Tag: Shakespeare

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 

King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him “according to my bond, no more, nor less.” The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family’s drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother’s passing earlier this year, I wasn’t sure that seeing Lear live wouldn’t be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare’s great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre’s intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed “integrity” to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley’s production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman’s sparky take on Edgar’s “Poor Tom” disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair

The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester’s eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear’s failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character’s outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair

This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox’s performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to “humour” Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl’s face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might’ve loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he’s been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who’s experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn’t the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.

Finding Grace

Dancer Piotr Stanczk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The recent opening of The Winter’s Tale at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was preceded by an announcement that the performance would be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, which had occurred just one night before. The National Ballet of Canada’s winter season was off to a sombre start, though the beauty of the Christopher Wheeldon-choreographed piece shone through mightily.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Winter’s Tale (on now through November 22nd) focuses on Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk), King of Sicilia, who accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes (Harrison James), King of Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a girl, but she faints at the shock of seeing her son, Mamilius, fall dead at her trial. Despite the pleas of Hermione’s friend Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Leontes orders the baby girl to be abandoned in a remote place; the child is found by a shepherd and his son, and is raised in Bohemia, where, sixteen years later, unaware of her parentage, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) becomes engaged to Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the son of Polixenes. The King violently objects to the union, thinking Perdita a mere shepherdess, and the pair flee, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. The couple wind up in Sicilia, where they are sheltered by Leontes, who only learns of Perdita’s identity through an emerald necklace he’d once given Hermione, one his daughter now wears as a gift from her fiance. The two Kings are reunited, and the pair are married. As festivities die down, Paulina leads Leontes to a statue of Hermione, one that proves to be considerably warmer than mere stone.

The work, while categorized as a comedy, is, like many Shakespearean comedies, less of a laugh-out-loud experience and more of a thought-provoking dramatic meditation. The adaptation beautifully, imaginatively captures the heaving emotions that run throughout the original, whether expressed in grand design (Bob Crowley’s sail work, together with the silk effects design work of Basil Twist is especially inventive) or intimate lighting (by Natasha Katz). Wheeldon’s choreography pulls no punches when it comes to portraying Leontes’ rage and suspicion; the King’s wild imaginings are presented in a way that clearly, forcefully implies an unhinged fear sitting at the heart of his character, one that is ultimately very destructive in both the real and spiritual senses. I thought about this rage expressed through movement, as Stanczyk stalked around the stage, expertly tossing Fischer this way and that in a perfectly executed pairing that brilliantly married skill and emotion. He, and his fine colleagues, are just as much actors as they are dancers. This makes the piece as much of a theatrical event as a dance one, as many of the best ballet works often are. In this instance, the seamless marriage of the two is poetic and deeply moving.

What’s more, for all its fantastical elements and outlandish The Winter’s Tale has real-world corollaries. Who among us hasn’t felt distrustful? Or suspicious? Who hasn’t done or done things they later deeply regret? The piece asks us to consider these questions, as we observe the expression of so many deeply recognizable emotions manifest entirely through that frail, entirely vulnerable vehicle, the human body. The choreography presents a clear narrative and even clearer emotional weight, allowing the movement to accentuate the inherent tragedy of the piece, and heightening the emotional gravity of its conclusion.

Dancers Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale left me with many questions, particularly in light of the previous evening’s horror, one that wasn’t, I suspect, very far from the thoughts of cast, crew, and audience members as well. Witnessing the rage of Leontes, and then Polixenes, the unfounded fears of each, the anger so horribly manifest, was enough to give one pause. Where does it comes from, this rage? Why does it stay? How does it grow? What ways does it manifest and then fester through the ages? These questions haunted me as I sat at the Four Seasons Centre, a mere twenty-four hours after the horror of the bombings, as losses were still being counted and fingers of accusation were being pointed. How do we find grace at such moments? The ballet’s closing scenes, of Leontes realizing Hermione has been alive this whole time, and her actually forgiving him his rage, inspired breath-holding, tear-welling, and finally, a long, deep sigh. Joby Talbot’s jagged, propulsive, Glass-inspired score gave way to Bernstein-inflected romanticism and Debussy-esque impressionism, and Wheeldon’s keen footwork, together with the clever staging of Jacquelin Barrett and Anna Délicia Trévien, made this intimate, holy moment between Leontes and his wife a moment to cherish, both within the piece itself and outside, to carry around like Perdita’s emerald necklace. I want to live in the state of grace Leontes has so clearly found in that moment.

