefly in the last stage, where a substitute filled in for Thaisa).  Hay's distinctive face and voice could not simply be wished away, and it lent an overtone of incest to the scene where Pericles at last meets his daughter -- one of the two moments of wonder unnecessarily blotted with a hint of evil.  It didn't help matters at all that Hay had also played, in the Antioch scene, the role of the daughter (and incestuous lover) of the tyrannical ruler, Antiochus.

The other problem occasioned by the double casting had to do with Wayne Best as the unsavory and malicious Antiochus, and later as the pleasantly playful Simonides in Pentapolis.  Best escaped the similarity of voice by shoving his voice up in pitch and resorting to a high-pitched, silly giggle as Simonides.  The character is undoubtedly a humorous man, and certainly a bit of a joker, but he's not one of Shakespeare's foolish village idiots -- and that's how he sounded.

In both these cases, I felt that Wentworth's double-casting idea had backfired.

Otherwise, casting was strong throughout, and even minor characters were well-delineated.  Deborah Hay was in her best form as Marina.  Stephen Russell presented a steady air of gravity as Helicanus, the regent governing Tyre in Pericles' absence.  David Collins presided gently and benevolently as the lord Cerimon over the near-ideal commonwealth of Ephesus.

At Mytilene, the scenes involving Marina's abduction and sale into a brothel produced some of the most memorable performances.  Keith Dinicol as the Pander and Brigit Wilson as the Bawd played the management of the house with style and substance alike, two experts with their eagle eyes always trained on the profit margin.  They wouldn't have been at all out of place in a staging of Dickens -- an impression strongly reinforced by Patrick Clark's Victorian costumes.  Antoine Yared's performance as the governor, Lysimachus, managed the rapid transition from the customer ready to rape Marina to the considerate gentleman proposing marriage to her very believably.

Anyone who knows the script of this play is probably wondering what happened to Gower this time!  (I was wondering myself beforehand, as his name didn't appear in the program's cast list).  The medieval author John Gower (1330-1408) had told the story used for the play in his poem Confessio amantis.  Wilkins and/or Shakespeare brought him into the play as a chorus figure to advance the action from place to place -- a very helpful device in an age before the invention of printed programs with scene lists!

Unfortunately, Gower's part provides the biggest weakness of the script -- what one writer has described as the most execrable rhyming couplets in the English language.  Modern directors have tried all kinds of devices to make Gower palatable, often involving singing -- the use of those couplets does tend to suggest music. 

Wentworth's conception here was as inspired as his double-casting scheme was flawed.  He made extensive use of the goddess Diana and her maiden priestesses (garbed all in white habits like nuns) as a chorus to sing the lines in multi-part harmony -- indeed, almost chanting them at times.  Other choral parts were broken up and shared among the actors in the play, in plain speech.  I suspect there was also a certain amount of cutting. 

At any rate, this serene and lovely choral singing not only lent beauty to the lines, but also clarified and reinforced the idea of Diana as a moving force in the story (she is mentioned several times throughout the play, although she only appears and actually speaks at the end).  The chanting cast a ritualistic light across the play as a whole, an impression strengthened by those parallels among the scenes.  I suspect this music also provided the cue for the fixed set, which consisted of a scrim curtain behind which appeared a wall set with numerous candles of varying heights -- a clear symbolic evocation of the temple of Diana at Ephesus, where the story reaches its culmination.  This was placed beyond the tall doors at the far end of the long, narrow platform stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, where the candles were periodically revealed whenever the doors were opened.

If this production of Pericles isn't a complete triumph, it's still an involving and thought-provoking look at a play that is a true rarity.  That is partly due, no doubt, to the disjointed and sometimes slackly-written script, but also -- I think -- because Pericles makes us take a hard look at things that we know are real, but we'd rather not think about too much.  It's not comfortable material.  And that's definitely as it should be.  In this respect, Wentworth and his company of fine Stratford actors have clearly hit the target in this presentation.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 3: The Conquest of Love

A delightful evening was had by a full house at Stratford's production of Oliver Goldsmith's evergreen delight, She Stoops to Conquer.  The play is one of the brightest lights in the entire eighteenth-century English theatrical canon, and has been performed at Stratford more often than any other play from that rich period of comic theatre history.

