This has been an all-around excellent season at Stratford (and the season emphatically isn’t over – and the weather is beautiful up there in September and October). The festival offered four Shakespeares (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Measure For Measure and The Merchant of Venice) in four very different styles and with four very different moods on three very different stages, showing not just the Bard’s range but a wide range of contemporary approaches thereto, none of which seemed forced or intended to make a directorial point against the text. The other classic plays, from Mary Stuart to Waiting For Godot to Blithe Spirit covered a similarly wide range of styles and moods and were never less than excellent. And both musicals (Fiddler On the Roof and Tommy) were expertly executed.
The only major disappointment have been the new Canadian plays at the Studio Theater, the smallest space. The Studio is the natural locus for experimental work that might be too “out there” for a mainstream Stratford audience, or for work that demands intimacy. We did actually see one piece in that space that fit the bill: a one-man show by and starring lighting designer Itai Erdal called How To Disappear Completely that used lighting cues as a metaphor for the death of his mother from cancer, her desire to die on her own terms, and his intimate involvement in that death. It was a sweet and sad and powerful show that made excellent use of the space – and it wasn’t even part of the regular festival program (it was part of the Forum, a kind of festival fringe that was an excellent addition to this year’s season, and that I hope to see develop further in years to come).
The two regular offerings, by contrast, played it extraordinarily safe. The Thrill was an “issue play” about the right to life, the right to die, and the right to kill that never came close to touching the emotional depth of Erdal’s deeply personal offering. And the other Studio play, Taking Shakespeare, similarly skirts the depths.
Taking Shakespeare is a two-hander about an aging professor and a wayward student – well-worn territory to be sure. We know what will happen: the professor will open the student’s mind, the student will open the professor’s heart, and the ending will be bitter-sweet as it turns out this fleeting connection doesn’t change everything. The gimmick is that this professor teaches Shakespeare, and this is the Stratford Festival. Here, then, is an opportunity for all of us to “take Shakespeare” from one of the greatest possible teachers – Martha Henry, the doyenne of Canadian classical performance, who has not only played just about every (female) role in the canon, and directed many of the plays, but who recently ran the highly-regarded Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre.
And Henry does a wonderful job creating the character of the professor, a crotchety old girl with an unfashionable thing for close reading – and for large doses of cognac in her coffee that have resulted in missing more than a few classes – and a love affair in the past that didn’t go well, or, at least, didn’t go anywhere permanent. And Luke Humphrey does a fine job as well holding his own as her student opposite. But the text barely scratches the surface of either character, and, worse, what do we take from this celebrated professor’s close reading? That we need to distinguish between the views of the author, the views of a character, and views that a character may voice in order to manipulate another character rather than because he or she actually believes them. That she identifies with Emilia, Iago’s wife, at the end of the tragedy, when she realizes the depths of Othello’s folly, of her husband’s wickedness, and the role she played in bringing the tragedy about. And that tragedy is supposed to make us feel sad, and comprehend the depths of sadness of which we are capable.
That’s just not enough to carry a play.
Othello is a monumental tragedy, and Emilia is a complex figure of deep pathos. She is, after all, a woman who stuck with Iago and who is still trying to win his favor long after she learned he hated her – and yet she’s in no sense a wallflower, has no trouble speaking up when cruel injustice is done to her lady, Desdemona. If this professor sees herself in Emilia, I want to see Emilia in her. And I don’t.
I appreciate that the playwright, John Murrell, who wrote the part for Ms. Henry, likely made the deliberate choice to be elliptical about the relationship between the play and the professor, to give us the fact of emotional affinity without exhuming the grubby biographical details that justify that affinity. But the gap thus opened needs to be filled with something. In its absence, we have a play about two people who don’t tae many risks – a professor who sticks to what she knows even as her career dwindles, a student who is adrift but still wants to make Mom happy – written by a playwright who also doesn’t want to take any risks – no soul-revealing revelations, no threatening conflict. Just an elegiac wistfulness.
Contemporary playwrights should no more be afraid of their audience than their titanic forebears were. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of. Whatever pain you put us through, we can take it.
Taking Shakespeare runs on the Stratford Festival Studio Theatre stage through September 27th
How To Disappear Completely is done at Stratford, but will undoubtedly crop up somewhere in Canada or other, so keep an eye out.