Finding that grace isn’t easy, however. Amidst horror, we can’t simply grab a handful of goo labelled “grace” sitting in a tin on a dusty shelf, stuff it in our pockets, walk out the door, and think that by the stains on our trousers and the trail we leave behind we’re doing any good; that isn’t how grace works. Likewise forgiveness, grace’s nearest sibling: it takes a big heart to admit wrongs done against us, acknowledge them, and move past our pain. One may not fully accept the atrocity committed against them, their friends, their city, their country — indeed, one may never accept, much less understand — and in no way does forgiving mean forgetting; rather, it is a tacit agreement to absolve hurt, freeze it cold, break its giant, Kraken-like body apart into a thousand pieces, and finally brush it away like so much unwanted dust. That hurt, while palpable and needy in its infancy, eventually grows into an unwieldy monster that serves no purpose and prevents forward momentum. Only forgiveness unties its chain, turns it to stone, and breaks it apart; grace is what happens when you can look at your dust-covered hands and smile.

Dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale feels like the perfect piece for our times; wordless but saying so much, fragile but with so much anger, forceful and delicate at once, it is proof positive that culture is one of the things that makes sense amidst an age bereft of logic. There is no rationale for horror, but there is always a place for beauty. These sharp things we feel and experience as humans — rage, hurt, confusion, fear, remorse — are things culture captures and expresses and explores so well. We would do well to heed the idea that art has the capacity to heal, now more than ever.

On Bill The Quill

Today marks the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 (and, some might argue, his birth in 1564).
Much has been written, of course, about the playwright who left an indelible mark on drama and culture. It’s impossible to imagine life without him; like Andy Warhol (more on him in a future post), his influence is felt everywhere. Amidst the volumes of academia and the wide-eyed worship, I frequently feel as if the human -the regular, ordinary, beer-swilling, bum-pinching Bill -gets lost.
Filmmaker Anna Cohen seeks to find him, with this wonderful stop-motion animation video, Shakespearean Tragedy (A Comedy), that reminds us that Shakespeare probably suffered from something that afflicts writers everywhere. Hey, we all know Romeo And Juliet was inspired by various poems and stories, but it’s fun to see the figures come to life on the blank pages before him, and I love the contemporary touches.
I never enjoyed reading Shakespeare myself; when I’d have to do for high school or university, I’d go to the library and borrow the RSC audio or video performances. There’s something about hearing those words aloud, in all their rhythmic, dancing, shimmying glory, that makes them -and their creator -feel more alive.
The clever thing about this video is that there’s no dialogue -it’s entirely visual. What would Bill say? What should he say? It’s refreshing to see a figure held in such high regard by so many has been rendered more human, even in clay.

Raising The Bard


Toronto’s amazing, inspiring Art Of Time Ensemble has been presenting its unique vision of music, dance, theatre, and literature now for twelve years. They’ve featured the works of Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Gavin Bryars, Erich Korngold, and many, many others in concerts that combine music, art, theatre, and dance, to create a hybrid form unto itself. What’s more, the Ensemble has involved some of Canada’s biggest names from the arts world to accomplish their task of shedding light on old and new masters alike.

Their incredible rendering of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (which I wrote about back in March) was so popular, it was presented as part of this year’s Summerworks Theatre Festival, and is on track to be part of Soulpepper Theatre Company’s season in 2011. The Art Of Time toured with former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page plus songstress Sarah Slean; award-winning author Michael Ondaatje is among their most devoted followers and has, on occasion, participated in concerts doing readings. He says of them:

Art of Time leaps over the usual barriers of culture. So Schumann and Tolstoy can rub shoulders with Ginsberg and our best contemporary musicians. The result is entertainment that is often thrilling, often full of insights—as in the old values of art that delight and instruct.

I’ve spent many happy evenings at their shows, scratching head, cradling heart, listening; the phrase “human being” never seemed more real and alive than at an Art Of Time show.

Their next work, coming up this week, is called If Music Be… -a tribute of sorts to William Shakespeare, featuring, among many others, the poetic footwork of Peggy Baker and the acting talents of Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock, plus, as ever, the expert musical accompaniment of the Ensemble themselves. The last If Music Be… was presented in Toronto in March 2008.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around Shakespeare and the blend of Bard and Ensemble with two key figures for the evening: Andrew Burashko, who is the group’s Artistic Director, and actor/director/dramaturge David Ferry, who directs If Music Be…, which runs at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre December 9th through 11th.