Perhaps better than any other play I know, this one fits to the generic term "comedy of manners" like a hand slipping into a custom-made glove.  The whole issue of manners and appropriate behaviour is one of the great and abiding concerns of many of the characters.  And it is generally the lack of appropriate manners, whether temporary or permanent, whether situational or ubiquitous, that generates much of the laughter.

Just because a play is well-known doesn't mean it's easy to stage well.  She Stoops to Conquer has had its fair share of productions that simply laid down and died from sheer boredom -- including the last two stagings of the play which I have seen.  This one, however, began lively and brilliant -- with the verse prologue included -- and stayed that way right through to the whimsical staging of the epilogue at the end of the final scene.

Set designer Douglas Paraschuk certainly had a tall order to fill, as this play moves through a number of different scenes.  The central portions of set were mounted on a revolve, with sets being changed behind scenes while the play was in progress.  There were two separate wing portions which could be turned on their respective spots.  This clever solution allowed for a whole series of solid yet attractive period interiors to be created as needed. 

My one difficulty came with the main set for the sitting room of the house.  It was a lovely room, dignified, elegant, and very Georgian looking.  And why not?  Mr. Hardcastle, the owner of the house, states quite clearly that he likes old things, and he amplifies the point in a speech in the opening scene.  But this room appears to be brand-sparkling-new, as if the family had moved in only a month earlier.  This set definitely needed to be broken down a good deal more.  Ideally, to meet the description of "old" for that period, would have been a well-lived Tudor room with panelled walls.

Charlotte Dean's costumes very effectively delineated character, and differentiated between the social classes and viewpoints of the characters.  I'm assuming that she was responsible for the particularly hideous wig worn by Mrs. Hardcastle, a wonderful crowning touch for that cranky woman!

Lucy Peacock wore that wig with immense hauteur and totally misjudged dignity, just the right note to sound with this character.  She made tremendous use of all the shades of her voice, her tone becoming progressively shriller as her level of irritation rose throughout the evening.  I particularly enjoyed the pure malice in her voice and face as she gloated over the supposed ruin of her ward, Constance.

Joseph Ziegler certainly caught all the bewilderment felt by Richard Hardcastle as his entire house is turned upside down and inside out by his visitors.  His very name reflects his repeated blustering insistence that he will be master in his own house, an insistence made all the funnier by the fact that he is always wrapped around anyone else's little finger at their whim.  Ziegler definitely evoked our sympathy for his predicaments!

Brad Hodder very effectively presented the two quite different sides of Young Charles Marlow, the man who becomes a total rake with barmaids and other women of that class and freezes into shy immobility when faced with a lady of good family.  I especially appreciated that he kept his dignity of bearing even when courting the woman he thought to be a maid of an inn, not becoming too familiar with her too quickly except in his words.

In that key role of Kate Hardcastle, the young lady who brings confusion upon Marlow, Shannon Taylor subbed in with great aplomb.  It's of a piece with the thoroughness of everything done at Stratford that she appeared as much at home in the part as her character did in the house.  Here, too, was another performance highlighted by beautifully varied use of the voice and a clear, expressive face as well.

If Young Marlow is a flirt of the first order (with women of lower birth), his friend George Hastings stands by contrast for constancy and faithfulness.  Tyrone Savage played Hastings as a friend and confidant, but also as a man ardently in love yet conscious of the obstacles he faces.  His voice came across particularly clearly, even when facing away from the audience.

His lady love, Constance Neville, can sometimes be portrayed as a two-dimensional nobody in particular.  Sara Farb presented us with a smooth, accomplished manipulator, using a wonderful stock of techniques for distracting her guardian, Mrs. Hardcastle and a sparkling, ingratiating manner when dealing with that difficult personage.

And not least, that brings us to Karack Osborn as Tony Lumpkin, the man who twists everyone else into knots and then has the pleasure of untying them all.  Too often, Tony appears as a whining, sullen, sulky child-man.  Osborn gave a much more ingratiating portrayal of a mercurial trickster, chafing under the iron hand of his oppressive maternal parent, but actually a very likable fellow on the whole.  Unusual, and very refreshing interpretation.  His singing of the drinking song in the tavern was a particular delight -- as was the entire company of diverse characters gathered around him there.  A small note, and for my money totally unimportant anyway, there was no bear and the reference to one was cut. 

