Sunday, August 25, 2013

Not Festival Fare

On our second day at The Stratford Festival, we attended a matinee performance of a new play, “Taking Shakespeare”, by Canadian playwright John Murrell. In a four-decade career, Murrell has never seen his work win advocacy outside Canada.

“Taking Shakespeare” is a two-hour, two-character play whose duo themes are the nature of education and the continued relevance of the works of William Shakespeare.

The plot is simple. An aging professor of literature at a small, third-rate college is asked to offer private instruction to a college student in peril of flunking a freshman course in Shakespeare. Tension is added to the scenario by the circumstance that the college student’s mother is a dean at the college—and by the circumstance that the college is considering terminating the employment of the aging professor of literature, who no longer gets along with her students or her peers.

“Taking Shakespeare” has been written before—a thousand times by a thousand playwrights in a thousand languages. Murrell brings nothing new to the overused premise; Murrell offers no unfamiliar twists to freshen the stale formula.

The Stratford Festival commissioned the play for actress Martha Henry, who first appeared at Stratford in 1962. Over the last fifty-one years, Henry has played all the classic roles at Stratford; it was exhausting merely to skim the list of Henry’s Stratford credits in the program booklet.

Henry is a fine actress. She easily held my attention all afternoon. Whether Henry is a great actress, I cannot say. Any actress might have played the part in “Taking Shakespeare”—the part demands no virtuosity and no range—and succeeded as well as Henry.

The young actor playing the student in need of tutoring overdid the overwhelmed college freshman bit in the early scenes. Only once the script moved beyond the student’s laundry-list recitations of popular culture—all designed to show the audience that young persons respond only to junk—was the actor free to begin to offer a genuine performance.

There is nothing wrong with small-scale, unchallenging plays if well-staged and well-acted. “Taking Shakespeare” provided a pleasant afternoon pastime . . . but nothing beyond that.

Whatever the play’s merits (and I believe they are few), the play certainly is not festival fare.


It was at last year’s Shaw Festival that we first heard people talk about Martha Henry.

Henry had been the director of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” at the 2012 Shaw Festival, but Henry had not appeared onstage last year in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

Several Canadians told us last summer that Henry was Canada’s finest actress. We were, in consequence, keen to see her in action.

Having now seen Henry onstage, I cannot say we were disappointed—yet I cannot say we were particularly impressed.

Henry’s career has been almost exclusively a Canadian one. For eighteen months, in 1971 and 1972, Henry was a member of the short-lived Repertory Theatre Of Lincoln Center—but otherwise Henry has not worked in New York. As for London, I can locate no West End, NT or RSC credits for her.

Oddly, Henry was born and raised in Michigan. Henry attended Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh at the very time Carnegie-Mellon’s acting program was the finest in North America. And yet Henry has never had a U.S. career; since the 1950s, Henry has lived and worked in Canada.

I asked my parents how Henry compared to the great actresses they have seen onstage. My mother and father responded, instantaneously and simultaneously: “Jessica Tandy”.

My parents’ response was both a great compliment and a not-so-great compliment. My parents have stated, for years, that they have seen many, many exceptional actresses, but only three genuinely great ones: Constance Cummings, Rosemary Harris and Irene Worth. My parents, I know, have never considered Jessica Tandy to be among the very finest actresses they have seen; when recalling memorable performers, my parents always rattle off thirty or so names before “Jessica Tandy” pops up.

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