Why Shakespeare?

Andrew:

I’ve always been in awe of Shakespeare’s limitless play and poetry. To me he represents the most dazzling example of virtuosity. Also, he has influenced so many artists and inspired so much diverse art – high and low – music, theater, literature, dance. In that sense, he is the perfect subject for Art of Time – a subject that connects so many of the artistic disciplines.

David:

Well as many of the authors quoted in this piece say, (Shakespeare) invented us in so many ways; he created arguably our sense of the human being.

How difficult was the process of choosing accompanying music?

Andrew:

It was actually the reverse: I began with the music and dance inspired by Shakespeare, and then selected the sources that inspired the music and dance. To over-simplify, I thought it might be fascinating to see/hear this amazing stuff together with the source material. In other words, to show this music and dance on the heels of the actual scenes that inspired them – to see the Shakespeare as he wrote it, followed by interpretations of the same material in the forms of music and dance.

How would you describe the connection between Shakespeare and music?

Andrew:

I guess the most obvious would be the music and richness in his language, but even more than that, his ability to express the ineffable – to tug at the heart strings by transcending the limitations of words.

You have an eclectic mix of artists taking part; how much did their talents shape the program?

Andrew:

Everything begins and ends with the content – the material. I chose the artists I thought could best deliver the material. I thought of Peggy (Baker)’s piece before I thought of Peggy. In fact, I was surprised that she wanted to dance it herself. She’s been slowing down – cutting the more physically demanding pieces from her repertoire as a dancer. I wasn’t expecting her to be up for it.

David:

Peggy is a long-time collaborator with Andrew, as is James Kudelka. My suggestions were (actors) Tim (Campbell), Marc (Bendavid), Cara (Ricketts). Ted (Dykstra) and Lucy (Peacock) have done the material before.

How does this version of If Music Be… differ from the one you directed a few years ago?

David:

The core material is the same, with some modifications and the structuring of the material. Also, this time actors will not read but have material memorized, (which allows for) different staging. (There are) some music changes as well, (like the) addition of the Wainright pieces and Dykstra song. The relationships with the actors are deeper, as relationships are wont to grow with time.

Andrew, you come from a very music-centric background, David comes from a very theatre-centric background. Do you meet in the middle (or not)?

Andrew:

David is someone I like and respect. Also, he really gets what Art of Time is about. I compiled all the material and asked him to come in and put everything together in terms of staging and flow. He’s not messing with the content at all, and I’m staying out of his way in determining the show’s overall look and feel. I would love for all these disparate elements to come together to form a whole – that’s his job.

For people more familiar with Shakepeare done at places like the Stratford Festival, what does If Music Be… offer?

Andrew:

This show is just as much about the work Shakespeare inspired as it is about his own work. In that sense, the audience will exposed to a lot more than Shakespeare. It’s a look at his work and what it led to down the years.

David:

I like to think of the evening as high-class Ed Sullivan: a great variety of fine artists that make for a stimulating, thought-provoking, accessible and entertaining night at the theatre.

Power Play


Power is rapidly becoming a big issue in the Haiti crisis: who rules amidst chaos? It’s clear no one wants to return to the old system. But what kind of change hath tragedy wrought?

I thought about this in going over a release I received about a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody play Macbeth -a work that revolves around ideas of various kinds of power. Toronto-based company Theatre Jones Roy has taken this idea of power in political and military arenas, and turned it inside out, choosing instead to focus on the push-pull machinations between Macbeth and his wife. With Macbeth Reflected, the idea of power as shared between two lovers is examined with pinpoint precision. Lead performers John Ng and Mary Ashton provided some solid insights into the character and the work, reflecting the notion that Shakespeare didn’t just write for his time, but for all time, and perhaps especially, this time.

What’s the one thing that characterizes the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

Mary: They are partners in almost everything they do. They desire and fulfill their dreams together. Unfortunately, their dreams become so unhealthy that their partnership eventually crumbles.

With the emphasis on relationship in this production, how does it change the nature of the tragedy?

John: The body count is definitely much lower, and you will find certain character plots, known history and supernatural elements of the original have been eliminated or severely reduced. The retelling has placed this tragedy back in the hands of the two who are ultimately responsible for their own suffering and, in so doing, provide some insights into human psychology.

What role does sex play?

Mary: Sex, in the coital sense, as with any relationship, plays a big role whether it’s present or not. With Lady M being “unsexed”, she desires more than anything to be ruthless in her pursuit and to have no remorse or fears weigh her down which were attributes often associated with the “softer sex” in Shakespeare’s time. Her femininity still exists and she most definitely uses it to her advantage.

