456 Years Old

… but who’s counting?

A collage created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Earle Grey Shakespeare Company’s Festival.
The leaves were from a mulberry tree in Trinity College Quadrangle that was purported to be an offshoot of the tree in Shakespeare’s own garden.

Though there is no recorded proof, by tradition April 23 is commemorated as William Shakespeare’s birthday. There is a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564 and the custom was for a new born to receive the sacrament within two or three days of the mother giving birth so the 23rd is as good a date as any. Also it happens to be the Feast Day of England’s patron Saint, the Blessed George – so why not celebrate the two at the same time. Though given that the poet is also recorded as having died on April 23rd things could get a bit awkward when planning the party/wake.

The main dining hall at Trinity College in Toronto named after it’s founder Bishop John Strachan. It was were I had my first taste of Shakespeare.

I saw my first Shakespeare play when I was ten years old the summer of 1957. My father and I headed out one Friday night into a wild July storm to see, appropriately enough, The Tempest performed by the Earle Grey Shakespeare Players. For some reason I thought it was at Hart House only for us to trudge the five blocks from the Bloor Street streetcar stop in driving rain and be redirect by the porter across the U of T Campus to Trinity College. We arrived at Trinity looking like two drowned country mice. My father was a saint! Normally the performances were outdoors in the beautiful quadrangle but that tempest outside meant The Tempest moved inside to the mock-Tudor splendour of Strachan Hall*.

Earle Grey’s troupe had to be one of the last actor-manager companies in Canada, if not in the English speaking world. He and his wife, Mary Godwin, were English actors who had immigrated to Canada in 1939. They were thespians in the old style and there was nothing Freudian or modern about their productions. Both their manner of playing and productions would probably seem quaint, and sadly perhaps laughable, today as even back in 1956 a new style of playing Shakespeare was taking hold miles away in the little town of Stratford. But they were honest attempts at performing Shakespeare in an uncluttered simple manner. According to Grey his only concept was “to produce historical accurate plays according to the author’s intentions …” and in that to my 10 year old eyes he succeeded.

A performance from 1954 when the north terrace of the Quadrangle was open. It is obviously one of the earlier scenes as the sun has not set yet. Mary Godwin can just be made out wearing the Terry cloak.

I can’t honestly say how good or bad that production of The Tempest was, it was long ago and I was ten years old but it was theatre and it was exciting. No doubt Grey’s Prospero was of the old declamatory school and his farewell to his art probably throbbed of the theatrical but I was captured. So much so that I convinced my long suffering father to take two friends and I to see The Taming of the Shrew two weeks later. That night there was no rain, we were under the stars, Kate was tamed, and my love of theatre and Shakespeare deepened.

Construction of a new residence building on the North side of the quadrangle moved the stage to the West in 1957. It gave more playing area and an expanded repertoire proposed. However two years later a new Provost at Trinity decided that the Festival was no longer of financial benefit to the College and Earle Grey and his company found themselves without a home.

All’s Well That Starts Well, an article in the Trinity College magazine recounts the story of how a casual stroll along Philosopher’s Walk led to the beginnings of the Festival. It paints a colourful portrait of Grey, Miss Godwin and the company of actors, aspiring young actors, artists, and volunteers that struggled to bring Shakespeare to the Toronto of my childhood and the school rooms of Ontario. It also tells of the melancholy demise of the company that by 1959 appeared to on the edge of better funding, a more adaptable stage and expanding audiences when it lost its home at Trinity College. That and the move of audiences who they had introduced to Shakespeare to the more professional and adventuresome Festival in that little town outside of Toronto. And I must admit I was amongst those who headed off to the lure of Christopher Plummer and Eileen Herlie in Much Ado About Nothing in 1958. Grey and Miss Godwin attempted to find a new home for their Festival but finally gave up and returned to England.

They had left behind a legacy that unfortunately is largely unknown today but tonight at dinner we just may raise a glass not only to the Bard on his 465th birthday/413th death day but also the pioneering couple who planted the seed of my love for Shakespeare and the theatre.

