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.
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.|
|Michael Langham at a rehearsal - 1988.|
Sara Krulwich - The New York Times
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.
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.