A Shakespeare crisis at Stratford
J. Kelly Nestruck
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Sep. 01, 2009 05:04PM EDT
At the opening of Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in June, the leader of the federal Liberal Party was one of many dignitaries in attendance.
I don't know if Michael Ignatieff had much of a chance to chat with the festival's artistic director Des McAnuff that night, but the two would have plenty to commiserate about. They're both resented and envied for spending much of their careers abroad, and both are frequently accused of “just visiting” by those who'd like to send them packing.
No comment on Ignatieff, but McAnuff's budding era at Stratford should be hailed as exciting – and would be, if it weren't for economic circumstances beyond his control putting a damper on the party.
In his first year as solo artistic director, McAnuff has showed himself capable of putting together a satisfying and cohesive season and demonstrated a particular knack for attracting talent and pairing it with the right material.
Chicago's Gary Griffin helmed a West Side Story that made fantastic use of the festival's thrust stage and blew the current Broadway production out of the water. Martha Henry directed a fine Three Sisters with Lucy Peacock as a memorable Masha, while Brian Bedford donned the director's hat and Lady Bracknell's dress for a crowd-pleasing Importance of Being Earnest .
Up-and-coming director Jennifer Tarver up and came with her revival of George F. Walker's Zastrozzi , while McAnuff flexed his musical muscle with a fine A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum .
Other highlights included Colm Feore showing panache in Cyrano de Bergerac and a lucid untangling of Ben Jonson's notoriously knotty Bartholomew Fair .
That would be plenty to declare the 2009 season a success, were it not for a glaring omission: William Shakespeare, the festival's flagship and – after rebranding two years ago – namesake playwright.
British director David Grindley's A Midsummer Night's Dream was the best of the Bardic bunch, but it was only Geraint Wyn Davies's poignant performance as Bottom that made it unmissable.
As for the Canadian directors – McAnuff on Macbeth and James MacDonald on Julius Caesar – their productions lacked textual clarity and both got mired in conceptual bogs. It is a little embarrassing that two years in a row, the Canucks have been shown up by a visiting Brit. After 56 years as the country's unofficial national theatre, has Stratford really produced no reliable homegrown directors of Shakespeare?
Artistic failures are, of course, inevitable, but my concern is that McAnuff is stubbornly refusing to admit them. If anyone else had directed two so-so Shakespeares over the past two seasons, as McAnuff has, we likely wouldn't see them at the festival again. They certainly wouldn't be promoted to direct two productions next season – and yet, McAnuff will be helming both The Tempest and As You Like It in 2010.
On that front, I'm very wary. But most of the reasons why McAnuff has come under attack are without merit.
Having an artistic director whose ambitions are international and about more than just creating a surplus is good for the festival, which, lest we forget, attracts a sizable portion of its audience from the United States. It's simply hypocritical to spend stimulus money luring patrons across the border, but tell our artists they'll be loathed if they cross it in the other direction.
McAnuff's extracurricular projects are not without substance (see sidebar) and the exciting buzz he has brought with him to Stratford is attracting top-notch directors from outside and within the country. His unapologetic dedication to making the company more representative of Canada's ethnic and racial diversity is also to be lauded. It's not a politically correct move, but one integral to the future of the festival.
But while it's important to highlight his successes, there's no doubt he has a Shakespeare crisis that needs attending to.
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