Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption”

When the news came out that Graham Abbey had been working on an adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they were going to modify the Tom Patterson Theatre especially for the production, I was thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting than getting to see a brand new piece and in a totally different way than it would normally be staged. Breath of Kings exceeded my expectations and gave me a totally different view of Shakespeare’s histories; it made me want to see the full versions immediately!

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tells the story of Henry Bolingbroke and his rise to power over King Richard II, using the plays Richard II for its first act and Henry V Part 1 for its second act. A political thriller for the first act turns into a bloody battle for supremacy by the second, making for an amazing buildup to the final battle. Breath of Kings: Redemption focuses more on young Henry, or Prince Hal, and his rise to power through Henry V Part II and Henry V. Once again culminating in an epic battle, this piece was fascinating and fast paced as young Hal goes from miscreant to King overnight.

The most immediate thing that struck me was the stage. Not only was it redesigned to be theatre in the round (which I LOVE) but for Rebellion there was a thick layer of mulch covering the stage. This mulch would be pushed, dragged, and raked all over the stage. I loved how when the play needed to take place indoors the mulch was pushed aside with the boxes to create a hallway-like path. But for me the best part was after the battle scene, the mulch had been spread back out over the stage, so there was this amazing map of the battle left on the floor after the actors had left, I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked from above. For Redemption, the stage was the bare white that you could see underneath the mulch, but as the battle of Agincourt was waged, the floor came up in these massive, jagged pieces which left the earth turned up and ragged by the end of the play; a torn world which Hal will be responsible to put back together. Paired with amazing costuming and lighting, the play was a visual spectacular and every detail and movement carried such weight and purpose.

The cast was massive, with a whole host of Stratford’s best populating the stage. Helmed by Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Tom Rooney (Richard II), and Araya Mengesha (Henry V) the level of passion in these performances breathes such life into these pieces and makes them the memorable experience that they are. Richard II was such a fascinating character, the way we watch him succumb to Bolingbroke and his men, then seeing Bolingbroke, who used to wield amazing power, get so ill was heartbreaking. The whole time you’re watching their enemies try to rise against them, while others rally to their side. I had previously seen Henry V in full, and so knew of the death of Falstaff, but what I hadn’t realized was that he died of a broken heart; it broke my heart to see Hal cast off his old friends, miscreants though they may be, in favour of being the “king” he thinks he has to be. He rejects their company almost immediately instead of helping them as he’s now able to do. This deeply saddened me, and actually made me watch the second act of Redemption with a totally different gaze than I had when I saw Henry V. I was also thrilled that the Chorus in Henry V was kept, the Chorus has some of the most beautiful poetry in Shakespeare’s cannon, and the play would have felt incomplete without it.

One of the elements that was particularly interesting was how many men were portrayed by women. It brought the dynamic to a totally different level to both pieces, and seeing these women in power roles was inspiring. It confirmed the level of innovation and expertise that was poured into this show and made it an experience I’ll never forget.

I was absolutely blown away by this production. I cannot begin to recommend it enough. The plays close September 24th, so catch it before it closes!!

Stratford Festival’s “Pericles” and Director’s Day 2015

I was so excited to get to see a play by Shakespeare which I had absolutely no previous connection to whatsoever. This is such a rare occurrence for me, that when it does happen, it’s lovely to take advantage of. So I knew next to nothing going into the play, other than that Pericles was one of the most complex plots I had heard of. I was absolutely blown away with what director Scott Wentworth did with the piece.

How we got to experience this play was wonderfully unique and something that I hope to do again. We got to take part in what is called Director’s Day, where we have a pre-show chat (and lunch!) with the director, then we see the show (or you can see another one) and then you come back for a Q&A and dinner! The way the day is organized is beyond awesome, and they certainly have the whole thing down to a science. But to hear about the play from Mr. Wentworth himself was wonderful, as he was able to give us enough of an idea about what we were going to see that we could understand what he wanted to accomplish, but he certainly didn’t spoil anything for us either. And to get to hear his thoughts about directing and what it means to be a director was really inspiring for me as I was just embarking on my first directorial venture.

When I first saw that the play was set in the Victorian period, I was a little hesitant and didn’t really understand, but then I thought about the ideas of expansion and colonialism and thought, ok. But then to hear Mr. Wentworth talk about it, about the taboo subjects that the Victorians appalled but Shakespeare could talk about, and how he wanted to see “what they were so afraid of,” it made it even more enjoyable. And yet the play just seemed to feel right, and not just because of what I had heard beforehand, it just suited the out of this world plotline and wonderful characters.

