Tag Archives: Stratford Festival

Arresting Images in Measure for Measure

I haven’t done an “Arresting Images” post in a while, so it’s about time that I do! “Arresting Images,” just to recap, are words that Shakespeare uses that make you stop and think, “Wow! He just made something so seemingly normal or overdone sound so meaningful, so memorable! That must be why we’re still studying his work after 400 years!”

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

I recently saw the Stratford Festival’s production of Measure for Measure and it reminded me of all the arresting images that this play has to offer. Although the plot isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve probably seen the metaphors printed on a coffee mug or fridge magnet.

The play is about the nature of justice: when the Duke of Vienna feels like he hasn’t been fulfilling his duty to uphold the law, he takes a short hiatus to wander the streets in costume, putting himself in touch with the voice of the people while the scrupulous Angelo holds down the fort.

William Holman Hunt's painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

William Holman Hunt’s painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

When Angelo takes the reigns, people are surprised at his severity. Isabella, a nun-in-training, begs Angelo not to execute her brother for the crime of impregnating his girlfriend, who had enthusiastically consented to the union. The stand-in Duke responds:

“The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.”

Isn’t that amazing? Angelo is showing that he is waking up the legal system of Vienna. Angelo sees the citizens as assuming that they can get away with breaking the laws (in this case, laws against premarital sex) because the Duke hadn’t enforced them. While Angelo is waking up the legal system, he offers the people of Vienna a harsh wake-up call.

Isabella begs Angelo to forgive her brother’s youthful impetuousness, and says that Claudio will remedy the crime by marrying and taking care of the expectant Juliet (no, not that Juliet). Angelo refuses to yield to this reasonable solution, and offers the most outstanding metaphor as to why it’s necessary for him to start upholding the law:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Crow perched on a scarecrow

Crow perched on a scarecrow

That line is worth reading twice, three times, and then putting it up on a wall somewhere. Instead of saying that “my town, my rules,” Shakespeare provides us with an unforgettable image that even those without farmland can understand: scarecrows are not scary enough. Men with guns are scary, dukes with the power to execute men are scary, but scarecrows are all show, with little power to deter the vultures that might destroy the crops and lead to greater repercussions. Angelo may not be shocked and appalled by Claudio’s engagement in consensual sex, but it’s his job to uphold the law where the Duke was too lenient, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

When discussing the notion of mercy in Shakespeare, people usually refer to Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech in The Merchant of Venice. Yet, Measure for Measure offers outstanding, and frankly underrated meditations on the nature of mercy, and why sometimes it’s important to allow the legal system some wiggle room in order to let people coexist in peace.

Thematically, this play interrogates whether a binary even exists between justice and mercy, and metaphorically, it offers outstanding imagery of the battle between darkness and light. Lucio is Claudio’s best friend, and his name is derived from Latin words that mean “light” or “shine.” Angelo represents his foil (his character opposite), but instead of being the darkness to snuff out Lucio’s light, he’s the cold that threatens to overcome Lucio’s shining sun of humour and optimism. Lucio calls Angelo

“a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth”

I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

Brrr! I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

– isn’t that amazing? It gives me the chills just to think about it! I think about the slush that I walk on in the winter, and the countless bowls of soup it takes to warm me up, and that shows me that I would never want to deal with someone so stubborn, so disagreeable, as to be comprised of snow-broth.

So that brings my quick exploration of Measure for Measure’s arresting images to a close. I’m not sure why this play isn’t taught in high schools. It’s got material on teen pregnancy, good quotes for pre-law keeners, and ultimately offers essay topics that are ripe for the picking. Have you tried teaching Measure for Measure in your classroom?

 

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The Stratford Festival’s 2014 line-up

I’m just coming off the most tremendous post-Shakespearegasm high after learning that Kenneth Branagh will be re-imagining his Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth for the New York stage. It makes me so happy to know that great theatre is not exclusively reserved for UK consumption, and while I have every intention to book a flight to the Big Apple as soon as I have my ticket for Macbeth, I am also relieved that I’ll be able to see an as-live broadcast of the Manchester production at my local movie theatre in October, courtesy of National Theatre Live.

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival Theatre, Stratford

But my enthusiasm over international productions in no way suggests that, as a Canadian, I am living in some sort of cultural wasteland. Far from it! I’ve been quite vocal in my excitement over the Stratford Festival’s excellent productions, and their 2014 lineup offers a lot to look forward to!

