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REVIEW: Straightforward concepts, stripped-down sets, and strong performances define Stratford’s approach to the canon this year

Production shots of the Stratford Festival shows reviewed below: Hedda Gabler, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet. iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.
/By / Jun 6, 2024

Canadians often approach classic dramas with reverence or its opposite. One of the most complex characters in Norwegian literature! Billy Shakes, but bawdy. Konstantin’s timeless refrain! A radical retelling. The tragic magic of Sophocles! Wait, wait, wait: what if Juliet sang Britney Spears instead of dying?

Yet this year at the Stratford Festival, three productions of canonical plays occupy the space in between. The set designs are simple, and there aren’t any particularly daring interpretations — no gay kings in hot tubs, just a Summer of Love Twelfth Night — but neither do the players feel confined by tradition: even in Hedda Gabler and Romeo and Juliet, set in their original periods, many of the actors come off as liberated, able to explore with relative freedom. Although, on the level of concept, the three productions aren’t in very direct conversation with the present moment, these moments of actorly playfulness, dispersed across an evening, do much to jolt us into the here and now.

Twelfth Night is a play that forges harmony out of seeming contradictions (“I am not what I am,” a disguised Viola proclaims), so it feels somehow right that the new production at the Festival Theatre spurs a two-pronged reaction: on the one hand, it’s not quite clear why director Seana McKenna has set the play in the spring of 1967; but on the other, the performances are lively enough that it nearly doesn’t matter.

McKenna allows the play’s interweaving comic plots to unfold largely as Shakepeare quilled them, although a silent opening sequence, lit with spectral precision by Bonnie Beecher, offers a short depiction of the shipwreck that leaves twins Viola (Jessica B. Hill) and Sebastian (Austin Eckert) scrambling across the rocky shores of Illyria. There, the former, disguising herself as a male page named Cesario, falls for her new boss, Duke Orsino (André Sills), who’s infatuated to a disturbing degree with heiress Olivia (Vanessa Sears), herself soon seized by affection for Cesario.

It’s natural for the over-persistent Orsino to eventually emerge as almost brutish, but here Sears’ uptight body language ensures Olivia, too, sometimes comes off as cold, out-of-touch with the masses. Deflecting sympathy from Olivia draws further attention to Viola’s experience in Illyria, and Hill’s pyrotechnic take on the character is buoyant; she thinks fast, realizations striking her like lightning from an invisible cloud, engaging her whole body.

Also lively is the B-plot, set primarily at Olivia’s home, involving clown Feste (Deborah Hay), servant Maria (Sarah Dodd), a pair of bumbling knights (Rylan Wilkie and Scott Wentworth), and steward Malvolio (Laura Condlln), who the others humiliate in front of their employer (these five performers have worked at the festival for a combined 73 years — luxurious casting, for Stratford fans). As they topple Malvolio, a woman in this production, from excited heights to despairing depths, Condlln switches out gloriously heightened physical comedy for searing eruptions of emotional pain. She directs her pointed final line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” partly to the audience, implicating them in the pranksters’ cruel violence. 

In her director’s note, McKenna draws a connection between the “social upheaval and change” that defined the 1960s and the Elizabethans’ titular celebration of the Twelfth Night of Christmas, which “challenged the very concept of order.” But the production neither emphasizes the play’s holiday setting or does much else of interest with its 1967 context; despite the sharp suits in which designer Christina Poddubiuk clothes the men, it’s often easy to forget that the production isn’t set today — until Feste starts singing a folk ballad, the odd line is modified (there’s an added Muhammad Ali reference, for example), or a particularly evocative transition hits, jarring us back to the Summer of Love. (Poddubiuk’s set is sparse and efficient; a wire mobile with pieces resembling guitar picks hangs above, its abstract pattern mirroring the play’s complex jumble of characters.)

Despite the larger concept’s fuzziness (it’s noticeable that none of this season’s Shakespeare productions have a dramaturg), the actors’ text work is thoughtful, at times even sublime; unexpected choices abound. When, early on, Olivia sends Feste to look after the drunk Sir Toby, she says: “Go thou and seek crowner, and let him sit o’ my coz, for he’s in the third degree of drink: he’s drowned.” Especially considering the production’s harsher take on Olivia, one might expect a lighthearted, mocking delivery here — yet on “drowned,” Sears instead looks fatally worried for Sir Toby, offering the provocative subtext that this man is not a drunken fool to be laughed at but an alcoholic with a serious problem. How then to reckon with his eventual tormenting of Malvolio: is it barbarism, or a symptom of his affliction? Both, we realize — here in Illyria, everyone’s a little broken.

If McKenna’s Twelfth Night is “sparse,” that favourite theatre critic adjective, Molly Atkinson’s Hedda Gabler is desolate. Set and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini leaves an incredible amount of the narrow Tom Patterson stage empty; the only pieces of furniture are a centrestage fainting couch and an angular cushioned bench surrounding the front of an upstage fireplace. This visual economy imbues the actors’ every movement with dagger-like significance, bringing frightening clarity to the play’s march toward tragedy.

The production uses Patrick Marber’s fast-moving version of the play, clocking in just under two hours including intermission. Marber’s script was commissioned for a very contemporary 2017 National Theatre Hedda, directed by Ivo van Hove and available to watch online — so in this case one could argue it’s the renegade choice that Atkinson retains Ibsen’s late 19th-century setting. Savoini indicates this largely through costumes: as Hedda (Sara Topham) slinks through the space, her dresses’ period-appropriate trains seem to mark out the territory behind her as her own.

