I am very glad to say that the Stratford production of Maria Stuart, directed by Antoni Cimolino, is quite, quite excellent. I do go on about how much our theatre lacks stagings of Schiller and other underperformed classics, after all, and I wasn’t at all sure how the Festival would present this play. Having seen the show, I now seriously hope that it may open some people’s eyes to the fact that there are dramatic worlds elsewhere – that our theatrical universe need not be restricted to Shakespeare and the twentieth century.

Now, don’t get me wrong: formally, this is still not the kind of theatre I long for. It’s a pretty traditional production, and the moments when it departs from that tradition didn’t really do much for me. That the stage is surrounded by barbed wire coils, that the play is opened and closed by besuited security-guard with earpieces, that some furniture pieces are recognizably modern, that some of the projections show mazes – none of those fairly peripheral effects really took the show out of its visual historicism (it’s Elizabethan costumes all the way) or skewed the stylistic reliance on a fairly well-established realist standard of Canadian classical theatre acting. So aesthetically, I had my issues. While I can’t help but be impressed with Stratford’s continued ability to put tableaux on stage that look like a history painting sprung to life, I also find it theatrically unnecessary and wish they’d redirect those creative impulses elsewhere.

That said, it’s perhaps not a huge mistake to play to your strengths, as became obvious to me towards the end of the show. The first half of the play ends, thrillingly, just as the pivotal meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, one of the greatest scenes in Western dramatic literature (and largely unknown to English-speaking audiences), is about to begin: Elizabeth has addressed Mary, Mary turns to face her, and there’s a sudden radical lighting change: a blackout, with two sharply focused spots isolating the two queens. And then the first half is over. It’s a great finish, but I couldn’t help but wish the scene had continued that way: it was precisely the kind of foregrounded theatrical gesture that I want to see more of. When the play continued after the intermission, the action was reset by about a minute, and then continued without the startling lighting cue – I felt momentarily deprived, but I got over it. However, later in the play, Cimolino twice returns to the technical box of tricks, and neither effort quite worked for me: first, Mortimer’s fight to the death gets flooded in dramatic red; then Elizabeth and Leicester are isolated from the nobles surrounding them in a cluster of spots centre stage. It didn’t help that the latter looked awfully like a heart-shaped lighting pattern (not, I’m sure, the intended effect). Neither cue, to my mind, served those scenes: technically and visually, they were just too out of sync with the rest of the production, and in effect, dare I say it, they seemed a little clumsy. So, much as I would have liked to see a production that would have played the entire encounter between the queens in the pitch dark, with the two actors isolated in those sharply focused spots, it’s also clear to me that this was never going to be that production – and didn’t need to be.

Here’s the thing: compared to every single Shakespeare I’ve seen here, there was a looseness about the actors’ relationship with each other, with the text, and with the space they were playing in that I found delightful, at times downright thrilling, and that I wish they could discover in their staging of Shakespeare as well. We got to hear a panoply of accents, and it didn’t matter. People seemed liberated to roam, to use their bodies to express emotions, to interject noises, even seemingly improvised short lines, to comment physically, to interact in ways not immediately suggested by the lines. At times, this looseness cut right through the distance enforced by the costumes: when Elizabeth sits down with young Mortimer, there is nothing of ye olde Queen about Seana McKenna’s body: instead, she’s suddenly a stressed-out boss in the privacy of her own home, exhaustedly sinking into a chair and slumping across her kitchen table. Visually, this was a lovely moment, as the costume almost disappeared and the physical presence of a 21st-century body took over. Stylistically, it briefly fractured the facade of the peculiarly formal kind of stage realism I now recognize as the standard register of Canadian productions of classical texts. And for a moment, the friction between present actor and old text (or character) that I have raved about so much on this blog became palpable. I could go on with examples: Ben Carlson’s performance was probably my favourite, as his Burleigh seemed totally unpredictable, remarkably in the moment and determined to be unfettered by text or conventions. But the entire cast seemed liberated here in a way that was quite unlike anything else I’ve seen at Stratford.

So while this is a traditional show, close to the text and visually quite conventional, staged in a way that leaves conceptual markers to lighting cues during scene changes and the occasional suggestive visual effect without getting adventurous with the text, the characterization, or the overall representational logic, Cimolino still somehow managed to find a source of theatrical power and pleasure in that tradition that all too few productions recently have tapped as fully or as successfully. That this should happen with a non-Shakespearean play is both a good thing and deeply troublesome. It’s a good thing as it suggests that in the right hands, there may be life yet in the old system if it’s fed more new old plays. It’s troublesome as it emphasises, to me at least, just how poorly Shakespeare is served – not by the traditional approach itself, but by the peculiar reverence for Shakespeare that has attached itself, like a burr, to that approach. Nothing brings a play to life like actors that are visible, noticeably, presently alive in and to it. Cimolino’s Maria Stuart suggests that it’s still possible for that to happen in less-than-radical shows – as long as actors can shake off the burr of reverence.

One Response to Stratford Festival 2013, Day 2: Maria Stuart (Schiller / Cimolino)

  1. The lighting effect before the intermission sounds great because it leaves the audience in suspense – what’s gonna happen next? I can see it being useful for other productions where the climax is also from a discussion or conflict of 2 people…I’m thinking of Don Carlos right now.
    These long discussion scenes are often really difficult to place (before or after the break), to play and direct because it’s the moment that everyone is waiting for….usually because it has been highlighted in the program or its importance is taught in school (eg. Showdown Romeo and Tybalt). These leads to the pressure of ‘It’s got to be right’! Therefore, I’m not surprised Cimolino went to a standard staging of having the whole room naturalistically lit – “setting the scene”…though spots on the two ladies could have had more impact. In film, the scene probably would have been told through close up and not establishing shots.

    The Volkstheater Wien has Maria Stuart on it’s bill with two very strong female leads – Andrea Eckert and Martina Stilp. The director is Stephan Müller who directed Martina Stilp in Anna Karenina last season was chosen because he has a good way of modernizing classical texts. Anna Karenina was an aesthetically beautiful production with many ups and downs…and sad to say unspectacular end compared to its exciting beginning. The premiere of Maria Stuart is in December. Are you going to come watch it?

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