The costumes and sets for this play were beautiful, and allowed for the audience to be transported to the various locations that Shakespeare requires. The set especially was beautiful for the scenes at the abbey, where the walls were filled with lit candles. It was mesmerizing and yet didn’t detract from the scene. What was even more amazing was when the rest of the cast came out to act out the shipwreck and removed Pericles’ clothes and passed around his boat. To watch them move as a single unit and become what is so hard to depict was awesome, and one of the moments that still stands out in my mind.

The role doubling for each adventure Pericles embarks on was rather amazing, and forced us to draw the parallels that Mr. Wentworth wanted us to. Wayne Best certainly went through the most drastic changes between roles, and that made it all the more incredible to witness. And while it seems like that would be confusing, it somehow flowed so well that I never felt confused. The plot seemed so linear despite it having a rather circular pattern to the plot.

Mr. Wentworth’s focus on the female characters of the play was really refreshing and certainly came through in his choices. By having a woman, who turns out to be Pericles’ wife, narrate the play as the goddess Diana instead of Gower was inspiring, and added an energy that wouldn’t otherwise be afforded this text. It really turned our attention to the women in Pericles’ life and how his choices affected them as well. The reunion of Pericles and Marina actually had me in tears, and while it was sort of the penultimate reunion, it certainly was the one with the most emotion behind it.

The other highlighted element was the music, which I truly loved. The fact that it was based on a poem and written by Mr. Wentworth’s wife was just delightful, and added this mystical element to the show. Music has this ability to tie all of the ideas of the play together, and create this familiar and unifying element that even aided in the emotional reunion of Pericles and Marina. It was totally unexpected and yet felt completely organic within the play itself.

This is all apart from the incredible acting in this production. This text is not easy, nor is having to play multiple roles throughout the production, and yet it was handled flawlessly. Evan Buliung was amazing as Pericles, and was supported by Debora Hay, Wayne Best and many more in a stellar cast. I cannot wait for the movie version of this production to come out. To have the ability to relive it over and over is thrilling!!

Stratford Festival’s “The Taming of the Shrew”

I was so happy to be back in Stratford again this summer! The Taming of the Shrew holds such a special place in my heart because it was the first Shakespearean show I ever saw, and my first Shakespearean show at the Festival, way back in 2003 and so was one of the reasons that I set my life on a theatrical path. To get to see the show again, as my first performance of the 2015 season, and done in such a beautiful manner was fabulous; I so thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish.

One of the things that I loved right off the bat was that the used the frame narrative that is included in the play, and yet is so often disregarded. And of course, in true Chris Abraham fashion (He’s the director, and one I adore), there was an even outer frame that began the moment we came in and made the frame within the play itself easier to understand. It was so lovely to have the actors breaking the fourth wall before the show and coming around to talk to us. From there, one of the actors played a disruptive audience member, who then becomes the drunkard that the ‘actors’ convince into being their lord and for whom they present the play. It was all so brilliantly done, and made the little scholar in me so happy!

In the outermost frame, where the actual actors were breaking the fourth wall, Tom Rooney gave a little speech about gender and disguise and how they work in this play. I was very happy that they made a point of this for two reasons: 1) it plays into what the next frame deals with and then the subject matter of the play itself, 2) It hearkens back to the way the play would have originally been done, with boys dressed as girls, and this of course also affects Kate’s final speech, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The whole play was done very traditionally, which I certainly appreciate. The stage even looked like the Globe Theatre with its giant red pillars and square thrust stage. The costuming was also very traditional with beautiful ruffs and gorgeous gowns for the ladies. One of the elements I loved the most was the musicians live on stage. They were such a fun element of the play, and completed the traditional feel. It was like they had their own little part in the play, made their own comments through their music, and really were another element of comic relief. I thought it was simply delightful!

Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay played Petruchio and Katarina, and they were both experts at their roles. Deborah was a fierce, forceful and frightening Kate, while Ben’s Petruchio was tough, tempering and (at times) terrible. They were a perfect match. Having seen Deborah play the demure Bianca, it was amazing to watch her be so vicious playing Kate. The two of them were so physical, and that added a whole different element to their relationship, and yet made the taming all the more noticeable. The fact that the two of them are married in real life just added another level to the story that was so rife with frames and layers.

