For the second leg of our vacation last week, PJ and I visited the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Until recently we thought that we wouldn’t be able to go on our annual trip to New York in December and we didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for airfare to England, so we thought a drive to Stratford (and then to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake) would be a good alternative, which it was. (Right before leaving, we learned that we won’t be going to MLA this year, so we probably will be going to New York after all. Two theater trips in six months is great!)

We arrived in Stratford on Wednesday morning. We stayed at the Olde English Parlour Hotel, which is now the Parlour Historic Inn and Suites. It seems like a nice little hotel. Our room, or more precisely our suite, was really nice. We tend to travel as cheaply as possible, but this time we did a little better for ourselves — nothing outrageous, but better than the least expensive. Our suite had a living room with a couch, flat screen TV, and kitchenette. Then there was a separate bedroom, which also had a flat screen TV (I mention the televisions because, after spending three days in Pentwater without access to one, it felt great to be able to watch whatever was on.)

Our hotel was within walking distance of all of the three theaters we were going to as well as to the shops and restaurants in downtown Stratford. The downtown is really cute:

One of the first things we did on Thursday morning was find the Shakespearean Gardens, a beautiful garden along the Avon River that contains flowers and plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s a pic of the entrance:

Here’s a pic of my favorite flowers in the garden:

Prominent among the flowers is a bust of Shakespeare. The entire garden is just lovely, especially on a gorgeous summer day, like the one last Thursday.

We also spent a little time sitting on the Avon River. There was live music and lots of people brought their lunches to hear it. This guy especially caught my attention:

I’m not sure you can see it well enough in this pic, but the little brown spot near his feet (he’s looking at it) is a pet rat. The man let his pet rat walk around. When he was through, he picked up the rat, put it on his shoulder, and walked away. If I had a pet rat, I would never trust it to stick with me — I’d definitely have it on a leash!

Our best meal in Stratford was at Raja Indian Restaurant. PJ had the Rogan Josh (he says it’s the best rogan josh he’s ever had–deliciously spicy w/ perfectly tender lamb), and I had the Sag Paneer, which was yummy as well. I highly recommend it.

We saw three plays while in Stratford. Here are my reviews.

Hamlet

On Wednesday night, we saw Hamlet at the Festival Theatre. The production has received good reviews, as the festival’s web site proclaims, but PJ and I both thought that it was rather stale. Does anyone really think setting Hamlet in the Edwardian era is really innovative or even interesting anymore? And is the Oedipal reading of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother the only possibility? I was really hoping for something new and fresh; instead, this production recycles everything we’ve already seen in productions — staged and filmed — of this tragedy.

I was particularly irritated by the sets. In an effort to create the Edwardian scene, the production kept trotting out period set pieces — a billiard table, cafe tables, rifles, the sounds and lights of a train — but then didn’t use them very effectively or took too long in trotting them out. The billiard table could have been a great metaphor for Claudius’s gamesmanship with Laertes, but if that was the goal it wasn’t staged to convey that to the audience. The cafe tables added nothing to the scene they were in. The rifles all had to be exchanged for swords, since the play talks about swords and the production didn’t want to change the text. And the train was represented by lights that blinded the audience. I’m fine with being blinded if I understand the reason for blinding me. This just felt like torturing the audience for no good reason.

That’s not to say that it was all bad. The players’ scenes were excellent. I especially liked the way in which the pantomime that begins the play-within-the-play was staged as a silhouette. The players were used to great effect in both of their main scenes. I also liked the crazy-Ophelia-passing-out-flowers scene. Early in the production, during the scene in which Polonius, played by Geraint Wyn Davies, gives advice to each of his children, the production had established a motif in which Ophelia, played by Adrienne Gould, and Polonius play a duet on the piano together. During her crazy scene, she returns to this motif and in doing so creates a poignant and touching moment of pathos.

Overall, this Hamlet didn’t bring us anything new. I left thinking that, if directors can’t find anything interesting to do with this text, which is admittedly a difficult one to stage since it’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a crowd pleaser, then perhaps it needs to be rotated out of the canon until someone comes along and recreates it. I didn’t find this production to be enthralling or electrifying.

There Love Reigns

On Thursday we saw a matinée of There Loves Reigns, a one-man show about Shakespeare’s Sonnets devised and performed by Simon Callow. This production is based on the work of a psychoanalyst names John Padel, who argues that the sonnets are the record of a “profound personal experience” Shakespeare had with a young man.

This piece is a rather odd one, since it combines acting and lecture, but I enjoyed it overall. Callow performs his part well. He comes across as likable and knowledgeable. He’s particularly good at the lecturing. It isn’t always clear what’s happening during the acting parts (when he’s reciting the sonnets), but the piece is economically staged and interesting.

Padel’s interpretation of the sonnets is unconvincing at best. In particular, some of his specific arguments — that one poem is extemporaneous, for example — are too specific to be believable even within the context of his argument. PJ and I stayed for the Q&A after the performance, during which Callow admitted that he wasn’t really interested in the Padel’s details or even accuracy; rather, he was interested in the passion that is uncovered in Padel’s reading of the poems. Taken on this level, There Reigns Love is perfectly enjoyable theater.

But whatever success the work has is entirely due to Callow. I would love to see him in a great Shakespearean role — perhaps as Claudius in Hamlet, as Prospero in The Tempest, or as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. I couldn’t help think during the performance that if Callow were to come-on to me in a bar or someplace there’d be no way I could resist him — who could resist Mr. Beebe?

Cabaret

The last play we saw was Cabaret. This production was everything Hamlet should have been — enthralling, electrifying, and a great blend of tradition and innovation. This was the third production of Cabaret that we’ve seen. I think it was easily the best.

On the one hand, this production was solidly within the tradition of previous performances I’ve seen. For example, like other recent productions this one played with issues of gender and sexuality in its casting and behavior of such characters as Bobby, Louis/Louise, Victor, Max, etc. It’s use of sets was also similar to other productions I’ve seen.

On the other hand, it incorporated some new elements to the production. Where other recent emcees have been overtly queer and pornishly hot, this production’s Emcee, played by Bruce Dow, was chubby and more like an oversized baby than a porn star. This led to a reinterpretation of the character as more of a queer guardian angel than a mad sex-crazed demon. Even more pleasingly, this production also added some technological elements to the staging of the play. During the scene in which the Emcee sings “If You Could See Her,” the obligatory woman in a gorilla suit was shown as a film projected onto a screen. There were other moments in which this screen was used, as in one scene when Sally Bowles, played by Trish Lindstrom, is singing and dancing: she is simultaneously shown from above on the screen while we see her from the side.

Lindstrom, who made me think of a young Patti LuPone (not that I ever saw a young Patti LuPone), is excellent as Sally, who is less sympathetic in this version of the play. One of my few criticisms of this production is its excision of “Maybe This Time,” Sally’s most heartfelt moment in the play. Dow is also wonderful as the Emcee. But this production clearly belongs to Sean Arbuckle, who plays Cliff. While he doesn’t have any truly great solos, this production foregrounds his role as narrator, forcing us to see the events of the play through his eyes rather than those of Sally or the Emcee.

I really enjoyed this production. It was definitely the best one we saw in Stratford.

We would definitely like to go back to Stratford in future years.

Advertisements