As the last hurrah of summer, Cosimo and I spent a couple of days at the Stratford Shakespeare festival. Since I'm not really a Shakespearian and I wasn't a drama geek in high school or college (I was a band geek, which is totally different), I've never before seen the phenomenon of the summertime Shakespeare festival up close and personal, and my exposure to the mass-market Shakespeare Industry has likewise been relatively limited.
It was equal parts delightful and slightly depressing.
The delightful parts had to do with what happens when a small, largely rural community gives itself over to live theatre for almost half the year: how it makes it happen, where it makes it happen, and the sweet, wacky, unpretentiousness of the endeavor. Stratford has a handsome historic downtown of four or five blocks, perched prettily on a river (the Avon, natch, and filled with swans, double natch). But it's encircled by aging strip malls that are in turn surrounded by cornfields, and some of the incongruity of the festival's location was summed up by the sign that ushered us into town:
("Welcome to Stratford: home of the Stratford Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress")
The theatre in which we saw our first play, a production of The Winter's Tale, felt similarly improvised: it was the repurposed Stratford Kiwanis Club, adjacent to the Stratford Lawn Bowling Association (whose bowlers were quite active the two days we were there). But although I was dubious about the space, based on the building's unhandsome exterior and lobby, the theatre was smartly designed, with not a bad seat in the house--and, more importantly, the production itself was fantastic.
In fact, the best parts of the festival were the most amateurish, in the best sense of that word: though the actors were all professionals, there was a palpable sense that they and the audience (even the annoying lady with the dyed-red hair in the row behind us, who was loudly showing off her Shakespearian expertise before the show and during intermission) were there out of love for the plays, for Shakespeare, and for live theatre. And if you have to be a tourist in a tourist town, it's pleasant for it to be one with three bookstores on the main drag, where you can saunter to a tasty post-show dinner at midnight, and where all the other tourists also have rolled-up programs popped beneath their arms.
But the less amateurish stuff was less agreeable. The mainstage production--the one in the fancy theatre, with the big-name star, and with lots of special effects--was dreadful. I don't mind an expensive spectacular that's calculated to appeal to people less familiar with the play, as long as the play itself is done reasonably well. But I do mind when a couple of actors in major roles phone in terrible performances (messing up cues, delivering their lines as if they were in a language they didn't actually understand, mugging rather than acting) and most of the rest of the cast is so wooden and lifeless it's hard to believe they are professionals. I'd have said that productions like the second one we saw were why some people hate Shakespeare. . . except that the audience around us plainly loved it.
But that's what funds the smaller productions, I guess: the fact that there wasn't a vacant seat even at a midweek matinee in a theatre that seats almost 2,000; that charter buses disgorged tourists all day long; and that the gift shop had lines longer than those for the ladies' restrooms. And if that's the bargain, I'll take it.