These two were equally matched by the rest of their cast, who performed wonderfully. The whole thing was a joy to watch from start to finish, and that always has to do with the cast as a whole. They brought such life and vivacity to the play, and I didn’t feel like a single person was miscast. It was truly a great deal of fun to experience.

Last, but not at all least, I’d like to talk about Katarina’s final speech. There’s always a great deal of criticism about it because to a modern audience it sounds so patriarchal. And yet I felt like this production handled it in an excellent way. It seemed to me that Kate believed what she was saying wholeheartedly, which I do really like because then the transformation that Petruchio has made, but also that she has made for herself is complete and therefore the ending can be a happy one. During her lessons to the other wives, Kate does make it clear that while you should obey your husband, he should be worthy of the obedience, and while they mere fact that she says to obey them is patriarchal, there is the element of choice, which ads a flair of feminism. But for me, it was the final moments, where she held out her hand to Petruchio, and just before she lets her hand fall, he rushes up to take it. I felt like in that moment, the two of them agreed that their lives were a partnership, and that she isn’t his servant; that as long as she will be faithful to him, so will he to her. While it was only a gesture, and I can’t know if it was meant to have that meaning I endowed in it, but I felt like it was a really great way to deal with what can otherwise be an antiquated and demeaning speech for women.

It’s amazing to get to see a play that you saw when you were much younger. It’s a great way to see how much you’ve grown and how your attitudes have changed and how much more you know. I can’t wait to see what I’ll think of it in another 12 years!

The Taming of the Shrew runs into October! For tickets you can follow the link here:

Assignment #4 – Google Ngram viewer (my new fave thing)

So I wanted to try something new for this project, despite my new-found love for Wordle, and so I checked out the Google Ngram Viewer. Being able to see the mentions of words or phrases over such a large span of time is absolutely amazing.

So I started with looking at “William Shakespeare” and “Much Ado About Nothing” just to get a feel for how the app worked, and to see if there was any correlation between the author popularity and title popularity. While there wasn’t an obvious correlation, I found it interesting just how many books mentioned the Bard’s name, and then how high it peaked about 13 years ago.
Here’s the link to that graph:

So next I thought I’d look at the names of the 4 main characters: Beatrice, Benedick, Hero and Claudio. Beatrice without a doubt has the most mentions over the past 200 years or so, peaking around the 1840’s. If only they let us know why or how many books it was mentioned in (because now I’m sooo curious). But what’s almost more interesting was that Claudio was rather popular in the early 1800’s, and then just dived right off, while Hero and Benedick stay fairy even throughout. Honestly, I thought Hero would have the most mentions because it has multiple meanings.
Here’s the link to that graph as well:

I think what I learned the most from this little experiment was the impact that Shakespeare has had in literature and the written word in general, even 200 years after he was gone. Not only his own name, but the names of his characters remain prevalent today, almost 400 years after his death. I guess to me it just seems astounding that one author, and just looking at 4 characters from one play, has been able to have this much of an impact on our consciousness. He seems to have infiltrated every day life, whether we know it or not. And children who have names like Beatrice, or Katherine, or Sebastian, or maybe even Henry, have these amazing Shakespearean characters to look at and know that part of their name comes from this amazing author.

Shakespeare in Community: Assignment #1 – First Words

“I learn in this letter” – Much Ado About Nothing.

I chose this first line primarily because I have not had the opportunity to do much scholarly work on Much Ado, yet it is one of my favourites to see. This line holds so many possibilities and has been so much fun to explore!

One of my first thoughts about this line was that it gives the feeling that they play is starting in medias res. “I learn in this letter” sets up what is to happen later in the scene, but does not give us any sense of place or time like other opening lines can do, like the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. However this also makes me think that it gives Much Ado more credence as potentially being the lost play Love’s Labours Won (the play was portrayed this way by the RSC this season). To me, this line is a good example of this, given that with the announcement of the Don Pedro’s return, we as the audience are expected to derive immediate meaning and perhaps even recognition from the declaration. I am looking forward to seeing Love’s Labours Lost this summer to see if this theory could really work!

The mention of the letter sets up the importance that language and words are going to have throughout the play. Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is founded not only on their constant verbal sparring, but also on the second hand information that they gain from their friends. Leonato similarly presents the information in the letter to the characters gathered on stage, thus giving them the information second hand as well. Knowledge and the sources that provide it, as well as the way those sources are able to manipulate language to provide knowledge is a running theme in the play. And letters are often a malleable medium in Shakespeare’s plays, giving characters the opportunity to manipulate others.

