NATHAN THE WISE, MOTHER’S DAUGHTER and HENRY VIII at THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL
NATHAN THE WISE
Written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and translated by Edward Kemp
Directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte
Set design by Teresa Przybylski
Costume design by Michelle Tracey
Lighting design by Steve Lucas
Sound design by Debashis Sinha
Featuring: Diane Flacks, Shelly Antony, Miranda Calderon, Jakob Ehman, Deb Filler, Danny Ghantous, Ron Kennell, Hannah Miller, Harry Nelken, Sarah Orenstein, Oksana Sirju, ladeen Tawfeek
Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Set design by Lorenzo Savoini
Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Debashis Sing
Dramaturge Bob White
Casting by Beth Russell
Featuring: Beryl Bain, Jessica B. Hill, Irene Poole, Andrea Rankin, Shannon Taylor, Maria Vacratsis, Gordon Patrick White
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by Francesca Callow
Lighting design by Louise Guinand
Composer and sound design by Keith Thomas
Casting by Beth Russell
Featuring: Jonathan Goad, Rod Beattie, Scott Wentworth, Wayne Best, Tim Campbell, Stephen Russell, Brad Hodder, Roy Lewis, Qasim Khan, John Dolan, Jake Runeckles, Rylan Wilkie, Ron Kennell, Shelly Antony, Andrew Iles, Jordin Hall, Danny Ghantous, Irene Poole, Alexandra Lainfiesta, Kim Horsman, Jacklyn Francis, Oksana Sirju
Two rarely produced classics and one shiny new premiere are currently running in repertory at Stratford’s Studio Theatre and they are all worthwhile.
Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is a play whose heart is in the right place – but it beats a-rhythmically in Birgit Schreyer Duarte’s scholarly but overly long production that never quite lands where it should. Still and all, the opportunity to see Lessing’s play written in 1779 and famously pronounced by the playwright as “un-produceable at this time in Germany’s history” is welcome. It took the two giants of the German theatre, Goethe and Schiller, to finally give Nathan the Wise its first successful production in 1801. Sadly, Lessing never lived to see it. He died in 1783.
Lessing’s plea for secular tolerance and human understanding in a world that today is beset with a rising tide of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is a message well worth receiving and there are certainly some stand-out performances in this production. Diane Flacks plays Nathan (in her Stratford debut), who in the program is described as “a rich Jew”. The decision to gender bend the leading role here that has traditionally (in the post WW II period) been played by a number of senior Jewish male actors, sometimes with direct connections to the Holocaust, was probably, well, wise. I think we lean sympathetically toward her performance especially in the longer speeches such as the “Parable of the Rings” that lays out the philosophical thesis of the play. Another very welcome performance, and also a Stratford debut, comes from Danny Ghantus in the role of Saladin, the Muslim sultan.
However, I have my doubts about the more contemporary ethnographic updates featuring market-place hawkers selling tchotchkes to audience members while exclaiming “made in China!”
Some of my problem with this production might very well be related to the 2003 translation by Edward Kemp originally commissioned by the Chichester Festival that softens Lessing’s pointed critique of how endemic anti-Semitism is within Christian doctrine. This is partially alluded to in the indispensable program notes to Nathan the Wise provided by Holger Syme, an associate professor of English and Drama at the University of Toronto. People really need to see this play within the context that Syme provides in his brief historical overview and I hope audiences take the time to read his commentary.
It’s my feeling that the production as a whole could have benefited by more serious hands on dramaturgical work that went straight back to the original German. This is ironic, because one of the most important documents that Lessing left for every serious student of the drama was his epoch-making series of critical essays found in the Hamburg Dramaturgy.
In Mother’s Daughter, actor/teacher/playwright/director, Kate Hennig, continues with her immensely popular series of plays (three so far) that detail the back-stories of the Tudor queens and the women and men who surrounded them. The Tudors may have been small in number but their influence on the course of European history and religious history was large. To that end, Hennig’s proto-feminist project that exploits the dramatic potential of the Tudor women, was a stroke of brilliance.
The first in the series, The Last Wife (her take on Katherine Parr) had its premiere at the Stratford Festival in 2015 and has subsequently been produced across Canada and in the U.S. regional theatre circuit. In the second play, The Virgin Trial, I enjoyed the way Hennig framed the story of Elizabeth I (or Bess) as a police procedural using colloquial dialog to tell the story of a young teenager involved in the deadly business of trying to overthrow her own brother. It reminded me a bit of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, that kind of did the same with a “who framed Richard III?” detective story motif.
