Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Much Ado About Something

A planned trip to Stratford in August and the donation of a few items - designs, programmes and postcards - to the archives of the Shakespeare Festival triggered memories of my first visit there.  It has been 35 years since my last visit in 1978 but I believe the magic will still be there.

Robert Farifield's building for the Stratford Festival echoed its beginnings in the tent.  But he gave the Festival a performance space undisturbed by the whistles of freight trains or the cries of the umpire from the local baseball diamond that often fought for the audience's attention in the early days.

Back in 1958 my friend Bruce and I boarded a train at Toronto’s Parkdale Station headed for Stratford and its Shakespeare Festival   I was 12 at the time and Bruce was 14 - strange when I think that our parents had no second thoughts about us going on a trip like that alone. It was the first of what were to become regular visits over the next 20 years to the Festival town that Tom Patterson, Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness put on the theatrical map five years earlier. The Festival had forsaken its original “big top” for a permanent home the year before; at the time a revolutionary design,  Robert Fairfield's circular structure built into the hillside surrounded the revolutionary stage that Tanya Moiseiwitsch had designed to invoke, but not slavishly copy, the theatre of Shakespeare’s time.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed this revolutionary thrust stage based on discussions she and Tyrone Guthrie
had about the ideal platform for performing Shakespeare.  Director Michael Langham felt the stage
was too "feminine" for the tragedies and histories and asked Moiseiwitsch and Brian Jackson to give it
a "sex change" in 1962. I recall being shocked by what I saw on entering the theatre for The Taming
of the Shrew
that year.   I got use to it but still have a fondness for this first stage.

As well as well-known performers – Guinness, James Mason, Frederick Volk, Siobann McKenna, Jason Robarts Jr and Irene Worth – the Festival was developing its home-grown stars chief amongst them William Hutt, Douglas Campbell, Frances Hyland, Amelia Hall, John Horton, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid and a young and vibrant Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had first appeared on the thrust stage in 1956 as a charismatic Henry V in a ground breaking production by Michael Langham that bridged and celebrated Canada's two solitudes and featured Gratien Gelinas with members of Quebec based Theatre de Nouvelle Monde as the French King and his court. Plummer was to follow that with Hamlet, Andrew Aguecheek, Leonates, Mercutio, Philip the Bastard, Cyrano, Antony and in 1958 Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.

A young, and very handsome, Christopher Plummer as Benedict, 1958.
It was that production that we boarded the train to see on a sunny July afternoon. In those days the Toronto Telegram sponsored a “special” Tuesday train to Stratford. For the price you got the 2 hours train ride, a bus upon arrival to take you to a local church – Parkdale United, as I recall – where the ladies of the parish had prepared a hot dinner. I don’t remember what exactly they served as a main course but I do remember desert was homemade cherry pie with fresh whipped cream. The Festival theatre was a short walk away and the buses waited to take you back to the station at the end of the play. The late night train from Chicago passed through at a convenient time and arrival at Parkdale meant getting home well after midnight. Fortunately there was no school the next day and Bruce’s mother was willing to pick us up. Several year’s later the late train no longer operated and the Telegram was no-longer published.  You could go up by train but the only way of getting back after the play was the bus – and I do recall a number of nights standing all the way from Stratford back to Toronto.

The wedding scene from that 1958 production of Much Ado About Nothing.  This Festival
postcard photo was taken from approximately where I was sitting that evening. I have
a collection of these postcards that will be going into the Stratford archives this summer.

Michael Langham at a rehearsal - 1988.
Sara Krulwich - The New York Times
The Much Ado was the second of the Shakespeare comedies that Langham directed at the Festival and as time passed he proved to be a master of the genre.  That is not in anyway to discredit his handling of the tragedies, histories or the problem plays.  His Romeo and Juliet with the oddly cast but somehow very right Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi as the star-crossed lovers, Kate Reid, Tony Van Bridge and Plummer started as a light-hearted youthful affair filled with high-spirits and romance that spiraled into deep, aching and bewildering tragedy.  And both his Trolius and Cressida and Timon of Athens (with a score by Duke Ellington) proved less problematic then many imagined them to be.  His 1966 Bretchtian Henry V though not much loved at the time caught the pessimistic spirit of the period as accurately as his production ten years earlier had mirrored the optimism of its time.  The 1964 King Lear that he directed with John Colicos was a searing indictment of man's inhumanity to man - he often said that his time as a prisoner of war in Germany gave him new insight into the bleakness of that darkest of tragedies.