*While researching this post I uncovered the possibility that it was the opening night and there were problems with the lighting in the temporary venue. I seem to have a vague recollection of flickering lights and a period of darkness during the Masque scene.

The word for April 23 is:
Bard /bɑːd/: [archaic noun]
1.1 A professional poet and singer, traditionally one reciting epics and singing verse in praise of princes and brave men.
1.2 A poet
Middle English of Celtic origin from Scottish Gaelic bàrd, Irish bard, Welsh bardd. In Scotland in the 16th century it was a derogatory term for an itinerant musician, but was later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott.
The Bard of Avon (or simply The Bard) is a fairly recent compound noun appearing somewhere between 1880-85.

Lunedi Lunacy

Yes I know yesterday was Epiphany or Twelfth Night or what you will (wait for it!!!) but I just found this little bit about the Holiday season by David Mitchell from Upstart Crow, a BBC series I had never heard of. Apparently that was the less than flattering name given to William Shakespeare (get it? – Twelfth Night or What You… oh never mind!) by his rival Robert Greene. In his wry, abrasive but funny manner Mitchell gives life to the aspiring Bard of Avon whose only goals in life are to become the world’s greatest playwright and the owner of the second biggest house in Stratford-on-Avon.

And while he’s at it he has some choice words for that whole theory about Dickens inventing Christmas and Twelfth Night.

Of course now that I’ve sampled this little snippet I’m going to have to start watching the whole series which by the way is written by Ben Elton who created several of the Blackadder Series. This suggests that it may have a fair level of wit above your normal sitcom.

On this day in 1894: William Kennedy Dickson receives a patent for motion picture film.

Lunedi Lunacy

Well the summer theatre scene here on the Island is an extremely busy one.  In town we had the Charlottetown Festival, the Guild, and several smaller companies presenting musicals, revues, and “juke box” shows.  Out of town theatres are producing everything from Shaw to Simon with a bit of Norm Foster* thrown in.  However what seems to be missing is Shakespeare.

As someone who grew up with the Earle Grey Shakespeare Company on a midsummer’s eve in the Trinity Quadrangle and regular visits to Stratford it’s difficult to imagine summer without the Bard.  Surely somewhere on the Island there is a venue suitable for one of the lighter comedies?

But in the meantime to fill that void I turned to those sources of theatrical excellence – the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre.

And as Stratford is celebrating their first production of Romeo and Juliet back in 1960** I thought the SFSPT (now that’s a mouthful) production bears viewing.

Romeo and Juliet – Part the First

Romeo and Juliet – Part the Second

Well that’s my Shakespeare fix for the summer attended to – now to head up to North Rustico for a touch of Shaw.

*Foster is the most produced playwright in Canada with over 50 plays to his name and this year alone 142 productions scheduled around the world from Germany to Australia.

**My lord can it be really 57 years ago that I saw Julie Harris, Bruno Gerussi, Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid and Tony Van Bridge in that incredible production?????

On this day in 1771:  Bloody Falls massacre: Chipewyan chief Matonabbee, traveling as the guide to Samuel Hearne on his Arctic overland journey, massacres a group of unsuspecting Inuit.

Lunedi Lunacy

aiweiweiIt has been suggested in one or two quarters that I tend to dwell on things of the past in my artistically inspired postings; that I am stuck in the Pre-modern world.  In an effort to dispel that base calumny I thought I’d post an art review on one of the darlings of the post-modern conceptional artistic world: Ai WeiWei.  Back in 2010 the Tate Gallery mounted (?) one of his works in the Turbine Hall – millions of tiny ceramic handcrafted sunflower seeds.  The artist’s explanation of the work and a fascinating film on its creation can be found here – but in the mean time who better to talk about the work of this popular artist than my old friends at the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre.

And it has also been remarked upon – okay one snarky comment from a person, who like his offspring, shall remain nameless – that yesterday I missed an important birth/death day.  According to tradition William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died exactly 52 years later on April 23, 1616.  And what better way to celebrate that with a (much shortened) performance of one of his greatest plays: King Lear.  And once again the SFSPT (hmmm looks slightly suspect) to present it in their own “original practice” style.