Although my involvement in Shakespeare is mostly research-based, the fan-girl I am has been known to daydream about being the artistic director of a fabulous Shakespeare festival. Choosing a season that offers great individual plays that also work in harmony with each other reaps its own rewards, but ever since I spent an entire semester studying Hamlet during my MA, I’ve thought about how interesting it would be to present the same play, but through multiple different productions.

By showing multiple versions of a single play side-by-side, the festival would be able to show viewers that Shakespeare’s texts can take on any number of meanings. Is Hamlet really mad? Is Hamlet himself a puritanical quack, or is he totally justified in objecting his mother’s remarriage to her brother-in-law? Does Gertrude love Claudius? Was she in cahoots with him for Hamlet Sr.’s death? Was the Dane a tyrannical husband? Or perhaps one play could be set in different countries or time periods: Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado was set in the Italian countryside, sometime in the past, but not entirely early modern; the Donmar production was set in the 80s, complete with 80s soundtrack; Joss Whedon’s Much Ado shows how well the text can fit into today’s romantic drama. Rather than being force-fed one interpretation, people can see that Shakespearean dramaturgy is fluid, allows for so much breathing room, and ultimately lets people devise their own opinion of what meanings best fit these open-ended plays.

"Reason and love keep little company together nowadays"

“Reason and love keep little company together nowadays”

So why do I bring this up? Because the Stratford Festival just revealed that it’ll be showing two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014!  One production will be directed by Chris Abraham, who has been blazing a trail of late in Stratford and Toronto, and the second by Peter Sellars, not to be confused with the Pink Panther comedian, whose surname is spelled “Sellers.” Sellars is internationally acclaimed, most recently directing Phillip Seymor Hoffman as Iago in 2009. Whereas the Abraham production sounds like a sweeter tale of love and hijinks, the Sellars production sounds more experimental. The latter’s production will feature only four cast members playing all of the roles, and will examine “the role-playing, mercurial mood swings, delusional fantasy, deep hurt, and forgiveness and release at the heart of human relationships.” While I’m excited to get some fresh ideas about the text by comparing the two, I am especially looking forward to Sellars’s production, because it will offer much food for thought to put towards my dissertation, which focuses on the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies.

Tickets for the 2014 season go on sale to Festival Members on November 11, and to the general public on January 4, 2014. Which production(s) will you be seeing?

 

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Cymbeline at the Stratford Festival

Cymbeline is, in a word, a doozy. It is rarely taught in schools because the plot is so darn complicated; the chief reason for this is that not one, not two, but at least five characters, at some point or another, intentionally or inadvertently, go about this play in disguise. While this makes for a tough read, director Antoni Cimolino proves that it can be significantly more entertaining to watch.

Posthumous gives Innogen a token of his love

Going to the theatre, we expect to be entertained but in the best cases, we are also moved.  After largely overlooking them in my annual pre-show lecture to my ever-patient mother, I was most touched by the performances by EB Smith and Ian Lake, who played the roles of Guiderius and Arviragus. These characters know themselves as Polydore and Cadwal, the supposed sons of Morgan, actually Belarius, a courtier that had been banished for treason and took the boys with him into exile, twenty years earlier.[1] One appealing feature was, no doubt, their brawniness, but more so, I was touched by their bright-eyed innocence, their playfulness with each other, their genuine affection for the old man who they think is their father, and the way their hearts open wide to accommodate the beautiful boy Fidele, actually Innogen[2] incognito, who they take in as a little brother for no more reason than “Love’s reason’s without reason.”

The main love-match in the play is Innogen and her betrothed, Posthumous Leonatus. King Cymbeline banishes him when he finds out that they are all-but married. As Cymbeline’s only remaining biological child, Innogen must marry for the kingdom’s advantage rather than her heart’s. Exiled on the continent, Posthumous’s false friend Iachimo[3] tricks him into believing that Innogen is unfaithful, and Posthumous sends his servant, Pisanio, to kill her. Charmed by her, he reveals his master’s plans and tells her to disguise herself as a boy and hide. Clearly, Pisanio is far nobler than his master, who I usually resign alongside Othello and Claudio as weak and gullible, unworthy of my tears. Onstage, though, Posthumous redeems himself, not through his own actions, but through the love and forgiveness of Innogen, who literally throws herself at him in the concluding moments of the play. At that final moment, she is no longer the gangly Fidele, but the tragic princess for whom things are finally going right.