Director Martha Henry has blown away the cobwebs apt to accumulate on this classic comedy and given it a fresh, brisk, bright-eyed production that engages from first to last. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 2: A Fantasia on History

Yes, I know I've used the title and phrase before, but let it stand.  It's an absolutely perfect description of Kate Hennig's play, The Last Wife, now on stage at Stratford in its world premiere production.

The mere junction of those words "Stratford" and "world premiere production" in the same sentence is proof positive that this is no longer your mother's or grandmother's Stratford we're talking about.  if there was any doubt of that, the script of The Last Wife will blast those doubts right out of the water for good.

At one time, it was considered very much the thing to write plays about historical periods in the language of the times where the story was set (or at least a reasonable counterfeit of it) and to try to get inside the sensibilities of the period by doing so.  Some great works of the world theatre have been produced in this way, such as Miller's The Crucible and -- more to the point -- Bolt's A Man For All Seasons and Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days (more to the point because they both deal with the events of the reign of King Henry VIII of England).

Hennig's approach is totally different.  She does work with the facts of history, but only as a skeleton on which to build a collection of characters who talk and think in a thoroughly modern way.  Which is, as she intimates herself in her Playwright's Notes in the program, just her way of suggesting that people in Tudor times weren't really as different from us as we might suppose.  The result is not historic, most decidedly not that, and Hennig is quick to say so.  But it's a fascinating script all the same, and casts intriguing sidelights on the well-known and not so well-known characters she uses.  It communicates its vision to the audience about 95% through "offstage" or private moments in the lives of the family, with only a few key elements introduced through public occasions.  Notably, Hennig highlights several of these public moments as well as a few private ones by using the text of actual laws, letters, or proclamations.

The play is also thoroughly modern in using a series of short interconnected scenes and (sensibly) supporting that approach by using very simple set pieces easily and quickly moved into new positions by both cast and crew. 

Although some props have a period air to them, the costumes are thoroughly modern with the exception of Henry's naval uniform which evokes the style that dates back to the nineteenth century, thereby bringing in the confusing possibility of a third era.  Particularly striking is designer Yannik Larivee's use of long-lined simple gowns for Kate (Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's last wife), lines which emphasize both actor Maev Beaty's height and her regal, imposing carriage -- she appears queenly even before Henry sets eyes on her.

On the flat arena floor of Stratford's Studio Theatre, the spare but sophisticated lighting designs of Kimberly Purtell play a truly critical role in defining space and bridging scene to scene.

There are six characters on stage in the play, and half a dozen more who are presences on stage by virtue of how often they come up in the characters' thoughts and words.  Most notable of those not portrayed is Jane Seymour, the King's third wife and mother of his son, Eddie (Edward VI).

Jonah Q. Gribble gives a noteworthy performance as Eddie, this boy who will be King, and in his performance we get definite glimpses of the King he will become -- and of his differences from his father.  Gribble effectively portrays a self-assurance which Henry notably lacks.

Henry's younger daughter, Bess (Elizabeth I) is played by Bahia Watson.  She has the tricky task of depicting her growth from childhood to young adulthood as the events of the play unfold, and like any maturing child she often leaps ahead at one moment and backslides the next.  It's one of the most convincing portrayals I've ever seen of a child played by an adult.

Her older half-sister Mary (yes, that's Queen Mary, "Bloody Mary" -- we're not talking Mary, Queen of Scots here!) is perhaps the toughest character in the play to bring to life.  She begins as a tedious monomaniac on the subject of the wrongs done to her and her mother -- and this certainly reflects what is known of the real woman.  As the play goes on, more and more bits and pieces leak out and a portrait gradually emerges of a more whole person, bitter and vengeful still, but with other and easier aspects of her personality too.  It's a virtuoso performance by Sara Farb, the character at first painted all in black and blood red like the dresses she wears, and then gradually allowing the colours to soften and the shades to lighten ever so little at a time.

Thom (Thomas Seymour), the brother of the dead Jane, is performed by Gareth Potter.  He is the man not so much acting as acted upon by the events of history, and so it becomes a bit difficult to relate to him as a person -- apart from the scenes of his romance with Kate, including their eventual marriage.  This fault, if fault it is, lies in the script and not in Potter's strong performance.  The very real affection between him and the royal children comes through loud and clear.

