Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Stratford’s “Mary Stuart”, Again

The Stratford Festival “Mary Stuart”, by and large, had received excellent notices.

All reviewers had offered a uniform interpretation of the play—its theme, they claimed, was religious zealotry—and such nonsense suggested two things: they had never read Schiller’s play; and they had relied upon a Stratford Festival press kit proffered to reviewers in order to interpret the play.

A couple of reviewers had zinged the actress portraying Mary Stuart, and a couple of different reviewers had zinged the actress portraying Elizabeth I, but otherwise the acting ensemble was praised. Such assessments were, I thought, unfounded: the quality of the ensemble was nowhere good enough to carry such a rich and rewarding drama. The main characters were so weakly portrayed that a young actor in the subsidiary role of Mortimer riveted the audience’s attention each time he appeared. His name: Ian Lake.

The reviewers had praised the direction of Antoni Cimolino. Cimolino had assumed the leadership of The Stratford Festival this season, and “Mary Stuart” had been his first production as Artistic Director. I suspect the reviewers had been hesitant to offer meaningful and accurate assessments of Cimolino’s work—Cimolino’s work was not good—because “Mary Stuart” was Cimolino’s inaugural production.

Perhaps attempts to reintroduce the works of Schiller to English-speaking audiences should be abandoned. Every time I have seen a Schiller production in North America or the U.K., the effort has been manhandled by directors and actors both.

English-language critics have proven themselves to be equally clueless on the subject of Schiller. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of the 2005 Donmar Warehouse production of “Mary Stuart”, staged on Broadway in 2009, had to be seen to be believed. A Kenneth Tynan review of a 1958 Old Vic production of “Mary Stuart” described the play as “a Spanish tragedy composed of themes borrowed from Hamlet and Phèdre”—words that trailed Tynan to his grave.

And the issue of the ridiculous runway thrust at Stratford remains. Mercifully, we saw only two productions at the venue with the runway thrust—“Measure For Measure” and “Mary Stuart”—and I doubt I shall ever again be enticed into such an unsatisfactory playing space. Watching the awkward placements of actors around the large and impractical arena—first a scene over here, then a scene over there—made it hard for us to take anything seriously.

To our amusement, my brother proved amazingly accurate in predicting where each succeeding formation of actors would occur. (He is, after all, an engineer.)

My mother said that watching “Mary Stuart” was akin to watching grade school pupils being shepherded around a gymnasium during some peculiar elementary-school pageant.

Joshua said the whole thing reminded him of marching band practice in high school.

My father said the arena should be flooded and used for the presentation of mock naval battles.

Myself, I would refuse to work in such a space, as director or actor. So many compromises are involved—scenic compromises, lighting compromises, blocking compromises—that any production other than a spectacle is destined to fail.

In such an unsatisfying venue, in any given scene, roughly 75 per cent of the audience is frozen out of the action—in which case I say: “Why bother?”


  1. Perhaps the arena could serve adequately as a venue for Britten's "Billy Budd." The arena could be flooded, and the fully-rigged HMS Indomitable could rest upon the stage.

    (Then the director would, of course, just move all the singers up and down deck. Forget it. )


    I'm concerned about the Minnesota Orchestra. It seems to me that only a miracle at this point could resolve the conflict by September 15, the last date, purportedly, a new contract could be ratified which would satisfy the Music Director.

    If the Orchestra loses its Music Director would ANY conductor who is not a hack take this position . . . if one ever came about?

  2. I think the venue is ideal for a reenactment of The Battle Of Midway. What with its high ceiling, the venue would allow the air operations that determined the outcome at Midway to be depicted in full.

    I do not see a resolution anytime soon with the Minnesota Orchestra—but the orchestra will have no trouble replacing Aksnav Omso. I can name two conductors off the top of my hat—Andrew Litton and Mark Wigglesworth—that would take the post in a minute. In my opinion, the orchestra should look at one of the young German hotshots . . . but I doubt that will happen. We’ll get yet another conductor with modest skills, no better and no worse than Aksnav Omso.

    You must keep in mind that we never hear top-level conductors in Minneapolis. The only top-level conductor to have appeared in the Twin Cities since the 1990s was Charles Dutoit, who made a single appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra about ten years ago.

    People in Minnesota who want to hear top conductors—or top instrumentalists, for that matter—must travel East.

    You know how I have mentioned to you, for years, that the Milwaukee Symphony will inevitably go under? Well, the Milwaukee Symphony recently had its bank credit lines cut. With the orchestra’s massive outstanding and non-funded pension obligations, the Milwaukee Symphony will be forced to declare bankruptcy in the next couple of years—and Milwaukee Symphony pensioners will be cut off.