By: Natalie Dewan
This is the final instalment of our “Director’s Cut” series, which features interviews with the four directors of Shakespearean productions at the Stratford Festival this season.
Our final interview is with Scott Wentworth, a seasoned actor who has been performing and directing at the Stratford Festival for 21 seasons over the last 30 years. This season, he plays Epicure Mammon in “The Alchemist” and is directing “The Adventures of Pericles.”
Sort of first, last, and middle is I keep returning to the play itself, and reading the play, and challenging anything that I think up against what’s actually there. I think the real challenge of doing Shakespeare… it’s been around for almost five hundred years, people have written about it, there’ve been numerous productions…. it’s sometimes difficult to actually see the play, because what you’re seeing is the accumulation of everybody else’s ideas.
So I just keep rereading the play, and rereading the play, and trying to get rid of my preconceptions and see what’s actually there, what the play is actually about.
And sometimes it’s helpful to read the plays backwards, to start at the end… I always thought Othello was about race, but if you read it from the last scene, if you start at the end of the play, you go, it’s also a play about two men who murder their wives. It’s also about gender issues… So I think the more we can look at the plays and try to find out what they’re trying to say to us the better.
So what do you think “Pericles” is saying to us?
I think “Pericles” asks a lot of very interesting questions, certainly about Shakespeare’s world, but about the world we still live in. I think it asks a lot of questions about patriarchy, I think it asks a lot of questions about the lack of respect and place in our lives for feminine power…
In mythological terms, it’s a story about how all of us are separated from our soul, the immortal part of us, and how one needs to awaken ourselves to that lost twin, that lost immortal self. It’s also a play that asks questions about what kind of government we should have, what makes a good ruler and what makes a bad ruler, and how good people make bad decisions, and bad people can be effective. I think it’s a very timely play, I think it continues to speak to us.
2. One potential challenge for all four of the Shakespearean productions on the Stratford playbill this year is their complicated and potentially controversial representations of women. As a male director, how did you approach this challenge?
Again, it’s getting interested in the play. I became aware in re-reading the play how intensely feminine it is, and almost feminist in its sensibilities.
That became a kind of guiding spirit for a lot of production decisions that we made. [For example], putting the roles of Antiochus’ daughter, Marina, and Thaisa together, so that Deb Hay would have this long arch through the play. Even though Shakespeare doesn’t do that realistically, mythologically he very much does that…
In many ways, it is one of the most empowering plays about women in his time that [Shakespeare] wrote. Marina’s one of the few heroines who does not have to dress up like a boy in order to fulfill her hero destiny… she does it very much in her own body. And she is forced by circumstances, but also uses her own body to make a point. What she says to Lysimachus in the brothel, “If you force me to have sex with you, that will be violence,” it’s the most modern statement that you could possibly imagine a woman saying.
And to do the play at a time when, in our own country, we’re dealing with the missing Aboriginal women, there’s all those missing girls in the various African states… one has to take that seriously if one’s doing this play, because I think Shakespeare took it seriously. The scenes from the brothel are very realistically drawn, nothing in there is at all titillating; it’s commerce, and it’s death, disease, it’s the real issues of the sex trade, the degradation of women. It’s actual real issues, the real issue of incest, the real issue of famine, even the non-gender issues that it brings up are things that we’re still dealing with.
I think it’s an incredibly powerful feminine statement…
3. Do you have any sense of why this play has been kind of neglected in the canon?
It was apparently a very popular play when it was produced in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and that might be partly why there’s no good copy of it. They might have kind of hid it away to keep people from producing it without paying for it. The only extant script that we have from the period is a notoriously corrupt quarto (like a cheap paperback version)…
So it was left out of the first folio, there’s no folio version of it. So the script is kind of a mess. And every edition that’s printed is… an editorial attempt at reconstruction, in the same way that every production is more of an adaptation than the average Shakespeare play, because there are just so many unanswered questions about the text.
I also think that Shakespeare kind of hit its height of popularity in the theatre in the 19th century, and I think the frankness of some of the themes, the sexual themes in the play especially, were very offensive to the 19th century sensibilities. And so it kind of fell away.
Strangely, there have been more major revivals of “Pericles” in the 21st century, even though we’re only 15 years into it, than there were in the all of the 20th century. So I also think that it’s a play that’s coming back into our consciousness.
4. What are you most excited for audiences to see in this performance? Is there any specific audience that you would particularly like to reach?
One of the thing’s that’s been great for the actors is doing a play that people don’t have a whole lot of experience with. It’s rare with Shakespeare, and it’s even rarer performing Shakespeare here, because our audiences is relatively well-educated in Shakespeare… But even the people who have seen “Pericles” here before, maybe they’ve seen it once before, if they’re real old-timers they’ve seen it twice. But this is only the fourth time we’ve done it in our 6 year history.
So it’s relatively virgin snow, which is quite interesting… it’s nice that it can kind of speak to people who are both new to Shakespeare and educated with Shakespeare, it can talk to them on the same level…
I love the play so much, that I get excited when other people get excited by it. And I get a little miffed when I hear people kind of talking down to it… I think it’s a beautiful play, and in its exploration of reconciliation and reconnection… it is inordinately moving….
