The time and place for problem plays
Last January, Stratford favourite Graham Abbey launched his theatre company Groundling Theatre with a sold-out production of “The Winter’s Tale.”
This year, Groundling is performing “The Winter’s Tale” once again, this time in repertory with “Measure for Measure” at the historic Winter Garden Theatre. In a unique arrangement, the audience is seated on stage looking out, and the florally-decorated house of the Winter Garden serves as the scenic backdrop.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
This unique staging had me thinking about the intense impact of time and place on the interpretation and perception of a play. Of course we all know that such factors have an impact, but seeing these particular plays, in this space, in the span of one day (I attended on a two-show day), brought ideas and issues crashing together in a unique way.
It is fascinating to see these plays performed 400 years after they were written, by experienced Shakespearean actors, outside of their usual Shakespearean home, in a space that was itself built to house an art form that has essentially died out.
400 years later we are still performing Shakespeare, but the silent films and vaudeville acts that once enlivened the Winter Garden are no more.
The small audience, and empty house, at these productions contributed to these reflections on the past.
The Winter Garden Theatre is seven storeys above the Elgin Theatre. The 149 audience members all ride the creaky, old-fashioned elevator, manned by an elevator operator, to the Winter Garden.
As patrons make their way to sit on the stage, one can’t help but be startled by the eerily dark and empty house. At the start of the show, an actor reminds the audience that they are sitting in the only Edwardian stacked theatre, featuring two venues in one building, still in operation in the world. At intermission, the area around the bar is surrounded by historical plaques and old vaudeville backdrops.
In such a setting one can’t help but wonder why silent films and Vaudeville died but Shakespeare’s work persisted. As a Shakespeare enthusiast I’m certainly glad that they did, but as I watched six hours worth of “problem plays,” (so named for their lack of categorization and tackling of thorny social problems) I felt both the incredible relevance and outdated confusion that can arise from Shakespeare’s 400-year-old brilliance.
On the one hand, “The Winter’s Tale” and “Measure for Measure” are both quite bizarre. They jolt between comedy and tragedy, their character’s actions are often ill-explained, and the relationships between men and women flip in a moment from surprisingly progressive to nearly inexplicable to a modern audience. Even the thrill of seeing brilliant Stratford actors in a new, Toronto space couldn’t quite mask the strange unevenness of these particular works.
However, both plays invite the audience to consider issues of power, authority, and tyranny that are sadly relevant in today’s world. Both feature selfish men who become tyrants for their inability to separate their power from their personal desires.
Photo by Jason Cipparrone
In “Measure for Measure,” the villain Angelo gains his power because the Duke (in this production, Lucy Peacock as the “Duchess”) is unwilling to be the bad guy. The Duke states outright that he has failed to enforce the laws of the land, and it would damage his reputation too much to suddenly begin to do so.
In this play the mantle of responsibility is so heavy that the Duke wants no part of it, and it is the dishonest Angelo (in this production played as a sleazy businessman by Tom McCamus) who is willing to take it on. The comparisons to the present political landscape are inescapable.
Equally inescapable is the depressingly relevant representations of women. Literally nothing but death and resurrection will convince King Leontes of “The Winter’s Tale” that his wife is faithful, and the virtuous Isabella in “Measure for Measure” plaintively wonders who would believe her if she were to come forward with Angelo’s sexual blackmail.
Abbey’s casting only heightens the feeling of déjà vu, as the actors maintain very similar roles in each play. In the span of one day I saw the same people act out the same human follies (if within quite different plots), and I looked around to see that those follies remained in my modern world.
As the Duke reflects, “There is scarce/truth enough alive to make societies secure; but/security enough to make fellowships accurst: much/upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world. This/news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”
“Every day’s news” continues to repeat itself. The shining light in this depressing roundabout is that while villains and mistakes remain, so do virtue and redemption.
The good persist, mistakes are forgiven, and artists continue to hold a mirror to our world and force us to take a closer look.
Natalie Dewan is a Mississauga native with a lifelong passion for theatre, literature, and the Stratford Festival in particular. She holds an M.A. in arts and cultural administration, during the pursuit of which she interned at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.
Groundling Theatre Company
Measure for Measure
The Winter’s Tale
Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto
On now until February 19, 2017
Only 149 seats per night!
Visit the Goundling’s website
Box office: 1-855-599-9090