But he didn't restrict his productions on the stage that he knew better than anyone else to Shakespeare.  Langham also directed a bawdy but stylish The Country Wife, a funny but ultimately unsettling almost frightening The Government Inspector and first with Plummer than Colicos a Cyrano de Bergerac that was the ultimate romance-adventure story.  It has always been said that his crowning achievement was the 1961 Love's Labour Lost (a play he was to direct three more times at Stratford including his final production in 2008) - sadly I choose to see Henry VIII that year; at the time a historical pageant with elaborate Tudor costumes seemed more appealing then the heady word-play of a young Shakespeare dazzled by his love of the language.  Ah the callowness - and foolishness - of youth.

One critic referred to Eileen Herlie and Christopher Plummer's Beatrice and Benedict as being like
Brandy and Benedictine.   They seem to have brought out the best in each other.

But back to the events of that evening in 1958:  the fun of a train ride (I love trains), a delicious home-cooked meal and the thrill of that trumpet fanfare echoing from the terrace of the Festival theatre on a summer's night.  But that was nothing compared to the pageant that followed:  Vincent Massey, our Governor General at the time, was there with his party.  As the trumpets sounded a new fanfare he made his entrance resplendent in his red and gold uniform, his daughter-in-law Lilias on his arm and surrounded by the vice-regal party in dress-uniform with their summer-frocked ladies.  We all stood as God Save the Queen began and at the end of the anthem cheered - we did that sort of thing in Canada in those days.  But even that was to pale in my 12 year old's mind with what followed.

Desmond Heeley's citizenry of Messina had a look to them that was
more English country house than Sicilian palazzo. But it gave the
production an elegance and style that mirrored Langham's direction
and the company that he was building.
Suddenly that gleaming wooden structure was filled with ladies and uniformed gentlemen more elegant even than those in the audience.  Langham and Desmond Heeley had chosen to set the play in the 1870 and though they may have been looking to the Risorgimento, it was more English country house than Sicilian palazzo.  But given the players it worked:  Tony Van Bridge was a pompous, deadly serious, and more comic for all that,  Dogberry with Alan Nunn, his perfect foil, as an Uriah Heepish Verges; Conrad Bain and Mervyn Blake where slightly stuffy but loving father and uncle; William Hutt, an elegant and handsome Don Pedro - his lone estate at play's end was all the more puzzling for that; Bruno Gerrusi as a dark, threatening Don John; Diana Maddox and John Horton all organza and braid looking the perfect young lovers.  But at the centre of it all were Eileen Herlie and Plummer as Beatrice and Benedick.  A star may have danced at her birth but a whole constellation celebrated the sparring match, strange-woeing and eventual wedding between these two.  As one critic remarked they were a heady mixture of "benedictine and brandy" - each complimenting and bringing out the best in the other.

It was all very magical and I recall Bruce - who was a stage-struck as I - talking about it all the way home - I'm sure much to the annoyance of those around us who were trying to doze on the trip back. I had been going to the theatre since I was five years old but I believe I can honestly say that it was that performance of Much Ado About Nothing that sealed my love-affair with the magic of the stage.  And each year for the next 20 I would make the trip to Stratford, sometimes once but often five or six times, and I waited for that familiar fanfare and the lights to come up on that marvelous platform when once again that magic would be reborn.

May 7 -1920: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, opens the first exhibition by the Group of Seven.

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

Oh, I enjoyed this post so much! I grew up watching the occasional Stratford productions broadcast on CBC as part of its arts programming. The first time I ever sat in person in Festival Hall to see a Shakespearian production I was middle-aged and felt quite overcome to think I was actually there in that famous theatre that I'd seen so often on TV! We've only been once to the Stratford Festival but I would love to go again. Some day we will!

David said...

Yes, young Plummer is gorgeous!

I feel privileged to have witnessed a 'brandy and benedictine' B&B - Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance.

I love all this referring to Stratford without the need to reference The Other One. Clearly there's always been quality here.