In terms of the feeling of the line, I would say that because a letter is a physical thing, it does actually evoke a sense of touch. One must be holding a letter to read it and gain the information, and therefore the mention of it evokes that feeling. The sharing of letters has a rich history and was a feature in both drama and novels long past the Renaissance. Thus a community is able to form around the letter reader, as they share the knowledge imparted through the letter. In this case, the letter not only brings together the community of the people of Messina, but also the men coming home from the war. This scene begins the ultimate goal of the comedy: the creation of a whole community.

Stratford Festival’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

On the 16th, I had the amazing opportunity to go and see the first preview of Stratford’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I honestly can’t remember a better theatre experience than what I was a part of that afternoon.

First, I want to address the play itself, because it was a fascinating take on the play that has definitely left me thinking. Chris Abraham, whose production of Othello last season was also stunning, made some very interesting and calculated changes to this text, but certainly for the better. I’m going to try to talk about this show without giving away too many ‘spoilers’, although that’s not exactly easy to do. First of all, the frame narrative of the wedding was a wonderful set up for a show about love and marriage and fighting for both. This frame narrative also gave the play a wonderful location: a back yard. The fact that the stage was covered in turf made everything so wonderful and real, and as I’ll discuss later, added to the immersive experience they created for this show. That’s the other wonderful thing this frame narrative provides: the possibility for an immersive experience. Before the show there were actors roaming the isles, saying hello to all of the ‘guests’ and there were decorations in the theatre. Because weddings are such a community event, just like the theatre, it easily creates a way for everyone to get involved.

Second, the changes in gender of the characters was a bold choice, but one that made the play modern and beautiful on a whole other level. By including homosexual couples in the play, it not only raises the stakes when Hermia fights to be with Lysander (who is played by a woman), but it also updates the play to what our modern notion of love is. At first, with the changes from he to she or her to him, I wondered if it might affect the meter of the play, but it really doesn’t, as most of the changes had the same number of syllables and essentially amount to the same thing. Thus this change, which I was unsure of at first, fit seamlessly into the play, and added to this modern notion of love that was shown throughout. The other major change was that Titania and Oberon were both played by men, and at that, those two men share those roles, changing with each performance. Once again, the fairy world was representing the outside world but in a different way. Instead of mirroring the royal couple of Theseus and Hippolyta, they mirror the couple whose wedding reception they are performing at. Both actors (Jonathan Goad and Evan Buliung) played their roles very well, and I’d be excited to see the show again when they play the opposite character.

The rest of the cast should not go without mention. It was simply a stellar cast. Stephen Ouimette as Bottom was everything I had hoped he was going to be. I was also very impressed with Chick Reid, who played the mischievous Puck; she made us all laugh and want to play right along with her. The children in the play were wonderful as well. They were so sweet, and added this sense of innocence that comes with the fairy world. The Rude Mechanicals were also marvellous! Their plotline of the show has to be on of my favourites in all of Shakespeare. Watching them attempt to put on a show while watching a show is so much fun, and they are just so…inept, it makes for a roaring good time! Overall, I was thrilled with this show. Truly, I didn’t want to leave the theatre, I didn’t want to break the magic of the place that I was in. I could have lived in that backyard for ever.

The best, and I mean BEST part about this experience was where my friend and I got to sit. We were what they call their “Gutter Guests”. We sat on these beautiful pillows and cushions along the side of the stage. Throughout the performance we sat beside some of the actors, interacted with them, and tried not to trip them as they went past us! We were totally immersed in the play: we were not given programs and were brought down separately into the theatre. It was amazing. To be that close, to be able to be a part of the show was an incredible experience. I’ve included the picture of my friend and I taken by one of the actresses. However, what was the best part of the night for me, and a moment I shall never forget, was towards the end, when they are supposed to be doing the jig, we were asked to come up on stage and dance with the cast. I have never been so happy. I cry every time I talk about it. To have been on stage, during a show, at the Festival theatre, is a dream come true. I will never EVER forget that afternoon.

So basically, go and see this play. Please! It’s fabulous, and I think will appeal to everyone. There were several groups of students who laughed and sighed and were right in the show as well, which for me is a great sign of a great show. BRAVO to all involved, and thank you for an afternoon I shan’t soon forget!