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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Quote …. Unquote

To honour (?) the birth of William Shakespeare (April 23 is the date set by tradition) my friend Jenn posted a YouTube clip by Rowan Atkinson on Facebook .  Now I am probably in the minority amongst my friends in not fully appreciating the talent that is Atkinson.  I don’t mind him in small doses but after a while find him irritating beyond all belief and playing mostly on one abrasive note.  In the Black Adder series he did what any sensible comedian who had pretty much one tune to his fiddle does – surrounded himself with actors who had a few more strings to their bows:  Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Tim McInnerny, Patsy Byrne, Hugh Laurie (I fell in love with Hugh Laurie when he appeared as the Prince Regent in his bath) and the brilliant Tony Robinson as his faithful dog’s body Boldrick.  All exceptional performers – more actors of comedy than comedians.  Yes I know the fiddle, tune, bows thing was a stretch but I’ve been away from writing for the past while so give me a chance!

You will notice that I have not posted the YouTube clip, even if it does feature Colin Firth; a pox on Mr Atkinson I say, but you can find it here.  The premise is that Shakespeare is responsible for all the deadly dull days we spent in school listening to his work being murder by droning pedants who strove to enlighten us whither we wanted to be or not.  Now I don’t know about anyone else but I had a wonderful English teacher during my high school years.  Mary Firth was one of those educators who knew that you had to capture the imaginations of a student to make plays, poetry, literature and language a living thing.  Certainly in my case she succeeded.

Though I admit that I loved Shakespeare long before my high school years and the influence of Miss Firth. My father took me to my first live performances – The Tempest followed by The Taming of the Shrew the next week – back in 1957 or 1958. And I saw much of what was performed at our Stratford from 1959 onward – a young Christopher Plummer as Benedict that year!  Lately I’ve attended performances mostly in Italian – there is after all a school of thought that says Will was actually Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza from Sicily. It should be noted that there are more performances of plays by Shakespeare/Crollalanza or what you Will than any other playwright during the theatre season here in Italy.  Whereas, I might also mention, very few people here know who the hell Rowan Atkinson is.

All of this by way of introducing a quote I came upon from Bernard Levin the witty, wise and highly quotable British journalist/writer/broadcaster.

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

Sorry Jenn, and I guess Mr Atkinson, but  I think that’s a more suitable way of celebrating William Shakespeare.

25 aprile – San Marco Evangelista