Canada's Stratford: 'a wonderful mix'

Across the years, the Stratford Festival has become known for its particularly high standards of production and performance. Last season was something of a slump. Neither Brian Bedford nor Maggie Smith, who have become fixtures here in a relatively short time, was on hand. And while this allowed the primarily native core of the company a chance to take over lead roles, there was not as much consistent radiance as one might have hoped for.

This season, Mr. Bedford and Miss Smith are back, some of the younger talent has improved markedly, and the choice of repertoire seems to be -- at least in this first part of the season -- wonderful in its mix.

Four of the six evenings of Shakespeare are now on the boards, all at the 2, 262-seat Festival Theater: "Twelfth Night" (which officially opened the festival); "Titus Andronicus" (a revival of the 1978 production); "Much Ado About Nothing"; and "Henry V." The two others are "King Lear," a revival of last year's production which starred Peter Ustinov, and "Henry VI," an adaptation of all three "Henry VI" parts intot one evening. They will be seen later on in the season.

Robin Phillips, the artistic director, was at the helm of a rich, relancholic staging of "Twelfth Night," His designer, Daphne Dare, has devised a tall unit of gates with silvery trees arching inward, and in this setting, on that wonderful festival stage space, the tale of love-in-disguise unfolded effortlessly. There were Robin Fraser Paye's equally elegant, subdued costumes and Michael J. Whitfield's superb lighting to add to the mood. AS with Phillips's "Love's Labour's Lost" last season, the look of the production is tied into the texture of the evening.

Those used to an uproarious, frenetic romp through this play would doubtless find this evening rather too subdued. But really to know "Twelfth Night" is to know it is muted, sober, and cast over with a wistful melancholia that Phillips and his generally magnificent cast have caught and sustained through the entire span of the play.

This is most noticeably embodied in an older-than-usual Feste. Of all of Shakespeare's fools, up to this play, Feste is the most inward, the most wry, the least bawdy. As portrayed by William Hutt, whose glorious stage voice is a rich instrument of remarkable scope and compass, Feste sees life from well beyond youth and impulsiveness.

This is not to say that the comic moments are lacking. The production boasts a nearly definitive Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Richard McMillan, who uses his tall, angular body and facial features most aptly. He plays off the jovial, believable Sir toby Blech of Barry MacGregor with wonderful ease. such moments bring the only true belly laughs of the evening, as they must in any wise production of this play.

Patricia Conolly, in her first season here at Stratford, has become an instant success with her Viola. She has a strong face that can be now gentle, now firm, now radiantly beautiful, now strongly handsome. Miss Conolly is also gifted with a splendid voice, and her projection of each line was as natural, effortlesS, and often revelatory as any masterly Shakespearean performance must be.

Not that this cast was utterly free of problems. Pat Galloway's excellent Olivia proved a tad too motherly to catch the right edge. Jim McQueen's Orsino had little presence. Lorne Kennedy's Sebastian bore no resemblance to Miss Conolly's Viola; if the ruse of identical twins is to have any conviction, it si the duty of the Sebastian to be quite like the Viola in comportment. Kate Reid is a remarkable actress, but she never found the right balance between Maria's personability and her adoration of Sir Toby.

In this generally outstanding frameword, Brian Bedford fleshed out a Malvolio of uncommon brilliance. Bedford's is very much a character of dignity, inner strength, a generous amount of self-importance, and not an iota of humor. Thus when he believes his mistress is in love with him, his transformation is at first funny but finally tragic. For all are cruelly mocking an essentially good , if humorless, man. When it goes bad for Malvolio, it goes bad for them as well -- a point not lost on Bedford or Phillips. 'Much Ado About Nothing'

No melancholia intrudes on Phillip's "Much Ado." Here everything is joviality and mirth, and even when the dramatic element enters into the play, it is but a stormless thundercloud passing over, rather than a torndo that suddenly drops a funnel of havoc.

Bedford appears in this play as Benedick, the verbal swordsman who jousts with the woman he is eventually to marry, the acerbic and clever Beatrice. Bedford levels in the wordplay, inflecting it with a master's spectrum of hesitation, punctuation, innuendo. He truly is one of the day's most brilliant actors.