How much does their being childless influences their choices and thought processes?

John: The loss has affectively reshaped (the couple’s) moral universe. Since we were robbed once before, we’ve become acutely aware when a perceived injustice is done upon us. We’re hardened. Very hard.

Mary: It’s been an integral part in the development of (Lady Macbeth). I am fairly certain, based on the text, that she has had a baby. Where that baby is now, the text doesn’t indicate but certainly there is loss. Loss and/or lacking can drive people to do unimaginable things and often times, with the best intentions.
—————————–

That idea, of a lack driving people to do horrible things, feels so timely and intimate, even as it’s timeless and epic. Perhaps this bloody tale of two lovers has something to teach past the old high school interpretation of “absolute power corrupting absolutely.” Perhaps power -and the ways it is used and abused in relation to those in need -is much more subtle, if disturbing, an argument. Those subtleties are worth considering.

Macbeth Reflected runs to January 24th at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto.
For more information, go to artsboxoffice.ca.

Action

I always feel like the calamitous meets the surreal this time of year. Maybe it’s seasonal, what with the changing over from summer to autumn. Transformation and transfiguration are afoot. There’s a strange energy of walking through the threshold of something vaguely important, especially for me this time of year. Early September comes and goes and I always feel like something has totally shifted.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 irrevocably underlined, on a personal level, this profound sense of shifting from one mode into another. And yet, along with sadness and fear, there’s also a mountain of excitement that comes with this change. The annual Toronto International Film Festival is on and the city goes mad for movies. Sure there are the “stars” but people are also interested, I believe, in seeing something new, unique, and unusual. It was this promise -this encapsulation of strange, surreal, and transformative -that propelled me to start attending the film festival so many moons ago. Now, as a journalist covering the fest (my second year), I’m finding myself wistful for the old days, if also equally inspired by the way the event brings the city together and makes people excited about Toronto. Sure, there are foreigners everywhere, and it’s usually the celebs getting the flashbulbs, but people are still out and about, curious to be a part of a larger event, and taking a chance they might see something special at the multiplex.

I’m only covering a handful of things, but they’re goodies. I’ve already done a story on two of the Bravo!FACT shorts, a piece on the National Film Board of Canada’s animated works, and a feature interview with director Guy Maddin. While they’re smaller works, I kind of feel it’s the spirit of these quiet, poetic works that still nicely encapsulates the original feeling of the TIFF -back when it was called the Festival of Festivals. I still have programs from that time on bookshelves in my basement, and every time I see their aging spines, flecked with creases and scratches, I harken back to all those times I lined up in the rain, or the wind, or the heat, just to catch that exact “something special.” The Toronto International Film Festival was a big reason why I went on to film school long ago. I loved the movies. Lately I’ve been re-examining that time in detail, examining my motivations, my choices, and the eventual outcomes that lead me here, now. It makes for heavy thought (if equally boring reading, ha) but it also gives me a unique perspective on the fest, and my own personal memories.

Without going into a laundry-list of moments and meetings, I’ll just share a few special TIFF-going experiences. The first was meeting Nigel Hawthorne, who is perhaps best-known to North American audiences as poor mad King George in The Madness of King George. (He was here at the time for Twelfth Night.) He was warm, funny, and very sincere. Once he gleaned that he had a true theatre afficionado stood before him, he really opened up, whence a stream of lovely conversation between us poured forth. In a similar vein, I remember seeing the premiere screening of Al Pacino‘s Looking For Richard. I know a lot of critics -theatre and film -balked, but I loved the energy of his work, and I still really adore his huge, vocal passion for Shakespeare and theatre in general. During the screening, Pacino was seated a mere two rows behind me and I recall turning around to observe him watching, to see if there was any kind of rise -or if he was even still sitting there. Indeed he was, furiously gnawing on his nails, eyes like saucers, a knee against his chest. I’ve never seen anyone look so nervous. I actually felt sorry for him. Then there was a Dutch film called De vliegende Hollander; it took the mythic roots of the flying Dutchman and combined it with elements of history, fantasy, and other European folklore (mainly central and Eastern), fashioning a surreal, deeply poetic, and utterly moving piece of cinema. To my knowledge, it never got a North American release, and yet it was easily one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at the TIFF (yes, ever). I remember returning to film school the week after, re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead.

