Saturday, August 23, 2008

Three Days with the Bard

This week I was in Stratford (Ontario) attending a teacher conference at the Shakespeare Festival. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is considered by theatre aficionados as North America’s premiere classical theatre. But, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. While I was a student at the University of Western Ontario in London (ON), I took full advantage of the student rate ($20 at the time), and I saw numerous plays at the Festival. Now as a teacher, I catch a play or two every year with my students. I began to take the theatre for granted. I live and work next door to Stratford. This attitude of ingratitude, however, has changed this week for two reasons.

The first reason was the opportunity I had to work with teachers who came from places as far as Rochester NY, North Bay and New Brunswick! These teachers were thrilled to be in Stratford. I saw Stratford through their eyes. Would I drive six or eight hours to catch a Stratford play? Would I fly from New Brunswick? A different perspective on what you “have” makes all the difference.

The second reason was the fact that I really enjoyed the shows I watched this week. Part of the Teachers’ Conference included complimentary tickets to three Shakespearean plays. I also had the opportunity to workshop with some of the actors from the plays, most notably, Adrienne Gould, who plays Ophelia in Hamlet. The plays I saw were Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Taming of the Shrew. The best of the plays was Hamlet.

I have watched Hamlet on stage a few times, once previously at Stratford (starring Paul Gross in 2000). This particular stage production of Hamlet was great. Award winning Canadian actor Ben Carlson shines as Hamlet. Gould’s Ophelia is also the best I have seen on stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I was more than awake; I was engaged. Admittedly, there are odd bits in the production. One strange set piece is a gigantic pool table that miraculously appears after a blackout on stage. It is humongous. What made this especially odd is the fact that this huge table had little purpose. In the Kenneth Branagh film version of Hamlet (1996), there is also a pool table (I think?) in the identical scene. Claudius is---symbolically---a “pool shark”. He manipulates the situation, lures Laertes into his schemes and creates the ultimate set up. The symbol works well in the movie. On stage, the table is simply a colossal distraction---albeit a dazzlingly magnificent piece of furniture. The point is, the actors and the scene are lost behind the gorgeous oak pool table. Another reason making the table odd on-stage was the fact that Laertes, who just tragically lost both his father and his sister, and who almost raised a revolution in Denmark and nearly committed regicide, is in the next scene, playing snooker… In Branagh’s film it seems to work. Claudius is manipulating Laertes, distracting him from his rage. On stage, I couldn’t help but wonder how much that table cost, how did they get it on stage so fast and what are they going to do with it after the show is over?

There was also a piano on stage during the whole production. Although used cleverly throughout the performance, I found it a distraction as well. However, not enough of a distraction to cause me to miss Carlson’s Hamlet. He truly embodied Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragic hero. It was a risky manoeuvre, but Carlson’s and Gould’s performances redeem the show of all its flaws.
So, I appreciate Stratford a little more these days. I am looking forward to bringing my 90 Grade 12 English students to Stratford in order to see Hamlet. I feel confident this performance will not turn my students off the bard. It may do just the opposite. If you are in the neighbourhood, take advantage of Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival.

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