This latest in the series centers on Mary I or Bloody Mary, as she was referred to as the first Queen of England (not to be confused with Mary, Queen of Scots). Although the framing of a court investigation has been dropped and not been replaced with any other plot device, the dialog continues with its colloquial flavor, that does not exactly “dumb down” the language, but does free the playwright from having to replicate Elizabethan verse, prose and the strictures of imitating iambic pentameter which could have been a disastrous exercise here avoided entirely.
Hennig invests heavily in her main character who carries almost every scene, and in Shannon Taylor she has found her Mary. Her interactions with Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin), her cunning half-sister, Bess (Jessica B. Hill) and the spectral figure of her mother, Catalina, aka Katherine of Aragon (Irene Poole), Henry VIII’s first wife, makes for a pulsating story which is here provided a brisk staging by director, Alan Dilworth.
Henry VIII is one of those rarely staged Shakespeare history plays (Stratford has produced it only three times since its founding in 1953) that, in Martha Henry’s superb production, comes at you like one of those kid’s colorful pop-up books and you think, “how did I miss this one – who knew?”. But of course, if you have been following Hennig’s work at Stratford, you are well primed for the events that follow in Henry VIII, which conveniently conflates the early and middle years of Henry’s reign and tends to rearrange and diminish other tragic events that came later, especially with regard to the deaths of his wives who came after Queen Katherine. All of this, in order to favor the big finish, which peaks in some of the most flowery language found anywhere in the canon, and forecasts the golden reign of Queen Elizabeth, who comes onto the world stage as a babe in her father’s arms just as the curtain falls.
But to the playwrights’ (Shakespeare and his collaborator John Fletcher) credit, they tell us point blank right off the top that this ain’t no comedy. In the Prologue we are cautioned, “I come no more to make you laugh” and “…see how this mightiness meets misery.” That’s no lie.
The mightiest among them is the commanding role of Queen Katherine. She is played with all the majesty and authority befitting a great Queen by Irene Poole. I should add here that I saw Mother’s Daughter and Henry VIII back to back in a matinee and evening of theatre-going while attending the SF. To say that, taken as a whole, Poole turns in a tour de force performance hardly does her justice. I do believe that if the Stratford Festival would allow audiences to vote in a kind of “people’s choice” award for “best performance by an actor this season at the Stratford Festival,” Poole would win hands down.
Next up is the charming and conniving (perhaps a little bit too much on the charming side), Rod Beattie in the role of Cardinal Wolsey. His famous speech, and one of the most quoted passages from the play, “Farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness” which shows the cardinal divesting his crimson cap, his shoes and the various robes of his office, is one of the most affecting scenes in the play.
And to finish out this perfectly tuned triad, we have the ever reliable Jonathan Goad as Henry VIII. In Goad, we have all of the measured magistery necessary to carry off the ritual and ceremony of the court but also the quick pivot to intemperance and anger that erupts when the King learns that he has been misled. Although the playwrights have not endowed Henry with the same dramatic flare that the other two have, Goad remains regal in his robe of gold throughout. One could not ask for a finer performance.
Also excellent supporting work here being provided in the roles of Duke of Buckingham (Tim Campbell), Duke of Suffolk (Wayne Best), Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Brad Hodder), Sandys, Lord Chancellor/ Prologue-Epilogue (Roy Lewis), Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (Qasim Khan), Anne Boleyn (Alexandra Lainfiesta), Duchess of Norfolk (Kim Horsman), and Jane Seymour (Oksana Sirju).
My only query to the powers-that-be at the SF after seeing this magnificent staging, is why on earth has it been programmed in the 260 seat Studio Theatre? This production has everything that Stratford audiences love and have come to expect from the Festival. A play by Shakespeare with a strong cast, beautiful costumes, excellent design work (by Francesca Callow) and all of the ample doses of pomp, pageantry, banquets, procession and heraldry that patrons eagerly purchase tickets for. And since the bean counters at the SF are charging an unconscionable $150 a ticket to see a show that is way bigger than its cramped environment can accommodate comfortably, it doesn’t take much knowledge of arithmetic to understand that this breakout hit of the current season (whose run has now been extended) should be playing in the 1,800 seat Festival Theatre where more people would have an opportunity to see it.