Stratford 2010 - Dangerous Liaisons and The Tempest
Every once in a while, just to prove they're like any other theatre company, Stratford will produce a clunker. I've seen lousy productions here, such as the 1973 Othello with an actor playing the title role whose accent was so thick that he was virtually unintelligible, and in the early 1980's they did Miss Julie by August Stridberg that set my teeth on edge. This year it is Dangerous Liaisons by Christopher Hampton.
It is the stage version of the novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos that has been filmed several times, including a version in 1988 with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, and a hip 90's version called Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whatever. What I saw today was a thoroughly unlikable production of a thoroughly unlikable play about thoroughly unlikable people. Even the glorious Martha Henry and the occasional flashes of humor from Tom McCamus as Valmont couldn't save this cold and jarring production. The settings on the Festival stage were a mixture of Rococo furniture and what appeared to be clear Lucite chairs in the Rococo style but see-through. I'm not sure whether this was done for effect or to give the audience a clearer view of the action. (They've been able to use non-transparent furniture on the thrust stage for as long as I've been going there without any ill effect.) The music was also a combination of period-style pieces interjected with what could only be called Queen on crack with harpsichords.
The plot revolves around a couple of bored rich French aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution making bets that involve sexual conquest and deception. It includes rape, sexual assault, subjugation, denigration, and driving people to madness for sport. At the end when they are held accountable, the regret is less about realizing they did wrong then it does about preserving their good name, and while the epilogue hints at the doom that lies in wait for all the aristocracy of France in 1785, it's overly dramatic and therefore silly.
I'm sure there is some reason the good people of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival chose this work, and I'm sure they thought they could do a production that makes the point about how cruel the rich can be. This wasn't it.
On the other hand, tonight's production of The Tempest was what made me fall in love with theatre in general and what keeps me coming back to Stratford year after year. Starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, it had all the ingredients that make the Stratford festival what it has always been for me: a stunning production with all the joy and staging that make you forget you're sitting in a theatre, acting that is so natural that it makes the poetry come alive. Even the rather cookie-cutter roles of Ferdinand and Miranda, the young lovers, were played to full effect by Gareth Potter and Trish Lindström. Ariel, the sprite, was magically done by Julyana Soelistyo to the degree that she was, in many ways, the soul of the play and on equal footing with the power and presence of Mr. Plummer. Caliban, the half-human slave of Prospero, becomes a sympathetic figure in the portrayal by Dion Johnstone, and the comic relief parts of Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Trinculo (Bruce Dow) were wonderfully done. The bad guys -- Prospero's brother and usurper and his fellow conspirators -- were done with the touch of evil that is required of such roles, but unlike previous productions where they are treated as pawns of Prospero, there was some depth and even some softness in their plight of being stranded by the storm that Prospero called forth to bring them to him for his vengeance.
Christopher Plummer had some mighty large shoes to fill. The last man to play the role of Prospero on the Festival Stage was William Hutt in his farewell performance in 2005. I saw that performance and thought it was masterful, but Mr. Plummer more than adequately honored both the role and the memory of Mr. Hutt. Bringing his own touch to the role and playing Prospero as a father to Miranda that had touches of a dad in it (the scene where he blesses the engagement of Ferdinand and Miranda has Dad-meets-Boyfriend all over it) proves -- again -- that Mr. Plummer is an actor that not just plays the role but takes the character to his heart in a way that few actors truly do. Rather than dominate the stage, he knows his part and his place as one of the ensemble.
Thanks to this production, The Tempest is becoming one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.