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your friendly neighbourhood theatre critic weighs in on Stratford

Usually, after seeing a piece of world-class theatre, the audience walks out into the chaos of a big city – into Times Square or downtown Toronto or London.  But this past weekend, I saw some of the best theatre in the world and then strolled into a scene of pastoral bliss: swans floating on a river overhung with willow trees.  I breathed in sweet country air – until getting a whiff of pig manure.  Thus, the joys of Stratford, Ontario.

It was Chicago Weekend at Stratford, which means the place was full of Americans who had driven for many hours to see theatre in a tiny Canadian town.   Thanks to the gift of complimentary tickets, staff tickets and rush seats, I too was able to see four shows in two days: The Music Man, Ceasar and Cleopatra, Love’s Labours Lost and Hamlet.  
Music Man was silly and delightful – and, Paul McCartney fans, did you know that’s where Paul’s ballad “Till there was you” came from?  I didn’t.  I was proud of this first class piece of musical theatre starring Canadian talent.  LLL is one of the less performed Shakespeares – there’s a lot of word play that’s difficult to follow.  But Michael Langham, now in his mid-eighties, directed a beautifully paced production that was as clear as could be and performed almost entirely by the students at the Stratford acting school, a well-trained new crop.  

Hamlet has had great reviews, at least for Ben Carlson’s performance, and I can see why – he’s Canadian theatre royalty, the son of two fine actors, and he’s strong, fiery and intelligent. But at the moment, or in this role at least, he has a flaw, one a surprising number of Canadian actors suffer from – he’s not sexy.  He’s cerebral and physical in a powerful, even violent but not a compelling way.  It’s not that I think Hamlet should be handsome and seductive.  But true star performers have a magnetic appeal that makes both men and women want to watch them and spend time with them.  I didn’t feel that way about this Hamlet.  I did feel it about Polonius in a superb performance by Geraint Wyn Davies, undoubtedly the juiciest Polonius you will ever see, a young-ish fuddy-duddy.  
But that quality of riveting sexual energy poured out in the fourth show I saw – the last preview of Shaw’s Ceasar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer. Plummer is 78 years old, an aging lion, and an actor friend in the show told me it’s like being on stage with a rock star.  He works simply; he stands and delivers, talks quietly and moves slowly, and he is absolutely mesmerising.  It’s a gorgeous production, in which George Bernard Shaw speaks through Ceasar straight to a modern audience about the qualities of leadership and about mankind’s need for the endless shedding of blood.
I also loved the colour-blind casting in Stratford – to see a talented young black actress playing Cleopatra opposite Plummer, to have some parts in this play and the others performed by white actors and some by black or Asian, almost at random – it’s wonderful. 
And I had a good meeting with Martine Becu, the buyer for Stratford’s store.  She agreed that a book called Finding the Jewish Shakespeare belonged in the Shakespeare Festival  bookstore and will be ordering my book.  So it was an inspiring country weekend.  I stayed with my beloved old friend Lani and her spouse Maurice, who has recently been through the horrors of lung cancer and is out the other side, gaining weight and energy again, a joy to see.  I also bought $50.00 worth of Rheo Thompson chocolates downtown and a pound of seven-year old cheddar cheese at the Saturday farmer’s market.  Old friends, dark chocolate, cheese, a bit of business, some fine theatre and swans – who could ask for anything more?

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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