As his Beatrice, Maggie Smith scintillates. Well before her first line is ended, one feels he has known this lady for years, so total is the delivery, so strong the characterization. Whe she overhears her cousin and maids talking about how Benedick loves her but scorns her pride, the face loses its bloom and for a moment one sees despair and inexpressible sadness. Then Miss Smith's Beatrice regains her composure, her resolve, and the face blooms anew.

Diana Leblanc and Stephen Russell are the young lovers, Hero and Claudio. She in particular is of such an austere and pristine beauty that her very presence proves Claudio wrong when he accuses her of adultery at the altar. Russell handles his role deftly, though one can only wish that his rage could have been more savage, so that when Beatrice commands Benedick to kill Claudio, the audience would not laugh. For this moment, "Much Ado" has turned deadly serious, so that the ultimate denouement is all the more sweet and touching.

Other fine performances permeate this show -- Nicholas Pennell's Don John, Richard Curnock's Dogberry and Barry MacGregor's Verges, Alicia Jeffery's Ursula , Mervyn Blake's Antonio. Mr. McQueen is a bit more imaginative here as Don Pedro, though ultimately, with all his flights, he is not wholly convincing.

Robin Paye's costumes here are as elegant and sumptuous as they were restrained for "Twelfth Night." Miss Dare's slender touch-of-Gothic pillars take wing memorably in the church scenes, and, as always, Michael J. Whitfield's lighting is magnificent. 'Titus Andronicus'

Mr. Bedford first directed "Titus Andronicus" two years back. This revival features mostly the same cast. He has chosen to take this most violent, bloody, and ghoulish of Shakespearean plays and highlight the motivations for that gore, rather then the gore itself. Even when Titus cuts off his hand or carries off the head of his son, it is discreet, though still grisly.

Bedford has pruned here and there -- in one or two instances with too much gusto -- and he has dropped the original ending ntirely to graft on a quotation from the Sibylline oracle predicting the demise of Rome. This device runs counter to Shakespeare.

Otherwise, the inexorable line that tugs from play's opening to ghastly denouement -- the ultimate revenge tragedy -- unfolds with spellbinding power and vivid passions. William Hutt begins quietly, but by the time he murders Tamora's two sons and causes her to eat them in a pie, fury is memorably unleashed. Miss Galloway is the Goth queen Tamora, and her heights of vengeful fury are frighteningly real.

Maurice E. Evans, filling in for an ailing actor, was the noble Marcus. Goldie Semple's exquisite beauty and mullifluous voice were especially moving as Lavinia. Stephen Russell's Demetrius was notable (how he has progressed from his wild, undisciplined Hotspur last season!). Desmond Heeley has designed (actually overdesigned) the costumes and the set. The Gabriel Charpentier-Marcel Delambre score is vividly suitable to the occasion, as are the Whitfield Lighting and the amplified vocal effects.

"Titus" is not an easy play, not really an especially good play as Shakespeare goes, but one hears resonances of the future master throughout, as Bedford discloses. 'Henry V'

People are too apt to dismiss "Henry V" as a mere pageant play that enobles a wonderful, youthful king, as well as the British soul. There is far more to "Henry V," but Peter Moss seemed content to go no further than the pageant aspects. While this production proved a gigantic step forward from last year's "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2," it still does not go very far. Moments stand out, energy remains high, but overall, one leaves the threater with a sense of competence rather than magic.

As Henry, Jack Wetherall was alternating with another actor. He is boyishyly handsome, has an endearingly hoarse quality to his stage voice, and is a very earnest Henry. There are no peaks, no tremendous insights, no introverted complications of character. But he is winsome even in his inconsistency, and at the right moments -- when urging on his troops, courting Katherine, and at other points -- the production takes wing.

Of the large cast, a few standouts should be noted: Barry MacGregor's Fluellen, Richard McMillan's William, Mervyn Blake's Governor of Harfleur, Diana Leblanc's radiant Katherine, Amelia Hall's Mistress Quickly.

Douglas Rain and the modern-dress chorus were at times impressive, at times inaudible, not usually a problem with him. Was he so directed? Miss Dare's unobtrusive set and nondescript costumes neither added nor detracted.

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