The Canadian Act II (concluded)

This is the final installment of my reviews of the shows I saw at Stratford in July. My previous review is here, and you can follow the internal links back to see all prior reviews of this season. Next week I’m going back to see four more shows, which I will review thereafter as The Canadian Act III.

Among its many missions, Stratford has undertaken to support new plays, particularly but not exclusively Canadian plays, both through workshops and readings and full-fledged productions. The results have been a mixed bag; I was very taken with an adaptation of a Robertson Davies novel, Tempest Tost, in 2001, but I reacted relatively coolly to the ambitious efforts of Peter Hinton and the late Timothy Findlay.

I am not sure what, precisely, drives Stratford’s choices of new plays. There is a clear preference for material that relates in some fashion to classical drama, whether because it is set in period or directly re-writes classical works or is written in a deliberately archaic style. I have no problem with that preference and no problem with those kinds of relations. But there is, generally, a baroque quality to these works that, to my mind, makes them weak as drama. Next week I’m going to see Pentecost, a contemporary play, and I’m very excited about it, but I’m also apprehensive about finding the same faults with it that I have found with some of these other plays, or that I have found with some of the work of Peter Shaffer, or of Tom Stoppard since his play, Arcadia.

But there is a bigger problem with contemporary theater than an overly baroque and insufficiently dramatic conception of the drama, and that is the predominance of what I have to call Ophrah-fied notions of character and conflict. Elizabeth Rex and The Swann both suffered from a conception of character and conflict that has been corrupted by our therapeutic discourse. Another play that currently holds the stage at Stratford – The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, which we saw last year – is a tour-de-force in terms of acting but it has the soul of a Lifetime miniseries. I am greatly troubled by the rise of this kind of play at Stratford. I know why actors like these plays, and they give them a chance to do some good acting. And for all I know it’s good for them as actors to do this kind of work. But I don’t think it’s good for the audience; it is educating that audience in the wrong direction, to expect the wrong things. And, I will be frank, I just don’t find these kinds of plays compelling.

Which brings me to Shakespeare’s Will.

Let me begin by saying that I would probably pay to hear Seanna McKenna read the phone book. There are a host of great actors affiliated with Stratford, and she is one of the best. I don’t know that she has been ideally used in recent years; last year she was divine in London Assurance, but that play is a ball of fluff, and woefully mis-cast in a generally problematic production of Twelfth Night. The prior year she played in Orpheus Descending, a play I am surprised to find I am the only one not to like. I have to go back to 2004 to find roles that were worthy of her: she dominated Henry VIII as Queen Catherine, and was side-splittingly hilarious as Dotty Otley in Noises Off. But even when she’s in a weak play or a role that isn’t ideal for her, she is a joy to watch.

Nonetheless, and in spite of the fact that if you see this play you will get to see McKenna, and nobody else, for over an hour of theater, I must say I am hard-pressed to recommend doing so.

The subject of the play is Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. The play consists of her reminiscences about their life (more apart than together) as she contemplates opening her husband’s will the day after his death. We follow her thought from the moment they met (watching a traveling theatrical company) down to the "present" of the play, with occasional switch-backing.

Now, you can do a great deal with the story of Will and Anne, and how their life related to the work, and what the deal was with that second-best bed. But Vern Thiessen doesn’t do it. There are a variety of gags that require knowledge of the plays, but the gags are neither especially clever nor especially profound, and none have remained in the mind a few weeks after seeing the play. There is literally no attempt to connect anything about Anne’s life, or her relationship with Will Shakespeare, to the work; indeed, the portrait of Anne is of an abandoned wife (as, indeed, she was) who had no idea what Will was really up to in the city (as, indeed, she probably was not). But if there’s nothing about Shakespeare in this play, then why do we care? What, precisely, is supposed to be so interesting about Anne Hathaway?

As it turns out, not much. Her father didn’t think much of Will. Neither did Will’s sister Joan think much of her. The kids were a challenge, particularly with her husband absent for nearly their entire lives. She took lovers, and Will didn’t really mind because he had lovers, too (men, as it happens). How exactly we are to square this unjealous Shakespeare with the author of The Winter’s Tale, this parentally indifferent Shakespeare with the author of The Tempest, is a good question that Thiessen doesn’t ask, much less answer. (I don’t, by the way, mean to suggest that Shakespeare wrote plays in anything remotely like a confessional mode. But he had his peculiar obsessions, and two very frequent ones are sexual jealousy and fathers who can’t let go of their daughters.) The will of the title is carried about by McKenna all through the play, as she dithers over whether to open it or not; we are expecting some very profound revelation about the meaning of the second-best bed business as the payoff. The playwright is rather keen not to confine this revelation to the play, and so I’m afraid I must disappoint him by telling you here: Shakespeare stiffs his wife because he blames her for the death of their son, Hamnet. He drowned when Anne took the kids down to the shore during a smallpox epidemic, you see. It was very traumatic for her, but she moved on, and he never could. If you are interested in a story about that kind of tragedy, might I recommend reading this instead.

I am reluctant to be quite this critical. But I have noticed that the overall reception of this play has been extremely positive, and I’m really not sure why. All I can think of is that it is acted very effectively; McKenna’s timing is always excellent, she inhabits the character thoroughly, and so forth. But why should I care about this story? If her name were not Anne Hathaway, it is very hard for me to imagine that Stratford would put this play on, and yet the play tells us nothing that sheds light on Shakespeare’s work, so there is no significance to the fact that it is Anne Hathaway telling this story. I was critical of the same therapeutic assumptions in Findlay’s Elizabeth Rex, but that play was vastly more ambitious than this, and did at least have something to say about Shakespeare the man, and the significance of theater in his day and ours. I didn’t really agree with what it had to say, and I didn’t always find it dramatically successful, but I didn’t find it entirely trite.

Hopefully I will have a more positive feeling about Pentecost, which we’re seeing next week, along with An Ideal Husband, A Delicate Balance, and Oklahoma! In the meantime, I hope nobody at Stratford is reading my negative reviews, and, if they are, remember, I only do this out of love.