Shakespeare and Shaw
We drove to Canada last week to see plays at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We saw Hamlet, The Physicists, Oedipus Rex, and She Stoops to Conquer on Tuesday and Wednesday in Stratford. Then we drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see Pygmalion on Thursday night, Light Up the Sky on Friday night, Sweet Charity and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures on Saturday, and then Peter and the Starcatcher and You Can Never Tell on Sunday. The trip was my mother’s graduation gift to Eleanor.
The plays were all remarkably good. Hamlet was a standout for me; it’s not my favorite Shakespeare play, but Jonathan Goad really made the character come alive. He was an athletic Hamlet, more like Mel Gibson’s action movie Hamlet than the more buttoned-up and contemplative Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh’s too-long version. The cuts were just right; the play was long enough for the audience to consider the ins and outs with Hamlet, but not so long we got weary of the debate.
Although it was well done, I didn’t particularly care for The Physicists, a 1964 play about the dangers of scientific knowledge outpacing the human capacity for wisdom in using that knowledge. The program says it was adapted by Michael Healey from the original by Friedrich Durrenmatt, but aside from the female villain’s Edna-from-the-Incredibles eyeglasses, it didn’t reflect much that is contemporary.
The staging of Oedipus Rex turned a story that, after years of singing P.D.Q. Bach’s Oedipus Tex (“you murdered your father, you married your mother, you rascal you”) had become a punch line for me, back into a tragedy. Some of this happened because of the literal nakedness of the blinded character in his misery, finally folded into a raincoat by Creon at the end of the play.
After Oedipus Rex, we took a walk along the water to see the swans and cygnets and the geese and goslings.
She Stoops to Conquer was outstanding, getting laughs at every possible line. Since we were sitting in the front row, we were among the few audience members who might have had a quibble with the casting of the at-least-30-year-old Maev Beaty as 18-year-old Kate Hardcastle.
Our first play at the Shaw Festival was Pygmalion, and it was outstanding. Updated beautifully to the present, it took a new look at how we recognize class and whether we think enough about the effect of research on its subjects.
When we were looking in the “shawp” at the Festival Theater, I found this book but didn’t buy it.
Light Up the Sky is an old Moss Hart play about putting on a play. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest, partly because it was my turn to sit in the back of the theater with my mother, in the handicapped accessible seating, where we couldn’t see or hear as well as when we sat farther forward in the theater.
Sweet Charity was fantastic—the singing! The dancing! The sets! The old songs that everyone recognizes! Did you know this is where “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” come from?
Early on, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures features an argument about whether Shaw’s Major Barbara is a good play, which got a big laugh at the Shaw Festival. Tony Kushner’s play had some trademark Kushner moments—the scenes where the actors are shouting over each other, and the self-referential dialogue. It was a long play, and had a wonderfully climactic scene right before the second intermission. The part after that second intermission spent too much of the good will built up by the climax by plodding on too long; the last act should be much briefer. Overall, though, we enjoyed seeing this one.
We posed for a photo by the statue of Shaw in the center of the downtown area.
Peter and the Starcatcher was a highlight of the theatrical week, even after all the other good plays we’d seen. The actors were clearly enjoying themselves, their comic timing was perfect, the costuming and the way they used the stage was fun, and the entire experience was more splendid than I can describe. My youngest niece waited at the stage door to get Peter’s autograph afterwards, and her mother said that every single actor who came out was smiling.
You Can Never Tell was our last play, Shaw seemingly flavored a bit by Oscar Wilde. The costumes and the set were opulent, and the actors were by no means eclipsed by all the splendor. It was a fitting end to a great week of theater.
I highly recommend seeing two plays a day while on vacation. It’s particularly nice if you can mix the tragedies and serious dramas with comedies and musicals.