Sunday, June 28, 2009

(No.35) Wilde, Coward & two festivals

The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario and its counterpart in Stratford, Ontario, the Shakespeare Festival, are both splendid cultural institutions attracting many thousands of Americans and Canadians each year. 

While the plays of George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare continue to be, respectively, the artistic icons of the two festivals, they do not dominate each festival's seasonal programs. This year only 2 of the 11 plays of the Shaw Festival are by GBS while at Stratford the Bard's plays account for 3 of 14 presentations.

In 1935 Noel Coward, among the playwrights Pat and I particularly enjoy,  did 10 one act plays in London under the heading of "Tonight at 8:30". Most of the 10 are little known today except "Still Life" which was later adapted by Coward for the screen as the the still well known "Brief Encounter"(1945).

This season the Shaw festival is presenting all 10 of these one act plays in the form of 3 'plays' of 3 each plus the 10th as a stand alone presentation. We attended the trio being presented in Shaw's Festival Theatre as "Brief Encounters": Still Life, We Were Dancing and Hands Across The Sea;  directed by Jackie Maxwell.

These 'playlets' are all set in the mid-1930s, all supposedly about relationships with hints of the gathering storm in Europe and all terribly English in tone, dialogue and context. Ordinarily that would endear them to us but the Shaw presentation of "Brief Encounters" is curiously irritating in some ways and only adequate at best in its performances. The unconvincing English accents of the Canadian cast ought to have been replaced by crisp non-accented delivery.

"Hands Across The Sea" is the strongest of the three parts but on the whole "Brief Encounters" as presented at Shaw this year is a disappointment.

Over the years we have seen several productions of Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest". Indeed it has been staged previously at both Shaw and Stratford. It is a classic farce and still funny well over a century after it was written and first presented in London. 

This year's production at Stratford is directed by Festival veteran Brian Bedford (27th season) who also plays the part of the formidable Lady Bracknell. The cast's performances are generally strong , the delivery of Wilde's famous dialogue is crisp and the accents more than acceptable, the latter perhaps the result of Bedford's coaching (he is an Englishman). 

As Lady Bracknell I found Bedford in drag a bit of a distraction but Pat did not. It is certainly not new to have a male actor in this role. The late William Hutt, another Festival veteran, played the same part in a Stratford production more than 3 decades ago. 

It could be argued that the part of Lady Bracknell itself will tend to unbalance a production of "Earnest" if it is performed by an actor more well-known to the audience than the rest of the cast. We saw a production of the play in London's West End in which Maggie Smith did a star turn as Lady Bracknell. The audience gave her a standing ovation as soon as she first walked on stage. Satisfying for her but a distraction none the less.

This Stratford Festival production is enjoyable and well worth seeing but not particularly memorable, the latter opinion one from which Pat dissents. She liked this version more than I did.

* Brief Encounters continues at the Shaw festival until Oct 24,2009

* The Importance Of Being Earnest continues at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until Oct 30

Alastair Rickard