AISLE SAY Ontario
STRATFORD FESTIVAL 2009
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff|
Starring: Colm Feore and Yanna McIntosh
Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies and John Vickery
Festival Theatre through October 31st
Cyrano de Bergerac
by Edmond Rostand
Translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess
Directed by Donna Feore
Starring Colm Feore
featuring Amanda Lisman, Mike Shara and John Vickery
Festival Theatre through November 1st
Reviewed by Robin Breon
are some new cultural elements at play in the current Stratford Shakespeare Festival
season which includes more people of color than have ever before been
seen in a Shakespearean production on the Festival mainstage and more
French than has ever before been spoken on the Festival mainstage.
On the opening night of Macbeth,
artistic director Des McAnuff took
the stage to address the audience prior to the start of the show. Said
McAnuff: "Tonight's production employs what is called 'non-traditional
casting' -- a term that means, among other things, that 'ethnically
diverse' actors get to play Shakespearean roles other than Othello.
This to me is a fundamental requirement of any theatre that presumes to
call itself a leader in the Canada of the 21st century."
The very fact that he thought he
needed to address this point so openly and directly is interesting in
that his colleague down the road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jackie Maxwell
(artistic director of the Shaw Festival) was engaged in a somewhat
defensive Facebook dialog with Toronto playwright/actor Andrew Moodie
over the past several months over the Shaw Festival's insensitivity to
get with the 21st century program (i.e. more opportunities within the
classical genre for actors whose skin color is not white).
Almost as if to emphasize this
opening salvo further the house darkened and the show opened with the
ear splitting blast of a grenade launcher and the crackle of AK-47s as
McAnuff's post-colonial take on Shakespeare's tale of naked political
ambition gone terribly wrong began its challenging assault on audience
and critics alike.
The modern weaponry and camouflage
uniforms indicated a contemporary conflict for sure. The use of what
might more appropriately be called "color blind casting" (which
resulted in a far more racially diverse cast than is normally seen at
the SSF) only heightened the believability of what was certainly a
non-traditional approach to this Macbeth.
McAnuff (who took on Mark Twain's
novel, Huckleberry Finn, and
turned it into a successful piece of musical theatre when school boards
across North America were pulling it off library shelves in the 1980s)
is politically sophisticated enough to understand that race does not
break down easily or neatly in post-colonial struggles and
appropriately we see people of colour on both sides of the issues in
Macbeth. Effective staging devices such as press conferences are used
to announce military victories and the formation of new alliances. The
violence that unfolds on stage is disturbing rather than risible -- and
it is seen to have serious consequences.
This of course does not go down
easily with everyone. Although the reviews have been mixed, I believe
this production is the most compelling, visceral and well-acted piece
of Shakespeare the Festival has mounted in quite some time.
In an age where criminality in
high places is so often referred to as "irresponsibility" and has no
consequences, Colm Feore
presents a Macbeth that is not only consequential but oddly heroic --
as if he actually believes that his evil is necessary and should be
rewarded. Lady Macbeth is here played by Yanna McIntosh as a constantly
watchful woman on the brink of a partnership in gaining state power.
She manifests her psychosis more as neurotic insomniac rather than
I first saw Ms. McIntosh on stage
almost a decade ago when I encountered her in the play, Belle, at the Factory Theatre in
Toronto directed by Ken Gass. I wrote then (in Aisle Say) that "with McIntosh we
are in the presence of a major, major talent who is only in need of
more challenging roles to give her the growth and development she needs
to enjoy a successful career as an actor." She is now receiving those
opportunities and the SSF is enriched by her presence in the company.
But Shakespeare is never one to
leave well enough alone and let the leading characters carry the plot
and the play. In Macbeth the role of Malcolm is critical as the second
half of the play rests on his shoulders. In Gareth Potter we have a believable,
honest politician who, unlike Governor Sanford of South Carolina, knows
very well that he is going to have a problem maintaining any kind of a
monogamous relationship if he proceeds into the spotlight of public
life and actually expresses his apprehensions to his political
All of the smaller roles only
enhance the dynamism of the overall production and the seasoned actors
that McAnuff uses judiciously are well chosen. Tom Rooney as the Porter, Dion Johnstone's Macduff , Sophia Walker's Lady Macduff with Kolton Stewart as their son - to
name a few.
And as if it's not enough for Colm
Feore to carry on this tour de force, he suits up again the next day to
do battle with pettiness, stupidity, and prejudice in all its forms as
the philosopher/soldier -- he of the protruding proboscis -- Cyrano de
Bergerac. Is there any play more willing and any
character more able to act as the chief propagandist of the sublime
anywhere in theatre literature? If there is, please let me know about
Although Edmond Rostand's play (which
premiered in 1897) employs 34 actors often doubling in over 70
characters to tell its simple story on a grand scale, the actual core
of the plot involves a love triangle between Cyrano, the lovely Roxane (Amanda Lisman) and her tongue-tied
would-be lover, Christian (Mike Shara).
The success or failure of any production rests on these three roles.
Mr. Feore is certainly up to the
task. He assayed the role fifteen years ago in a SSF production and his
skills have only aged like a fine bottle of Chardonnay. The
unselfconscious bilingual approach to the production integrated by
director Donna Feore is
relatively seamless throughout and refreshing in a country that
officially proclaims two national tongues.
After 10 seasons at the Shaw
Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Mike Shara has moved down the road and
landed nicely in the role of Christian, the young, poetically
challenged soldier who is prompted by Cyrano in his wooing of Roxane.
Shara's underplayed but palpable anxiety in the love scenes adroitly
shifts focus like a well played three banked billiard shot.
Only at the play's conclusion does
Lisman's Roxane let us down a bit with the final realization that --
two decades after Christian's death on the battlefield - -she
recognizes the sacrifice that Cyrano has been making for her all these
years. It should be one of those frisson inducing moments that lets us
know that she knows. Why it fails to appear, I'm not sure. Certainly
the final death scene belongs to Cyrano alone and nothing should stand
in the way of that -- but it seems like a missed opportunity.
Production credits should also be
given for the fine moving set pieces and wagons, etc, designed by the
ever resourceful Santo Loquasto
as well as the lighting design by Alan
Brodie which all mesh flawlessly, especially in the run up to
the battle scenes.
Donna Feore's direction keeps the
pace up when acceleration is needed and slows appropriately when the
poetry of love needs to prevail. Given the play's length, the opening
business with the young actor being introduced to the stage seems a bit
gratuitous and probably could be cut in the interest of time.
Return to Home Page