Monday, July 6, 2015

The Stratford Festival

Myself and Elly with The Bard
Over the past week, I’ve had the privilege of spending two days in Stratford, Ontario, home to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. While the way the town so blatantly copies Stratford-Upon-Avon in England is a tad amusing, it does an excellent job. There’s the gorgeous Avon River, complete with swans, a quaint high street perfect for window shopping, and a half dozen theatres hosting world-class performers. In other words, it’s pretty much my dream town.

By taking two trips with my friend Elly (who definitely deserves a shout-out for organizing and driving!) I managed to see four shows: Pericles (late Shakespearean comedy), She Stoops to Conquer (18th century marriage comedy by Oliver Goldsmith), Hamlet (no explanation required), and Oedipus Rex (Greek tragedy by Sophocles). It was a rather eclectic mix, spread out over two thousand years and a variety of genres.

Hamlet, unsurprisingly, was my favourite. Pericles was beautiful and She Stoops to Conquer was hilarious and Oedipus Rex was intense, but Hamlet was all of these, and more.

Programs! :)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the production. Hamlet is my favourite play of all time; I’ve spent countless hours poring over the text for essays and presentations, and I’ve watched the 2009 RSC production starring David Tennant nearly half a dozen times. I have full scenes memorized (just ask my grad school friends!) and I can pick out variants from the three different early printings. I’m more than a little bit of a Hamlet nerd.

The beginning wasn’t fantastic. The lines in the first two scenes were spoken so quickly I could barely catch them, and Jonathan Goad (as Hamlet) raced through soliloquies and spoke lines almost sarcastically when I was used to hearing them delivered in a melancholy tone. It also took me quite a while to get used to the Canadian accents—event though I’ve been back in Canada for nearly a year and my own British accent has long since gone, it was still weird to hear Shakespeare with a Canadian accent for the first time, since every other production I’ve seen, whether live or on film, had British accents.

But it got a lot better. Or, perhaps, I allowed myself to enjoy it more. I began to appreciate this new Hamlet, with his dry humour, and Claudius with his hearty laugh, and Gertrude with her slow loss of everything she loved. Over the course of the play I stopped caring about the accents or whether the actors fit my mental picture and just lost myself in the story.

Backdrop of She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon
I cried at the end. Not because I was so sad that Hamlet died, but because, just sitting in my seat for three hours, I had been through so much. In front of me, characters had lived and died, hated and loved, laughed and cried, fought and made peace, betrayed and been loyal, found forgiveness or died unrepentant. The whole of human experience had been played out there, directly in front of me, and I had been a part of it.

It made me remember why I love theatre, why I plan to literally spend the rest of my life studying plays from over four hundred years ago. It’s because the stories are timeless, because a good dramatist can create characters and plots and themes that are no less applicable now than they were hundreds of years ago. And also because, in the theatre, we can become part of those stories, watching the characters come to life in front of us.

Sometimes, when I spend all day at my laptop in a windowless office typing words that seem meaningless, I forget why I study English. Yesterday, at the Stratford festival, I remembered.