Friday, July 26, 2013

Brush Up On Your Shakespeare

My relationship with the Bard over the course of my life has been inconstant, to say the least.  Shakespeare's legendary presence precedes his works, making it difficult if not impossible to appreciate them simply as stories in their own right.  I started out seeking Shakespeare, but found him difficult to comprehend in reading.  Taking on Julius Caesar in Junior High though, in the 'gifted' class, meant taking the time to learn the background and context of the Imperial Rome, and reading the parts in turn.

It turns out, for me at least, that reading Shakespeare's plays is the least effective and enjoyable way to experience them.  Hearing the intonations and seeing the actions make the words that much more memorable, and prevent the narrative from becoming bogged down in archaic language or sentence construction.

Not being a big one for live theater though, I have enjoyed many cinematic adaptations of his work, my favourite probably being Kenneth Branagh's brilliant Henry V.  His Much Ado About Nothing was also highly enjoyable, as was Mel Gibson's Hamlet, Ian McKellen's Richard III and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.  I'm also looking forward to Joss Whedon's b&w take on Much Ado About Nothing, which he did on a shoestring budget after completing The Avengers, a sort of cinematic sorbet to cleanse the palate, if you will.

Two weeks ago, our friends Scott and Margaret took us out to see King Lear, performed outdoors by the Free Will Players at Hawrelak Park.  The initial ambiance provided by the thunderstorm (which accompanied the tragic King's departure into a similar deluge in an example of perfect timing) soon turned into a full-on downpour accompanied by hail, and after a 25 minute break saw no hope for a let up, the play was sadly called off.

Since our hosts were leaving town shortly and were not going to have an opportunity to use their rain checks, they gave them to us and suggested we take the girls to see the festival's other offering, A Midsummer Night's Dream.  This seemed like a much better choice for an 11 and 14 year-old's first live Shakespeare, so last Friday we did just that.  I had not doubt that Fenya would enjoy the production, as she is a voracious reader, and appreciates period language, but I was concerned that Glory might find the story's multiple settings confusing, or worse yet, boring.

Liz Nicholl's review found this rendition of MSND to be a bit much, but the colourful, farcical and immersive production was a lot of fun for those of us who don't get out much.  The minimalist stage (also used very effectively for King Lear) aided only by some giant flowers and grassy green blocks, moved us effectively from the halls of King Theseus to the forest court of the Fairy-King, Oberon.

Some of the entrances and exits took place in the very aisles next to where we sat, including a brief prelude which suggests Nick Bottom to be an everyday modern(ish) Greek who heads off to the agora to drink ouzo with the other men, accompanied by a shout of "Don't be an ass, Bottom, go home to your wife!", and who might be experiencing the play (and the play within a play) in his dreams, almost Inception-like.

The entirety of the cast were excellent, but special props need to go to Jesse Gervais and Sheldon Elter as Lysander and Demetrius for their characterful slapstick, and especially Kevin Corey's Robin Goodfellowe (more commonly known as Puck), who eats up most of the scenes he is in with voracious aplomb.

Most importantly, the girls had a great time: Fenya probably got more out of the language and plot, but Glory might have enjoyed it even more, and leaned forward on her seat for almost the entire performance with a gigantic grin on her face.  Seeing Shakespeare live and outdoors, it is hard to imagine a better way to experience the legendary playwright for the first time.  I certainly hope it isn't the last, and with any luck, we can return next year as well.  In the meantime, it looks like Whedon's Much Ado is out on Blu-ray October 7th, and Branagh's ginormous 1996 Hamlet is patiently awaiting our attentions on the PVR.

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