Friday, August 17, 2018

Henry V at Shaw, Julius Caesar at Stratford.

We went Wednesday afternoon (August 8, 2018) to see Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

We knew, going in, that several of the principal male characters would be portrayed by women. We saw a gender-bending Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of seasons ago and wondered in what direction this one would go. Curiously, the actor who plays Brutus in this production played Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in the other.

Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar

Each of the women playing a male role was played by a very fine actor and, even in costume and make-up, none could be mistaken for a man.

The most interesting consequence of this was in the scenes between Brutus, played by Jonathan Goad and and Irene Poole who was Cassius. The two men are very good friends. This friendliness might be taken to be something quite different between a man and a women although Shakespeare may have been subtly implying a different sort of relationship between the two men.

It is, otherwise, a typical Festival Theatre production with beautiful and approriate costumes, lighting and original music (save a Dowland song which was interpolated late in the show).

Seanna McKenna was a marvellous Julius Caesar, the centre of attention in all of her scenes. We found the pacing of the production suspect. The actors spoke the text more quickly than it could be easily understood. Jonathan Goad was a convincing Brutus but some of his lines were impossible to understand. Michelle Giroux, as Mark Antony was more intelligible but rushed through the funeral oration, surely one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet, in a small part as Antony’s Servant, Amy Keating delivered her much of her speech lying prone on the stage but you could understand every word.

This show is a good, if not outstanding one, and worth the trip to Stratford.

On the other hand, We went Wednesday afternoon (August 15, 2018) to see Henry V at the Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival.

Except it wasn’t Henry V like you’d see it at Stratford or in a school production for that matter. I probably shouldn’t have read a scathing review in The Spec last week which lowered my expectations. We had decided that if it was as dismal as the review claimed we were going to leave at the interval. As it happened, we stayed until the end.

The cast of 11, 4 women and 7 men play all the roles, some taken by different players at different times. The men are Canadian WW I soldiers in an underground trench system somewhere in France. They play much, but not all, of the first three acts of Henry V to amuse themselves, some reciting and some reading, while the war carries on around them. In the second act all but one of the soldiers are injured and recovering in bed in hospital and the four women are nurses. The nurses, who spend much of the act tending to the injured soldiers, join in with the play-acting and the cast finishes the play.

So it’s not really a dramatic presentation of Henry V at all, much more akin to a dramatic reading or a concert performance of an opera. Moreover, the text is isn’t all Shakespeare. Actors do occasionally speak in their real 1916 voices explaining, for example, that the King is in disguise or requesting a prop.

As one would expect of a professional company the actors are generally very good, the women perhaps better than the men. Natasha Mumba was a standout as were veteran actors Gray Powell and Patrick Gallican.

The problem is that there’s not much drama. There’s hardly any staging relating to Henry V. Any moving about relates more to the “real” situation in the trench or hospital. And you would have to know Henry V very well to be able to follow its plot because the acting does little to support that play-within-a-play.

So this production is an experiment that didn’t quite work. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re comped. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Number 6 of my List of Albums that Make Me Happy, is Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

I saw the opera, almost by chance, in London in the spring of 1985. The ENO just happened to be playing it. I also saw Horne and von Stade in La Donna del Lago from the gods at Covent Garden about the same time and the same way. I found the Coliseum and bought a ticket for a great seat in the orchestra for top price, as I recall, £20. I knew who Glass was but hadn’t heard any of his music.

It was like no other opera, no other music, I had ever heard. Some would argue it’s not an opera but that’s what Glass and his collaborators called it and the ENO is an opera company.

It’s the third in his Portrait Series of operas following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. It’s musically more approachable than either of these. 

There’s no plot, as such. There’s not much action, either. The orchestra plays, the singers sing, much more like a staged oratorio than anything else. Beautiful costumes, great lighting and sets. Interesting staging. A group of wrestlers mimed a struggle in slow motion, far upstage, at one point, while the principals performed downstage.

The character Akhnaten, by the way, is sung by a countertenor. We know he was actually weird looking from statuary. In this context, the sound of Akhnaten’s singing is oddly otherworldly, appropriate for a pharaoh who attempted to transform Egyptian religion. The priesthood and his successor transformed it back, immediately he died.

I must have raved about the performance because I received the cassette album as a gift and I’ve listened to it many times although, I will confess, rarely from beginning to end.