Good thing, too, because one of the few things Hedda still has power over is her expensive home, the large size of which lighting designer Kaileigh Krysztofiak implies via a trio of long, rectangular window gobos. Hedda moved into it with her energetic husband Tesman (Gordon S. Miller) after he was promised a job at a nearby university — but the play’s drama arises when the domineering Judge Brack (Tom McCamus) arrives to inform them that Tesman’s appointment may no longer be guaranteed: Lovborg (Brad Hodder), a down-to-earth scholar in the same field, has just released a hit book and must be considered as well.

The production’s rendering of Brack, Tesman, and Hedda’s “triangular association,” to use the judge’s words, is charged. When Brack is in the room, Hedda becomes uninterested in Tesman, often mocking him for the purpose of impressing their third. At one point, Brack and Hedda sit close to one another on the fainting couch, kicking their legs and hitting each other like schoolchildren as they laugh at the well-meaning scholar. It’s the intelligence of Topham’s performance that the audience, too, feels like giggling (her Hedda is dangerously funny). And McCamus being a couple decades older than Topham makes their characters’ relationship — including Brack’s primary objective, to have power over Hedda — all the more terrifying. 

Atkinson composes a few of the more haunting sequences I’ve seen play out on the Patterson stage. Toward the production’s end, Lovborg barges into Hedda and Tesman’s house, manic because he’s lost his new book’s only manuscript. At the end of a conversation that leaves Hedda certain Lovborg is set on suicide, Atkinson has the former stand upstage and the latter far downstage. Lovborg moves to leave, trooping past Hedda toward the exit, his steps ringing out like cannon fire on Christmas Eve. But Hedda then tells him to “wait” and with painstaking slowness presents a pistol for his taking. The world hangs in stasis as he ponders the offer. Each action is cutting, deliberate, celestial.

While Coal Mine Theatre’s recent Hedda got me hypothesizing that the play’s dramaturgy demands a proscenium stage, Atkinson disproves that silly notion, making meticulous use of the space. Hedda’s final, definitive, act, carried out steps away from Brack, occurs as Tesman is laying out papers along the lip of the stage, creating a visual cage around Hedda, imprisoning her even as Savoini’s barren set leaves her exposed, suffocating in the Nordic air. 

Because Ibsen tends to be associated with lavish sets (the original script begins with a page-long description of the Tesman household), Atkinson’s stripping down of Hedda Gabler is something of a deviation. But in the case of Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Theatre, Sam White’s similarly bare bones approach feels like a return to Shakespearean tradition. 

The cast’s diversity aside, much of the show unfolds just as a 20th-century Stratford production might have: costume and set designer Sue LePage keeps to the period, the actors emphasize the text’s meter, and pauses between scenes are few. The production doesn’t heavily rely on shifts in lighting (Louise Guinand) and sound (Debashis Sinha), making it a welcome contrast whenever they do come into greater play. And while White has Juliet (Vanessa Sears) sing the prologue over the beating of live drums, and inserts an operatic aria into the party scene, she otherwise keeps away from noticeable textual modifications. 

So it’s all predictable and contained, then? Not quite. The three-ish-hour production’s first half aims for comedy and only sometimes hits: as Something Rotten! at the Festival Theatre humorously reminds us, contemporary directors can’t really count on wordplay like “Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals. / No, for then we should be colliers,” for laughs. But the second half’s pivot to tragedy resonates. The scene in which the Nurse (a high-pitched Glynis Ranney), Paris (Austin Eckert), and Juliet’s parents (the sensational duo of Graham Abbey and Jessica B. Hill) find Juliet in her potion-induced coma is superb: as the characters enter in succession to discover what’s happened, each actor plays the realization without restraint, letting out unbridled cries of sorrow, which start to overlap in an almost musical fashion, like an anguished operatic quartet. This sudden uncorking recalls White’s explosive 2023 Wedding Band at the Patterson, another show that took a while to accelerate but eventually found its way to Mach 10. 

The ensemble is cohesive to a significant degree, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially after the uneven nature of last year’s Festival Theatre King Lear. A chipper, bright-eyed Sears and an earnest, low-key Jonathan Mason (as Romeo) are reliable as the production’s anchors, helping to ground the scenes they’re in, but it’s the urgency of the side players’ performances that really demonstrates White’s skill for directing actors: John Kirkpatrick (as Friar John) and Nick Dolan (as Prince Escalus), in particular, find incredible immediacy in their small but crucial roles. 

As this is the Festival’s fifth version of Romeo and Juliet in 16 years (not counting a 2009 West Side Story), it’s unfortunate that the production doesn’t directly engage with the question of why the play is being staged today in the first place. That said, I somewhat appreciate that White doesn’t half-broach the subject. Compared to McKenna’s Twelfth Night, which sports a concept that stretches only to the level of design, not tangibly affecting how the action itself unfolds and perhaps even obfuscating what’s actually interesting about the production, White’s Romeo and Juliet, like Atkinson’s Hedda Gabler, is remarkably forthright about its modest goals. In such clarity there is a vulnerability — one that does much to facilitate White’s illumination of this wraithlike text’s fragile heart.

You can learn more about the Stratford Festival here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Liam Donovan

Liam Donovan

Liam is Intermission’s publishing and editorial assistant. Based in Toronto, his writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, NEXT Magazine, and more. He loves the original Super Mario game very much.



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