Happy Birthday Bill – and my condolences to Anne, Sussana, Judith and the family.

On this day in 1184 BC: Traditional says Troy fell.




Much Ado About Something

A planned trip to Stratford in August and the donation of a few items – designs, programmes and postcards – to the archives of the Shakespeare Festival triggered memories of my first visit there.  It has been 35 years since my last visit in 1978 but I believe the magic will still be there.

Robert Farifield’s building for the Stratford Festival echoed its beginnings in the tent.  But he gave the Festival a performance space undisturbed by the whistles of freight trains or the cries of the umpire from the local baseball diamond that often fought for the audience’s attention in the early days.

Back in 1958 my friend Bruce and I boarded a train at Toronto’s Parkdale Station headed for Stratford and its Shakespeare Festival   I was 12 at the time and Bruce was 14 – strange when I think that our parents had no second thoughts about us going on a trip like that alone. It was the first of what were to become regular visits over the next 20 years to the Festival town that Tom Patterson, Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness put on the theatrical map five years earlier. The Festival had forsaken its original “big top” for a permanent home the year before; at the time a revolutionary design,  Robert Fairfield’s circular structure built into the hillside surrounded the revolutionary stage that Tanya Moiseiwitsch had designed to invoke, but not slavishly copy, the theatre of Shakespeare’s time.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed this revolutionary thrust stage based on discussions she and Tyrone Guthrie
had about the ideal platform for performing Shakespeare.  Director Michael Langham felt the stage
was too “feminine” for the tragedies and histories and asked Moiseiwitsch and Brian Jackson to give it
a “sex change” in 1962. I recall being shocked by what I saw on entering the theatre for The Taming
of the Shrew
that year.   I got use to it but still have a fondness for this first stage.

As well as well-known performers – Guinness, James Mason, Frederick Volk, Siobann McKenna, Jason Robarts Jr and Irene Worth – the Festival was developing its home-grown stars chief amongst them William Hutt, Douglas Campbell, Frances Hyland, Amelia Hall, John Horton, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid and a young and vibrant Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had first appeared on the thrust stage in 1956 as a charismatic Henry V in a ground breaking production by Michael Langham that bridged and celebrated Canada’s two solitudes and featured Gratien Gelinas with members of Quebec based Theatre de Nouvelle Monde as the French King and his court. Plummer was to follow that with Hamlet, Andrew Aguecheek, Leonates, Mercutio, Philip the Bastard, Cyrano, Antony and in 1958 Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.

A young, and very handsome, Christopher Plummer as Benedict, 1958.

It was that production that we boarded the train to see on a sunny July afternoon. In those days the Toronto Telegram sponsored a “special” Tuesday train to Stratford. For the price you got the 2 hours train ride, a bus upon arrival to take you to a local church – Parkdale United, as I recall – where the ladies of the parish had prepared a hot dinner. I don’t remember what exactly they served as a main course but I do remember desert was homemade cherry pie with fresh whipped cream. The Festival theatre was a short walk away and the buses waited to take you back to the station at the end of the play. The late night train from Chicago passed through at a convenient time and arrival at Parkdale meant getting home well after midnight. Fortunately there was no school the next day and Bruce’s mother was willing to pick us up. Several year’s later the late train no longer operated and the Telegram was no-longer published.  You could go up by train but the only way of getting back after the play was the bus – and I do recall a number of nights standing all the way from Stratford back to Toronto.

The wedding scene from that 1958 production of Much Ado About Nothing.  This Festival
postcard photo was taken from approximately where I was sitting that evening. I have
a collection of these postcards that will be going into the Stratford archives this summer.

Michael Langham at a rehearsal – 1988.

Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The Much Ado was the second of the Shakespeare comedies that Langham directed at the Festival and as time passed he proved to be a master of the genre.  That is not in anyway to discredit his handling of the tragedies, histories or the problem plays.  His Romeo and Juliet with the oddly cast but somehow very right Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi as the star-crossed lovers, Kate Reid, Tony Van Bridge and Plummer started as a light-hearted youthful affair filled with high-spirits and romance that spiraled into deep, aching and bewildering tragedy.  And both his Trolius and Cressida and Timon of Athens (with a score by Duke Ellington) proved less problematic then many imagined them to be.  His 1966 Bretchtian Henry V though not much loved at the time caught the pessimistic spirit of the period as accurately as his production ten years earlier had mirrored the optimism of its time.  The 1964 King Lear that he directed with John Colicos was a searing indictment of man’s inhumanity to man – he often said that his time as a prisoner of war in Germany gave him new insight into the bleakness of that darkest of tragedies.

But he didn’t restrict his productions on the stage that he knew better than anyone else to Shakespeare.  Langham also directed a bawdy but stylish The Country Wife, a funny but ultimately unsettling almost frightening The Government Inspector and first with Plummer than Colicos a Cyrano de Bergerac that was the ultimate romance-adventure story.  It has always been said that his crowning achievement was the 1961 Love’s Labour Lost (a play he was to direct three more times at Stratford including his final production in 2008) – sadly I choose to see Henry VIII that year; at the time a historical pageant with elaborate Tudor costumes seemed more appealing then the heady word-play of a young Shakespeare dazzled by his love of the language.  Ah the callowness – and foolishness – of youth.

One critic referred to Eileen Herlie and Christopher Plummer’s Beatrice and Benedict as being like
Brandy and Benedictine.   They seem to have brought out the best in each other.

But back to the events of that evening in 1958:  the fun of a train ride (I love trains), a delicious home-cooked meal and the thrill of that trumpet fanfare echoing from the terrace of the Festival theatre on a summer’s night.  But that was nothing compared to the pageant that followed:  Vincent Massey, our Governor General at the time, was there with his party.  As the trumpets sounded a new fanfare he made his entrance resplendent in his red and gold uniform, his daughter-in-law Lilias on his arm and surrounded by the vice-regal party in dress-uniform with their summer-frocked ladies.  We all stood as God Save the Queen began and at the end of the anthem cheered – we did that sort of thing in Canada in those days.  But even that was to pale in my 12 year old’s mind with what followed.

Desmond Heeley’s citizenry of Messina had a look to them that was
more English country house than Sicilian palazzo. But it gave the
production an elegance and style that mirrored Langham’s direction
and the company that he was building.

Suddenly that gleaming wooden structure was filled with ladies and uniformed gentlemen more elegant even than those in the audience.  Langham and Desmond Heeley had chosen to set the play in the 1870 and though they may have been looking to the Risorgimento, it was more English country house than Sicilian palazzo.  But given the players it worked:  Tony Van Bridge was a pompous, deadly serious, and more comic for all that,  Dogberry with Alan Nunn, his perfect foil, as an Uriah Heepish Verges; Conrad Bain and Mervyn Blake where slightly stuffy but loving father and uncle; William Hutt, an elegant and handsome Don Pedro – his lone estate at play’s end was all the more puzzling for that; Bruno Gerrusi as a dark, threatening Don John; Diana Maddox and John Horton all organza and braid looking the perfect young lovers.  But at the centre of it all were Eileen Herlie and Plummer as Beatrice and Benedick.  A star may have danced at her birth but a whole constellation celebrated the sparring match, strange-woeing and eventual wedding between these two.  As one critic remarked they were a heady mixture of “benedictine and brandy” – each complimenting and bringing out the best in the other.

It was all very magical and I recall Bruce – who was a stage-struck as I – talking about it all the way home – I’m sure much to the annoyance of those around us who were trying to doze on the trip back. I had been going to the theatre since I was five years old but I believe I can honestly say that it was that performance of Much Ado About Nothing that sealed my love-affair with the magic of the stage.  And each year for the next 20 I would make the trip to Stratford, sometimes once but often five or six times, and I waited for that familiar fanfare and the lights to come up on that marvelous platform when once again that magic would be reborn.

May 7 -1920: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, opens the first exhibition by the Group of Seven.

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