And though I’m not working in film now but covering its artists instead, it’s moments such as these that make me glad to have been part of this event, and at such an important, seminal time of year. Today is grave for so many people (and let’s not forget Chile, please) but in Toronto at least, there is a symbol that embraces these contradictions of life experience, balancing them with the magic of light and dark, to show us something beautiful, important, and perhaps most importantly, connecting. We may sit in cinemas, not talking, staring at a dance of shadows and projected light -but we’re all together, in the magic of the dark, creating our own shared world. That has to count.

It’s “Mine”

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately -the ways we use it (or don’t use it) and the importance it has to some of us, particularly those in the arts. Communication is what every artist attempts through a chosen medium. Whether it’s dance, film, music, writing or acting, every creative act is an attempt to communicate something to someone else. Within that chosen form of communication is a myriad of ideas and influences, not all of them original -some are sifted through the rough grains of hard-won experience, others are left unfiltered for consideration and conversation. When it comes to presenting a work of art, who can really say what is wholly original?

The question becomes all the more cloudy in the world of words, where research and source material often become intimately intertwined with the writer’s own opinions, approach, and sometimes, life work. History is fraught with examples of works that, while considered utter genius, are suspect in their originality at least, and acts of plagiarism at worst. Think of playwrights like Shakespeare, whose works were frequently based on other (popular) tales floating around, or the Bible, a collection of tales written and re-written through the centuries to suit the age and ruling classes.

Anton Piatigorsky tackles the huge questions swirling around authorship, originality, voice and its relationship to identity, and what makes art … well, art, in his play Eternal Hydra, now on in Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This Crow’s Theatre production brings together the same acting/directing team from last spring, when the work was workshopped before an audience for a week. Originally starting out life as a one-act play at Stratford’s Studio Theatre, the work has been greatly expanded and explores larger notions of historical detail, authenticity, and what it means to really “create.” He uses the image of the mythical hydra -the scary monster Hercules fought with the multiple heads -as a metaphor for the writing process itself. Just when characters -and audience, in fact -think they’ve figured out what links writer Gordias Carbuncle’s work to past sources, another connection presents itself that renders theories incomplete. Throw in notions around race, gender, and religion, and you have one hell of a heady night of theatre.

That doesn’t mean Eternal Hydra is cold, however. It’s heady, but it’s also full of heart. Cast members Karen Robinson, Liisa Repo-Martell, Sam Malkin, and David Ferry, as the self-hating maybe-genius Gordias, all give fully-fleshed out performances that make you feel something beyond intellectual wonder. Piatigorsky’s piece is Stoppard-esque, no question, but it’s also fascinating for its mix of the epic and the intimate; the scenes between Robinson, as impoverished black writer Selma Thomas, or Repo-Martell, as the smitten researcher Vivian Ezra, and Ferry’s Carbuncle, are moving, enlightening, disturbing and challenging. Throw in some evocative lighting, where characters frequently move in and out of shadow, as well as multiple plotlines, where characters fall through time, and frequently blur lines between eras and realities, and Piatigorsky’s work is suddenly about a whole lot more than historical appropriation. It’s about life, art, and yes, communication -how we do it, and more importantly, why we do it.

Artists get communication: we’re just not sure if what we’ve produced is actually ours at the end of the day, or simply another screaming head. I mean really, there’s so many of those around already, competing for our attention, demanding time, energy resources, or sometimes, just perhaps, whispering something incredible.

Daughters, Not Victims

Last week I had the distinct and awesome privilege of seeing Simon Boccanegra onstage at the beautiful Four Seasons Centre. The last few years, I’ve developed a wholly new appreciation for an artform that I wasn’t entirely sure I liked, even though it was thoroughly entrenched in my upbringing from childhood. Hmm, maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or the fact I cover arts and culture for a living, or the fact that I’ve worked in theatre, and know how much time, effort, and skill goes into a production. And maybe it also has to do with the fact that I simply adore the work of the COC. Classy, musical, and deeply thought-full -just some of the ways I’d describe past performances (make that experiences) -and Verdi’s Simon is no exception.

In a nutshell, the story can be reduced to a very simple equation: politics = family, and family is always political. Duh. Seems like that’s the case with much of Italian opera. I’m still on the fence about it all, really; the entirely-gorgeous, crazily-romantic music has a way of drawing me in its spell, even if librettos are frequently ridiculous and maudlin. I mean, come on, throwing babies into fires? Magical love potions? Bitchy Ital-oriental women? That’s not the composers’ fault -obviously -and I realize grand opera, like romantic fiction, was the escapism of its day (and it’s not like Wagner ever attempted realism -or social commentary -either). I tend, like many I suppose, to sit back and enjoy the marriage of music and mise-en-scene, and let the rest go.

