For the summer season the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., is doing William Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," "The Comedy of Errors," "The Merchant of Venice," "Henry V," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Love's Labour's Lost."
That's half of it. The rest are the musical "Kiss Me Kate" (based, however, on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew"), "The Shoemakers' Holiday" by Thomas Dekker, and "The Changeling" by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, all three younger contemporaries of Shakespeare; "The Relapse" by Sir John Vanbrugh, a Restoration dramatist (1664-1726); and "Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams, neither of which bears any resemblance to Shakespeare or 16th or 17th century theater.
One of the things a director does is to take Shakespeare beyond museum piece status and to apply a modern sensibility to the plays.
Stratford's reputation rests on Shakespeare. The festival, now approaching the close of its fourth decade, is regarded as one of the preeminent repertory theaters on the continent. It is a theater -- actually three theaters of different sizes -- devoted to classical theater.
Classical theater can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but among them is reverence for the cultivation of articulated language and, from a purely practical point of view, the refined ability to communicate on an intimate footing with a large audience seated in a large theater. That these aims serve Shakespeare and Shakespeare them is no accident. For theater -- the English-speaking theater -- Shakespeare as much as embodies classical theater. Peter Brook, the British director who has become a theater guru for many, has written that all things converge in Shakespeare. This makes the plays timeless and also timely.
The much younger British director Michael Bogdanov exaggerates the point by blithely mixing his periods, so that Falstaff may very well arrive in crimson pants and a yellow checked coat accompanied by Prince Hal in cardigan and casual pants and lounging shoes, and lowlifes from the Boar's Head Tavern in studded black leather. This was from the history plays directed by Bogdanov that played in Canada and the United States, but not at Stratford. At Stratford several seasons ago, Bogdanov directed "Measure for Measure," which mixed a disco atmosphere, street pimps and punk sensibilities with period costumes and classical approach. It was rousingly received -- in support of Brooke's point.
It isn't the only way to go. No director in the past 20 years had the success that Robin Phillips had at Stratford. His approach is subtle to the point of being invisible, if it weren't for the fact that his productions always throb with life and wonder. Where Bogdanov exhibits bold, brash, muscular clarity, Phillips' work builds on layers of submerged rhythms, finely drawn moods and felt words, with the resultant cumulative power of great music. These are two approaches to Shakespeare that, if not at the extremes of the spectrum, are quite different. Neither, unfortunately, will be on view at Stratford. Phillips has left Stratford, has left Canada for Britain, where he has been put in charge of another festival. Bogdanov works elsewhere.
Who directs what is of great concern to experienced theatergoers. Shakespeare has become a director's territory. This is a modern phenomenon, yet inevitable. In Shakespeare's day and for centuries following, nothing resembling the modern director existed. One of the broad-based things a director does is to take Shakespeare beyond museum piece status and to apply a modern sensibility to the plays, particularly those less effectual plays, with the aim of finding what appeals to today's audiences. If you see a danger in this, you're perfectly right. There's no question that Shakespeare has suffered more indignities from bowdlerizers, theatrical egoists and modern directors than any other playwright.
"Titus Andronicus" and "The Comedy of Errors" are from among the early plays. Both follow Roman patterns. "Titus" is a bloody revenge play -- limbs,
hands, a tongue are lopped off, bodies tossed on burning pyres, a savage rape is committed, the ultimate culinary treachery is performed. This is the drama that officially opens the Stratford Festival on Monday. Being short and sharing Roman origins with "The Comedy of Errors," it will be followed the same evening by "Comedy" -- an unusual double bill.
"The Comedy of Errors" is regarded as the only farce Shakespeare wrote. It depends on two sets of twins -- master and companion in each case -- separated from birth to generate a conflagration of mistaken identities and comic insults.
The director of "The Comedy of Errors" is Richard Monette, who surprised everyone with one of the hits of last summer's season, a gleeful rendition of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1950s Italian style. His assistant director, Jeannette Lambermont, has moved up to direct "Titus" on this year's double bill.
Monette's reputation had been as an actor. His "Comedy of Errors" -- he promises something like "an 18th century rococo, divertissement" -- will be attended very closely to see if he can repeat his brilliant success, and thus establish himself as a director to watch. The tougher task falls to Lambermont, who seeks in an "Oriental atmosphere" keys to making "Titus" accessible and meaningful.
Following the double bill in the Festival Theatre (that's the largest one) is "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Avon (the second-largest) on Tuesday. The director is Richard Ouzounian. Last year, Ouzounian had a popular entertainment on his hands in a loud, sprawling, romantic adaptation of "The Three Musketeers." Several seasons ago he managed an acceptable evening from Shakespeare's "Pericles," not an inviting play to direct. Few theatergoers can be unaware of "Midsummer" -- it is Shakespeare's fondest romantic fantasy.
Back in the Festival on Wednesday is the difficult Shakespearean drama "The Merchant of Venice." Five seasons ago "Merchant" was done with John Neville, the Stratford artistic director who is stepping down, as Shylock. The nasty-minded, unforgiving Jewish moneylender Shylock presents directors and actors with a sensitive problem in diplomacy. Most efforts to soften the portrayal have, however, cost the drama dearly.
The good news is that two proven Stratford figures are returning for the production. Michael Langham, a director of elegant, classical restraint, will direct, and his Shylock will be Brian Bedford, the estimable actor who accounted for most of the acting triumphs in the '70s and early '80s at Stratford. Bedford recently played Shylock under Langham's direction in Washington, D.C., to raves and an award.
The final play of the opening week on Saturday also is Shakespearean: "Henry V," a midpoint drama in the historical series. John Wood, who directs, was away last year -- perhaps a little R&R from the demands of the Festival -- but in 1987 he directed a fine performance of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Three years ago he directed a fine performance of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
The remaining Shakespeare is "Love's Labour's Lost," a Young Company production that opens in mid-June. "Love's Labour's," "Midsummer" and "Merchant" were all performed five seasons ago, in different productions, of course. Over enough time everything Shakespeare wrote for the stage can be seen, though some plays recycle more quickly, and the three named above are popular choices. "Henry V" less so, because it is laden with exposition and, though promised in "Henry IV, Part 2," Falstaff makes no appearance, getting only a sad reference (it's also the only Shakespeare with a scene written in French).
Chekhov returns this season, too, in the form of "Three Sisters." Chekhov fascinates directors. He also can be a nightmare for them. Is it a comedy? Is it a melancholic drama? Is it a study of the disintegration of Russian society? And so forth.
Writing in the late 19th century and very early years of the 20th, Chekhov experienced the crossover point in theater direction. His first plays suffered next to no direction (four desultory rehearsals for "Ivanov," for instance) but later the great director Stanislavsky made triumphs of "The Seagull," "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard."
John Neville will direct "Three Sisters" in the Avon Theatre as his swan song as head of the Festival. (His successor is David William, whose presence will be more clearly felt next season.) Though Neville is a superb actor, his direction is competent but undistinguished. Neville directed a serviceable production of "Hamlet" several seasons ago, and an unsuccessful production of Brecht's "Mother Courage" (a notoriously difficult play) in 1987.
Completing the opening week is an American musical, Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate." Donald Saddler is the director and choreographer. "Kiss Me Kate" follows the recent pattern at the Festival of putting a popular musical into the Festival Theatre.
The remaining plays -- "The Changeling," directed by Handerek, and "Love's Labour's Lost," directed by Bernard Hopkins, both by the Young Company; "The Shoemakers' Holiday," directed by David William; "The Relapse" directed by Monette, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," directed by Robert Beard -- open later in the summer.