And so we come to the regal couple.  Henry VIII is (I think) accurately portrayed as a man gnawed at insatiably by doubts -- doubts about the sincerity and motives of all around him, doubts about his own ability as King, doubts about his own lovability, and above all doubts about the security of his realm after his death.  These oppressive doubts make him a creature of monumental uncertainty, capable of turning on a dime and condemning on a whim or a rumour.  Joseph Ziegler is a masterly actor, and certainly demonstrated this with all the fine shades of emotion as much as the broad brushstrokes which he brought into the part.

Last, and definitely not least, Maev Beaty in the central role of Kate (Katharine Parr).  There's not really anything I can say about this except that this is as wide-ranging, challenging a role as can be found anywhere in theatre, a tremendous prize for any actor who is fully up to its demands.  Maev Beaty as Kate?  Wow.  Just -- wow.  A blockbuster performance by any standards.

One final comment about the script: in language, this is very much a play of today.  By using so much contemporary colloquialism, Kate Hennig has definitely stepped into the Shakespearean tradition of dealing with historic events in the speech and costume of the author's own time.  In doing so she has invested these people, so often treated as mere elegant cutouts in a pageant, with a humanity and reality that they all too often lack on stage or screen. 

All the same, I suspect that this play will not wear well -- at first.  I can see it going up like a rocket and being performed widely, and then being set aside as too dated.  What I'm really curious to know is the eventual judgement of history on the play itself -- but we'd all have to stick around several centuries to find that out.

Stratford Festival 2015 # 1: Wordsmith's Labour's Won!

Stratford's current production of Shakespeare's mid-life comedy Love's Labour's Lost is as near to achieving perfect balance as any production of this notoriously thorny play is likely to get.  Which is not to say that it's a perfect show overall.  But the quality of balance is one that has somewhat eluded other productions of this play which I've seen.

Anyone who knows me well could predict that Love's Labour's Lost would be one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.  That's because I have a well-known love for verbal and linguistic humour, and this play is crammed full of it to overflowing.  Shakespeare's maturity as a writer and master of language came to full flower in this piece, and the results are by turns amazing, stimulating, intriguing, and maddening.

The situation upon which the plot turns is so ridiculous that laughter can follow just from reading a synopsis of it -- as I heard in some of the seats around me even before the show started.

There's a kind of furious energy in the outpouring of language here, and any staging of the play has to be kept on a tight rein to keep all these cascading strings of words from drowning audience and performers alike.  Shakespeare introduced more new words (previously unused by him) in this play than in any other except Hamlet -- which is over 50% longer than this.  The script is also full of contorted linguistic puzzles -- what else can you say about a play in which an entire scene turns on the confusion between a haud credo and a pricket?  So there's a temptation to try to supplement or supplant the obscure verbal humour with more obvious physical and slapstick antics to keep the audience from falling asleep.  This tendency, too, has to be held firmly in check.

The special strength of this production, directed by famed British director John Caird (in his Stratford debut), is that it does balance all the extremes and avoid virtually all of the traps, while keeping the play flowing smoothly forwards to its destined end.

Patrick Clark has designed a set of apparently solid stonework balustrades on stairs and seats around the perimeter of the Festival Theatre's thrust stage.  It allows for great flexibility of acting areas as well as for the hiding places so essential to good comedy.  A tree grows on the central balcony, and a few stray branches poke through in other places.  Plainly the play is set in the park of Navarre's castle.

The traditional Lou Applebaum fanfares are replaced for this production by more stolid, simpler versions which are part of the production music.  Played first in the lobby at the 5-minutes-to-curtain mark, they are repeated from the aisles of the auditorium to welcome the King and his companions into the first scene.  Thereafter, the fanfare musicians -- in costume -- often play from the stage balcony, side stairs, the ramps from the underworld, or any other suitable place.

In place of clear lead roles, this play substitutes two lead quartets.  The group of men includes the King (Sanjay Talwar) and his attendant lords, Berowne (Mike Shara), Longaville (Andrew Robinson), and Dumaine (Thomas Olajide).  The scene where they vow to study and avoid women is nicely staged to highlight the looks of doubt and displeasure on Berowne's face, with all parts of the audience in turn allowed to see his growing skepticism.  Mike Shara is a master of this kind of understated by-play, and of comic timing (as he amply proved when it came his turn to speak). The scene where all four in turn are spied writing love letters to their ladies was one of the great comic delights in the evening.