In the first speech, the narrators say that it’s a restorative, the story is a restorative. And I think that it acts on people that way. I think they walk out feeling a little bit more human, and feeling a little bit better about being human, and a little bit, maybe, ready to tackle some of the problems of being a human.
5. This is your 21st season at the Festival- what is the biggest change that you’ve observed at the Festival since your first season?
In a weird way the biggest change has been in me. I’ve spent 21 years here, over a 30-year period. So when I came here I was a relatively young man; I was just 30 years old, I had not married my wife yet, I didn’t have my son yet, the plays spoke to me as a young man. And now, my son is 20, and I’ve been married for almost 30 years, and the plays are speaking to me as a 60 year old in a way that they didn’t [before].
So the biggest change has been in me; we’re still doing what we do here. And although, temperamentally the artistic leadership changes… the job is the same. The job is to create a festival of performances around the central notion of Shakespeare. And so that actually makes the experience relatively similar.
If there’s a larger difference…. It’s probably cultural. Plays that we used to feel confident putting into our largest theatre, like “Pericles”… this is the first time that it’s been at the Tom Patterson theatre, the other three times it was produced at the Festival Theatre… so one can become a little bit alarmed that perhaps the appreciation of Shakespeare is becoming more rarified than it was maybe. Although, the “King Lear” we did last year, we sold out, in the big theatre. And there is nothing sweeter than coming out to do a scene from arguably the greatest play ever written, and seeing 2000 people looking back at you. So I am hopeful for the future.
6. As a director and a busy creative person, your days must be hectic and varied, especially coming up to the opening of a performance. What are some tasks or rituals in your life that remain a constant every day?
My wife and I wake up at relatively the same time (whoever gets up first has to make the coffee)… And then we’ll sit down, and we’ll have coffee, and we’ll talk to each other. Every day of my life begins that way, my wife and I talking about whatever’s on our minds for the day. Sometimes it’s mundane stuff like what we need to get done, sometime it’s about the work we’re doing, sometimes it’s about our dreams and our hopes. But every day starts with Marion and I talking over coffee.
I go to the gym every day but two. So I like to do something physical every day, and kind of get out of my head. And I read every day. It’s not always work-related, it’s not always serious. Sometimes it’s a thriller because it’s fun. But, there is literally not a day goes by that I don’t make time to read, for at least an hour.
7. From each pair below, pick one:
a) Comedy or tragedy?
Tragedy. Um, why? Oh see this is hard. Because the reason I like “Pericles” is it’s both. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t end in death but in reconciliation… if that’s the last thing that Shakespeare wrote… I wonder if what he’s saying to us, as a partying gesture is, “don’t think that life is one or the other, it’s always both all of the time.”
But I pick tragedy as a working actor because tragedies are easier. There’s nothing harder than a comedy…. Because a comedy needs to work in the moment, interactively with an audience… not only [do] you have to do all of the acting stuff to make sure it’s real and the story’s moving forward, but there is that extra, collaborative event that has to take place and that’s very difficult…
It’s an old actor adage, “Dying is easy, but comedy is hard.” I think that’s why I initially said tragedy.
b) Iago or Richard III?
You mean to have for dinner? Laughs.
I will say that Iago is a more complicated creation. I think he’s a more disturbing creation. I mean in many ways they’re not really out of the same cloth at all. Richard is Shakespeare taking an old theatrical character called Vice and infusing him with Marlovian ambitions, and life and humour and wit. But he’s a very theatrical creation. Whereas Iago I think is a very disturbing portrait of a psychopath. So, Iago.
c) Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or Tim Blake Nelson’s “O”?
I know of that movie [“O”] but I have not seen it, but I will choose that over the headache-inducing Romeo and Juliet.
I only pick [“O”] because I haven’t seen it. It might be terrible, but… I am not a fan of the Baz Lurhmann “Romeo + Juliet.” I found it over-edited. Like watching a bad music video. It’s a little frantic. And I suspect if we watched it now, it would seem incredibly dated. Where at time it seemed sort of cutting edge, but I’ll bet it dated really quick. That’s my feeling.
d) William Shatner or Bruno Gerussi?
Laughs. Well, you know, as far as influence on people, you’ve gotta go with Shatner. He’s one of the most imitated actors around. So certainly his influence outshines Bruno’s.
But I have a great… I think all of us here in Canada, partly because so much of Mr. Shatner’s prestige was gotten away from home, whereas Bruno really feels more like a Canadian actor… I’ve met Mr. Shatner a couple of times, and worked with his daughter on a television show, but I don’t really know him. But, you know, I was at a party with Bruno, he’s part of the community.
So as far as the kind of actor I aspired to be throughout my life, was much closer to Bruno than Mr. Shatner. So I’ll say Bruno.
“The Adventures of Pericles is playing at the Tom Patterson theatre until September 19th. Read the reviews and get ticket info here.