My perception of that performance clouded my understanding of the nature of opera in general. 

The consensus is that opera is the synthesis of the various performing arts. There are actors (usually singers) portraying characters so it’s drama, a play if you like. As in a play, all the elements of stage craft can be present; costumes, sets, lighting, technical effects and so forth. There is solo singing and soloists singing in ensembles. There can be choral singing. There is instrumental music which can be accompaniement for the singing but is often also featured alone. There can be ballet or other dancing.

But is opera, then, drama or music or both at the same time?

It’s the composer whose name is attached to the piece. La Traviata by Verdi, not La Traviata by Piave, who wrote the words based upon Dumas’s play. With plays, it’s the author. Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Erin Shields.

Yet no one would argue that a recording of an opera, even a live one, is a faithful reproduction of an opera. It’s only the music. It’s the most important thing but without the ancillary elements of the performance, the things that make it opera and not a concert.

There are people who love opera and go to live performances and Silver City Met operas but wouldn’t cross the street to see a concert of opera highlights. ‘Cause, it’s not opera, right?

I’m posting this with just the first act music. If you’re interested there are videos of parts of performances available on YouTube.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Paradise Lost at the Stratford Festival

We went yesterday afternoon (Wednesday August 1st, 2018) to see Paradise Lost in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival. The Studio Theatre is at the back of the Avon on Waterloo St. and seats about 260. It has a small thrust stage and the seating is as steeply raked as were the seats in the Patterson Theatre which is now closed and will be rebuilt.

This is not Paradise Lost, the long 17th Century epic poem by John Milton, rather a reworking of elements of that story in modern form by acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields. Another of her plays, If We Were Birds, won the 2011 Governor-General’s Award for English drama.

Lucy Peacock, photo: Clay Stang

The principal actors play individual parts including Eve, Adam, God the Father, God the Son and Satan. The other seven in this cast of twelve each play two parts, one in Heaven and the other in Hell. The story is that of Satan, in the form of a serpent, persuading Eve to break God’s one rule, that she not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Eve convinces Adam to do it as well and then the two of them are expelled from The Garden (paradise) to live in suffering until they die.

This is a story told out of time. God the Father admits knowing what is (or was) going to happen but is unwilling or unable to intervene because he granted humans Free Will. The text is full of references to contemporary issues. Satan is well versed in what is happening in the audience’s present including issues like climate change and the building of pipelines and speaks directly to the audience in several monologues.

Shields manages to work a surprising amount of humour into a story which is both serious and metaphysical. In this matinée performance (also the première), attended by an overwhelmingly geriatric audience, there was some forced laughter each time an actor said something vaguely funny. This, mercifully, stopped after a few minutes. There was lots of laughter later however in response to genuinely funny bits and lines.

The angels put on a play, reminiscent of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to remind Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is, like Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, intentionally inept but it seems out of place in Paradise Lost.

Juan Chioran, in the role of God the Father, gave a controlled depiction of Shields’ character. He’s not on stage much and one has the impression Shields wrote the role largely as a contrast to Satan.

Gordon S. Miller was God the Son. Again, he gave a restrained portrayal, even when he is persuading his father to allow him to become human and die horribly in order to redeem humanity.

Eve (Amelia Sargisson) and Adam (Qasim Khan) were delightful with many humourous bits to play as well as touching ones. They played Shield’s scene in which they transform from innocent stereotypes to complex modern people beautifully.

Among the smaller parts, Sarah Todd, as Satan’s sort-of daughter Sin, was a standout with some of the most hilarious lines in the show.

Finally, Lucy Peacock carried the show as Satan. Shields wrote this as the central part in the drama and Peacock ran with it. Her monologues were engaging and her interactions with the various other players always convincing. We’d seen her a couple of weeks ago in Coriolanus and she owned the stage there, too. Here performance is the best reason to attend this play.

For all that, I wasn’t blown away by the play itself, although it’s hard to fault the production. Shields puts a balanced feminist spin on the story as one would expect from a contemporary woman playwright. I’m well aware of these issues and of other contemporary ones that she mentions and the play didn’t deepen my understanding of them. Frankly, I don’t go to the theatre to be educated, however cleverly, rather to be entertained and, by that metre stick, this one is good rather than great.