The corresponding quartet of ladies features the Princess of France (Ruby Joy) and her attendant ladies Rosaline (Sarah Afful), Maria (Ijeoma Emesowum) and Katherine (Tiffany Claire Martin).  Their first scene was calculated to allow each in turn to have her moments as well.  Their first meeting with the King and his lords was staged with similar mastery of the space to let us see all the key interactions taking place.

And then there are the comic characters: Don Adriano de Armado (Juan Chioran), the "fantastical Spaniard" and his page, Moth (Gabriel Long), Boyet, the attendant lord and messenger of the Princess (John Kirkpatrick), Holofernes, the schoolmaster (Tom Rooney) and his sidekick Nathaniel, the curate (Brian Tree), Constable Dull (Brad Rudy), Jaquenetta, the dairymaid (Jennifer Mogbock), and Costard -- one of the sharpest of Shakespeare's many unforgettable fool or clown characters (played in this performance by Josh Johnston).  It's in the various scenes involving these characters that the danger of overplaying the physical comedy at the expense of the verbal chiefly lies -- and I've certainly seen them badly overplayed in previous productions.  But no such excess occurred here.

The beauty of this show lies in the contrasts of tone between the groups of characters.  The two groups of lovers speak for the most part in a conversational manner, avoiding rhetorical extremes, and their meaning is very palpable as a result.  The comics tend towards a more rhetorical delivery at times, but it's used at select moments and so has no chance to become tiresome.  One and all have avoided my biggest bugbear in Shakespeare, the old belief that if you say the lines fast enough it doesn't really matter whether you understand them or not.

Among all these characters, who stands out the most?  It's a fair question, as the play doesn't really create automatic stars as some of the comedies do.  Traditionally the play has been held by many to be about the sparring between Berowne and Rosaline, but I find it really comes across as a three-point balance.  That relationship certainly is one of the three anchor points, but the King's relationship with the Princess is equally important, and no less is the role of Costard as the skewer poking holes in the dignity of every character who crosses his path. 

Mike Shara's lengthy scenes as Berowne were comic masterpieces, in every sense.  As Rosaline, Sarah Afful didn't attempt to match him in sheer exuberance, but her verbal thrusts were more telling.  I can only describe it by saying that she has totally mastered the art of pointing her words, both metaphorically and literally, and you can practically hear the air hissing out of him whenever she punctures his pretensions.

Sanjay Talwar's King of Navarre was a more stolid character, less extravagant than Berowne, but also deeply emotional when the play demanded.  As the Princess, Ruby Joy dominated the stage.  Vocally and physically, she was a regal force to be reckoned with -- yet certainly prepared to be playful, as well, when required.  Theirs, too, was a partnership with some wonderful moments.

Among the comedians, I have to commend Juan Chioran simply for having the nerve to step onto the stage in the most fantastical hairpiece I have ever seen at Stratford -- you'd have to see it to believe it.  His Spanish accent, comically cranked up, certainly didn't prevent understanding his words, and his scenes with Moth (Gabriel Long) were absolutely delightful. 

Brad Rudy presented the most stolid, expressionless face I've seen in many a year as Constable Dull.  He also made the most of the haud credo/pricket scene mentioned above by pronouncing the words thus: "Howd.  Cray.  Doe." (pauses at each period, as indicated). 

Josh Johnston, subbing in the important role of Costard, gave a performance full of energy and life, yet never overdone, so that every word of Costard's clever speeches came across (with only one exception, as he moved around in front of the balcony in one scene). 

John Kirkpatrick's Boyet retained remarkable clarity, too, especially in scenes where he had to deliver lines while moving rapidly from place to place on the stage.

This play's dark ending presents an unusual obstacle, being one of the most uncomedic endings imaginable.  Right from the moment when the bell began tolling as Marcade, the messenger of death (Robert King), walks slowly down through the audience to the stage, the change of tone is both achingly clear and beautifully shaded.  "The scene begins to cloud," as Berowne says, and so do the voices and faces of all the characters, as they sense -- sooner than words can tell -- that life has just taken one of its unpredictable swerves down into darkness.

That sombre tone is then beautifully sustained right to the final lines spoken simply by Don Armado, for once not extravagant in flourishing words about.  Chioran's delivery of that line -- "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.  You, that way; we, this way" -- set a nuanced period to a lovely, amusing, heartfelt and therefore real performance of one of Shakespeare's trickier plays.