To oh-so-sauve Geraint Wyn Davies as King Cymbeline

The beauty of the Shakespearean Romance is that the Bard never lets too many bodies pile up onstage before he sets everything right. Belarius comes forward to tell Cymbeline that his sons are alive, consequently shoving castle-raised Innogen back to third in line for inheritance. This resolution is unsettling, but characteristic of the Romances: things have changed for the better, but there’s no rule dictating that the result is fully just (or just on today’s terms). This moment should leave readers with a sour taste in their mouths, but Cimolino chose to overlook this aspect. This omission leaves the play’s conclusion with less of that unsettling dimension that we should be exposed to when watching the Problem Plays and Romances, but I applaud the director’s focus on the other crucial aspects of the genre: redemption and reconciliation. The “Evil Stepmother” of a Queen is dead, and the King finds his only daughter alive and able to reconcile with her true love, clearly caring more for their reunion than the throne she no longer has claim to. The play ends with a glorious group hug, a moment which might sound cheesy in print, but one that brought tears to my eyes as I was the first to jump up and give the cast its much-deserved standing ovation.

 

 


[1] See what I’m saying? This gets complicated!!

[2] Also spelled Imogen, but let’s not make this any more difficult.

[3] Pronounced Ya-chemo and spelled numerous ways, more unnecessary confusion in print.

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Trauma gravitates towards trauma

This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.

My 2012 recreational reading/listening list looks a bit like this:

–       Jane Austen’s Persuasion (audio book read by a wonderful librivox.org volunteer)

–       The Hunger Games (the entire series, twice; first in print and then over audio book)

–       Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (also an audio book, extra points because Mad Men’s John Slattery reads it)

–       The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night Soundtrack

When I look at the list, I feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed good books and music – a pretty fair way to spend the time that I was recovering from some family trauma of my own.

Today, after a trip to see a previously-recorded version of the Stratford Festival’s 2011 production[1] of Twelfth Night, I realized that now, more than ever before, I had become addicted to trauma narratives. No longer was Twelfth Night the same old story of “girl-dressed-as-boy meets boy, boy loves other girl, but other girl is obsessed with girl-dressed-as-boy.”

Suzy Jane Hunt as Viola (disguised as Cesario) in Stratford's Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I mean, think about it this way: Viola of Messaline was on one of those Costa cruise ships with her twin brother, her counterpart, when it hits a storm and the boat capsizes. They each survive, but she lives in grief thinking that Sebastian has been lost to the waves. Viola lands in Illyria, the country against which her country is at war. How convenient – landing in the country of your enemy, a woman, escorted only a moment longer by the captain, who has survived (how are we not surprised?). She begs him to hide her identity so she can live under the protection, and enjoy some of the privileges, of a great house. Smart girl.

But Viola doesn’t pick just anyone to live with – at first she wants to serve Lady Olivia. We can tell by the similarity of names that there will be some similarity of character. Here is what Viola learns about Lady Olivia:

A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died: for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the company
And sight of men.

Viola gravitates towards the person who can empathize with her grief – they both carry the burden of fresh wounds, having lost their brothers earlier in the year. Olivia’s father has also recently died and Viola, whose voice is high enough to pass for a eunuch, had experienced the same grief when only a couple of years before, her father had “died that day when Viola from her birth / Had number’d thirteen years.” Trauma on one’s birthday – I’ve been there and don’t recommend it. Before she decides to work as a boy for Orsino, Viola shows how that she had rather be a lady-in-waiting for a woman who “like a cloistress, … will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” – tears.

I could go on. Of course Maria thinks Olivia will order to “hang the fool” – he has abandoned her in her time of grief. Why is this? In this pansexual play, is he, too, grieving over the untimely loss of Olivia’s brother? The Stratford production offers some interesting sexual tension between Olivia and Feste – hath she abjured the sight of this man? She lets Malvolio stick around, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly cast off Sir Andrew. Interesting. Feste proves Olivia the fool by catechizing her into admitting that one mustn’t grieve for those living in luxury in heaven above. Only then can her heart begin to open for a return of our usual programming, throwing herself at the girl Viola, dressed as a boy, Cesario.

Percy Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” and I’d like to think that this production offers that same message of hope.


[1] Hilarious at the Festival itself, the filmed broadcast added dimension to my understanding of Des McAnuff’s production because I got to see the characters’ facial expressions close-up. It was excellent, but the machines playing it kept cutting out. On the bright side we got passes, so I’m going to try to see it in full on the 21st, when it’s playing at 7 pm for an encore presentation.

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