Monday, August 20, 2007

Stratford Festival Round-Up

Sorry for the gap in blogging, but I've just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. At left is Brian Bedford, in the title role of King Lear - which, incredibly, he also directed. Reviews were mixed - the gist was that Bedford had delivered a star turn, but had neglected to shape a full production - but by the time I saw it, through the alchemy of repeat performance, somehow the precisely opposite effect had been achieved: now the production as a whole was stronger than Bedford was, and easily eclipsed the Christopher Plummer/Jonathan Miller staging which Stratford mounted some five years ago and toured to New York.

Bedford has given us a traditional (if somewhat creatively edited) and strikingly straightforward Lear - and the results are always gripping, and at times staggering. In fact, this is the best Lear I've ever seen (although that call may change after I catch Sir Ian at BAM later this year, in a production which crosses the pond to very positive buzz). Bedford's own performance is not perfect; he doesn't quite bring off the shattering finale - and even, unforgivably to some, leaves Cordelia's corpse to expire by himself, in a spotlight, of course. But this is the only slice of ham served by an actor who's been prone to far more generous helpings. For the remaining three hours, Bedford remains utterly disciplined, etching a portrait of a petulant, increasingly decrepit patriarch who realizes rather earlier than the average Lear, and with lacerating self-awareness, the depth and breadth of his folly.

But the production is never merely a setting for a star turn, whatever the local critics said. Bedford has surrounded himself with talent, and there are penetrating, spirited interpretations from Dion Johnstone (Edmund), Wayne Best (Cornwall), Wenna Shaw (Goneril), Wendy Robie (Regan), Scott Wentworth (Gloucester) and Gareth Potter (Edgar). I found myself particularly moved by Wentworth and Potter - in this Lear, more tears were shed during their encounters on the blasted heath than were spent at the finale. One last mention - at the performance I attended, Keith Dinicol had to step in for Bernard Hopkins as the Fool, and acquitted himself admirably.

I'd urge any Bardolator like myself to make the trek to catch this version - but of course it's a long way to go for a single show; what else should you see at the Festival if you do decide to book that flight? What my friends and I found worthiest were Richard Monette's intelligent (if, again, traditional) An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde (at left), and a worthy attempt to put over Albee's A Delicate Balance (featuring a Tony-worthy performance from Fiona Reid), which rewardingly scaled the first two acts, but lost ground in the inferior third. Elsewhere, Richard Rose directed a Merchant of Venice that was studded with intriguing ideas, but hobbled by a listless Antonio and a lackluster Shylock (and some of the worst costume designs to ever traverse the Stratford stage). Of the musicals, we found My One and Only far superior to Oklahoma, and can recommend the reliable Seana McKenna's solo rumination on Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Will. Shows not seen by my merry band, but enjoying a positive (i.e., often sold-out) response, include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead and Of Mice and Men - but we feel compelled to dissuade all comers from either The Comedy of Errors or Othello. Now get thee to Canada - if only for a sample of what a real theatrical culture feels like.

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