Stratford 2014

Life in the Theatre, Plays I've Seen

I’ve gotten a little behind in posting, so I have a bit of catching up to do!

A little over a week ago, my friend Anne and I made our annual trip up to the Stratford Theatre Festival in Canada. This marked our twelfth year making the pilgrimage for great food, shopping, and of course, theatre. We look forward to this trip every year as a wonderful escape from the “real world” and a chance to re-focus our minds on ourselves, our careers, or whatever else in our life needs attention. Fall is the perfect time for it; to me, autumn always feels like a new beginning.

So, we ate amazing meals, shopped more than we should have, talked for hours in the car, and saw some thought-provoking and exciting theatre.

The first night, we saw Antony & Cleopatra, and disappointingly, we saw an understudy for Enobarbus. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem; we’ve seen understudies perform at Stratford before, and usually they turn in wonderful performances. Typically, they know the role and have had put-in rehearsals, and are prepared for the task. Unfortunately, the poor Enobarbus understudy that we saw didn’t seem to know his lines, which was both surprising and disorienting — for us in the audience as well as the other actors. I felt that the whole show missed the mark in its level of urgency and passion, but it’s hard to know whether that was the production itself, or whether it was just an “off” night due poor Enobarbus’ significant line problems. The performance did, however, give me a lot to think about, and made me want to re-visit the Antony & Cleopatra script.

The second night was significantly better. We saw Colm Feore’s King Lear, and it was, in a word, astonishing. Feore’s performance was both strong and frail; infuriating and heartbreaking. While the night definitely belonged to him, the storytelling was clearer in this production than any other I’ve seen largely thanks to the treatment of the two older sisters. Most productions that I’ve seen paint Goneril and Regan as evil from the start, insincere and conniving in their pronouncement of love for their father, and scheming to their last breaths. However, in this production, I believed their words of love in the first scene; if they were over-exaggerated, it was because they were simply humoring their father, but not with insincerity. Later, I believed Goneril’s genuine astonishment at her father’s behavior, and the behavior of his men, in her home. Later still, in that terribly sad scene in which Regan and Goneril go back and forth, reducing the number of Lear’s train they will welcome into their homes, I actually heard their argument: “What need you five and twenty, or ten or five, / to follow in a house where twice so many / Have a command to tend you?” They can’t understand why he needs his men (who are prone to “epicurism and lust”), when their servants can provide everything he could possibly need.

Further, I also understood strongly that Goneril and Regan were not only acting for themselves, but were beholden to their husbands in an age where women did not hold significant power of their own. Their fealty to their husbands echoed Cordelia’s initial argument: “Why have my sisters husbands if they say / they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed / That lord whose hand my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty.”

Now, none of this is to say that Goneril and Regan were blameless — not in the least. Even as I recognized their point of view, I still felt for Lear, and the women were absolutely complicit in the atrocities that transpired. But allowing them a true character arc, instead of treating them as villainesses from the start, made the story a much more powerful family drama, and ultimately a much sadder tragedy. This production changed how I view the play, which is a rare thing to happen to me with Shakespeare plays.

This trip is one of my favorite traditions, and this was another great year. ‘Til next year, Stratford.

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