Sunday, August 08, 2010

Stratford 2010 - The Shaw Festival

We added a side trip this year to Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, and our first visit to the Shaw Festival. It's been going on for almost fifty years, and we've always talked about it, so we finally made our way from Stratford to NOTL -- about a three-hour drive -- and went to see Shaw's 1904 play John Bull's Other Island.

The town itself is very charming, with its Victorian-style homes and shops, more of a New England flavor than the Midwestern ambiance of Stratford's cornfields. It is also very popular; that is to say, the sidewalks were packed with tourists from all over, including, I'm sure, those making sidetrips from seeing Niagara Falls or weekenders from Toronto. We stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, smack dab in the middle of all of the tourism. It's a charming place, rambling over several buildings on the main street, and the rooms are lovely in that genially overstuffed Victorian way.

We had dinner at a very highly recommended Italian restaurant -- Ristorante Giardino -- and then went to the play at the Court Theatre, one of several venues for the festival, and the original space for the festival. The name is true to the place; the theatre is on the second floor of the city's old courthouse. It's a black-box space, three-quarters thrust, with room for about three hundred in the audience.

The play itself was new to me. I've seen or read most of Shaw's best-known works, but this comedy, written in 1904 at the urging of William Butler Yeats, was one I'd never read or seen. Frankly, I don't know why; it's funny, touching, and as is the case with most of Shaw's plays, loaded with political commentary and insight. His views of the relationship between England and Ireland are sharp and pointed; his characters -- both the English and the Irish -- are fully drawn, and in doing so, he manages to explode stereotypes and exploit them as well.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Two civil engineers from England come to Ireland to see about transforming a small village into a tourist resort, replete with a golf course and a hotel (a nod to NOTL?). Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell) is a typical English businessman of the time; exceedingly polite and an easy mark for the doubting and deliberate Irish hosts. He is accompanied by Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville), his business partner, and an Irishman from the town they're going to develop. Naturally Mr. Doyle is torn between his roots, his ambitions, and his feelings -- pride mixed with shame -- about his family and his homeland. Along the way, in typical Shaw fashion, we get comic scenes and political lectures about the struggle for Ireland's identity, and Shaw, being an Irishman who himself moved to London, much like Larry Doyle, makes the outcome a true question. And it is amazing how prescient he would be about the resolution and the revolution in Ireland years before came to be. More than a hundred years later, it's still a question.

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