But Rigoletto, easily one of the most famous operas ever written (as well as being my own mother’s personal favourite) has always, always grated on me. Yes, the music is breathtaking. But the story… leaves me cold. The idea of Gilda, the title character’s naive, shuttered daughter, being so naive, weak, and idiotic, and so willingly controlled by men… ugh. I know, sign of its time, victim-mindset, etcetcetc. Whenever it comes to shut-in daughters -and indeed, whenever I see or hear Rigoletto on radio or television -I always think of Shylock’s Jessica, who, like Gilda, escapes her father’s stern rules to go out and play.

But unlike Gilda, Jessica knowingly defies her father -for love, but also, we suspect, out of revenge. Shakespeare has it right: young women, especially those who feel their their freedom has been denied (or has, in fact, had it denied) by family or authority figures, are going to go out and find it themselves, in the most rebellious, dangerous, and irresponsible of fashions. So it makes sense that Gilda would take off with her nocturnal madrigal; the fact she’d be actually surprised -and then protest -at her kidnapping, however, is hilarious. The fact she’d be all good-girl over it, and protest his advances -when she probably had the hots for him all along -is beyond the pale. And then later telling daddy all about being … uh, raped? N-O.

Maybe it’s my modern sensibility. But even as a kid, never, for a second, did I ever buy it. The fact she’s pining for the miscreant Duke later on, while perhaps characteristic of a woman who’s been abused by her partner, remains, to my mind, woeful -and sexist. The Duke was never her partner -he was just that guy in the street she sadly trusted. The fact remains that neither she, nor her seemingly-heroic-meets-inept father see the truth of the sickly-karmic world they’ve created; Cordelia she is not. And why does that Duke wind up getting the best tunes, if he’s such a dickhead?

Simon Boccanegra presents another kind of daughter: one who, though committed to her father, nonetheless stands up for her own choices. Okay, so she says she’d die for her man before she’d let her father harm him -*cue eyeroll* -but the fact she’s essentially telling him, “Look, I love this person, and I really don’t care what you think, or whether you like him or not” -is brave, and it was refreshing to see. The fact that, unlike Rigoletto, the daughter in Simon doesn’t actually know her father until she’s an adult does, of course, make a difference in their interaction -it changes the mindset of the character -but unlike Gilda, Amelia never comes off as a victim, despite having been denied knowing her father, and only meeting him later in life.

That sort of reunion holds personal resonance for me. The scene between Amelia and Simon, as they stare at one another for the first time, comprehending everything, was, in the COC production I saw, handled beautifully, with just the right amount of delicacy and drama. Unsure whether to hug, stare, or be with their own thoughts, the pair just gaze in wonder and awe. I know what that feels like. Sometimes opera isn’t so fantastical after all -sometimes, it’s just life, with a beautiful soundtrack.

Staging War

I came across a fascinating piece on the art of staging warfare yesterday. Written by British freelance journalist and indie theatre director Imogen Russell Williams, the piece explores the whys and wherefores of staging war onstage, noting, quite rightly I think, that most theatre directors revert to some kind of cinematic equivalent in depicting fights. In reading her description of shadow play and slow-motion moves, I couldn’t help but think of the innumerable productions I’ve sat through where both were utilized, along with pyrotechnics. To quote Williams:

Bang! Flash! Up goes a huge pile of money in undulating smoke. We’re supposed to find it impressive that such crashes, bangs and wallops can be achieved even though we’re in a theatre, not a cinema. But it’s probably the uniting factor in bad stage warfare that director and production team are determined to pull off the cinematically spectacular even though they’re making a play, not a film.

This explains (at least partly) why I didn’t like Black Watch, part of Luminato this past summer. Or why so many productions of Shakespeare (and one of Marlowe) in Stratford have been disappointing; lost in the wonder of great acting, design, and staging, I’ve found myself jolted out of the spell by ridiculous, over-the-top fight/warfare scenes.

Note to theatre directors: try talking with some of this city’s awesome puppeteers. Work with them. They’re super-creative. Incorporating puppetry is just what The National Theatre in England has done with War Horse. Williams says this production changed her mind about the depiction of war onstage, and from what I’ve read, the piece seems genuinely moving, and thought-provoking. Puppets aren’t just for kids, and never have been.

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