Angles 'n' Attitudes
The 2009 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada will feature only three plays by the world's greatest playwright, down from five last year. They will be "Macbeth", "Julius Caesar" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream". None of them will be on stage on his 445th birthday on 23 April. Zounds! Instead, "West Side Story" will have its fifth performance in the Festival Theatre that evening. Sblood!
Antoni Cimolino, the Festival's General Director, says in the Visitors' Guide that Shakespeare's influence is seen in this year's two musicals, "West Side" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum". In the first a member of a New York City gang falls in love with the sister of the leader of a rival bunch of toughs. That is vaguely reminiscent of the Montagues and the Capulets. "Funny Thing", however, has no affinity to Julius Caesar except that it takes place in Rome and, as critic Rick Pender once said, the 1962 musical has been around long enough to be considered a classic.
The claim that everything on the current playbill will show how Shakespeare's "unprecedented exploration" of the human condition paved the way for others of this year's featured works is a bold one. He enabled later playwrights to extend "the astonishingly varied dramatic universe that Shakespeare helped to create", says Cimolino. Ben Johnson was a contemporary so he doesn't count but his "Bartholomew Fair", Racine's "Phedre" and Chekhov's "Three Sisters" are promised to be "fearless examinations" of how we humans do naught (or little) for our comfort. And Oscar Wilde's incomparable Lady Bracknell will be played by veteran actor Brian Bedford in drag.
More will be said here about who and what are on stage in Stratford ON in due course. For the moment, let the spotlight be on Shakespeare. But first, as the Festival advertises itself as North America's leading classical theatre, both words need definition.
"Classical" denotes something of acknowledged excellence that has survived many changes in popular taste. "Yesterday's hits, today's classics" are an enduring challenge to the shallowness of much that we call entertainment. Turner Classic Movies? Well, maybe a few of them fit the definition. The word 'theatre" is in its root meaning "a place of seeing". Whether it be the open air amphitheatre of Greece and Rome, the inn courtyard of mediaeval England or more recent arrangements of stage and stalls, a theatre is a place where one sees the comedy or tragedy of human existence encapsulated.
The classical theatre has been challenged by the ubiquity of motion picture houses and the comparative affordability of their films. People endure willingly the advertising, excessive noise and violence of the "cineplex" screens. Admittedly, the legitimate theatre requires more of an investment, both financially and intellectually. A film, once finished, can be marketed for $8 or $9 per person. Not so a production that involves the daily presence and performance of actors, musicians and stage hands. An old advertising pitch is relevant to the 'live stage': "Costs more. Worth it".
Now, back to the skimpier Shakespeare schedule. Since it is important that every child have some understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's work it is also important that at least one parent familiarise him / herself with the story lines of the most commonly staged plays. Summaries are easily obtainable. Even a primary school youngster can be told the story of Julius Caesar and something about the inner struggles of Macbeth. "Midsummer" is pure fairyland fantasy though many find it too much so, as did the diarist Samuel Pepys.
James Murden, author of Shakespeare Well Versed, a book that summarises each play in, well, verse, says "School turned me off Shakespeare. Twenty years later as a student taking a teaching degree in English I met him again. As Mark Twain said of his parents, it was amazing how much wiser he had become by the time I had grown up".
The Bard should be approached in easy stages, perhaps by beginning at an early age to memorise a few lines of his wisdom. Some of us were not much older than seven or eight when we were encouraged, phrase by short phrase, to recite Polonius's advice to Laertes, "This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man". Shakespeare, as someone quipped, is "so full of quotations". Parental guidance can make his words, both archaic and current, understandable and memorable.
It would be a great cultural service to the community if the English departments of our local secondary schools were to offer introductory classes to the current season of
Shakespeare productions at Stratford. One evening devoted to each play, discussing the human issues involved, examining and explaining the use of language and poetry and highlighting the most 'felicitous' passages would be of interest to many people, not the least those who were unable to appreciate all that when they were callow youngsters.
Speculation as to who the playwright really was, his political, religious and sexual orientations and the ways in which the plays have been presented and bowdlerised over the years are all topics of general interest. If I were on the Festival board of governors I would try to launch that kind of programme in every Ontario town and city.
Does all of the above sound elitist and, for many people, irrelevant? Think again. In his bestselling book A Whole New Mind Daniel Pink says that future success will require a greater use of the imaginative, creative right side of the brain which has been kept underdeveloped by our education system's left brain emphasis on mathematics and science. "The right hemisphere is the key to expanding human thought. It's the seat of creativity, of the soul". Scott Hughes, a local sales and management consultant, says that five years from now we will be selling and buying goods and services that have not yet been imagined. Imagine that!
Maybe "Midsummer Night's Dream" is more significant than Mr Pepys thought.