Monday, April 12, 2010

(No.87) Teddy Boys & SS costumes

Pat and I recently attended three plays: two at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario and the other at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

At the Shaw we saw preview performances of this season's production of Mary Chase's play "Harvey" and Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband". At the Grand we attended a stage version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice".

"Harvey", a 1944 Broadway production which ran for more than 1700 performances, is perhaps most widely known because of the 1950 movie based on the play starring James Stewart. "Harvey" is a whimsical comedy about a gentle, mid-western eccentric named Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend, Harvey, is a 6 foot white rabbit only Dowd can see.

The Shaw production of "Harvey" is directed by Joseph Ziegler and performed in the 268 seat Royal George Theatre, one of the four Niagara-On-The-Lake venues used by the Shaw Festival. The play is a delight featuring strong performances by the entire cast, particularly by Peter Krantz as Dowd and Mary Haney as his sister. In the hands of director and cast this gentle comedy holds up well and provides a rewarding time in the theatre.

"Harvey" runs until Oct 31 at the Royal George.

Between 1891 and 1895 Oscar Wilde wrote 4 plays, all of them society comedies of contemporary England: "Lady Windermere's Fan", "A Woman of No Importance", An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest". He wrote no more plays prior to his death. Having been tried and convicted in the latter 1890s as a "sodomite" and sentenced to 2 years hard labour, Wilde afterwards went to France where he died a pauper in 1900.

Wilde is one of our favourite playwrights although "An Ideal Husband" is not my favourite play of his -- "The Importance of Being Earnest " is. I confess that we cannot resist attending any production of "Earnest" we come across like last season's production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (see column No. 35 on RickardsRead.com). I recall in particular a production of "Earnest" we attended in London's West End with Maggie Smith playing Lady Bracknell. She received an anticipatory standing ovation as soon as she walked on stage.

The Shaw production of "An Ideal Husband" is directed by the Shaw Festival's artistic director Jackie Maxwell. It is presented in the 869 seat Festival Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake and also runs through Oct 31.

According to Maxwell she and the Shaw's designers decided to retain the play's "original Victorian setting ... and then just twist it ever so slightly, letting our contemporary sensibilities match what feels in so many ways a very modern play".

This "twisting" manifests itself in a two level set that is all modern pillars, stairs and iron railings (it looked to me like the anteroom of a second tier Las Vegas casino) as well as in a few costumes irritatingly inappropriate to the period. For me it produced the same reaction as I have had to the stage affectation of dressing up Shakespearean actors as Teddy Boys or SS officers.

As in the Shaw Festival series last season of Noel Coward's one act plays, so in "An Ideal Husband": some of the Canadian actors are more successful in carrying off an upper class English accent than others. Indeed it is almost painful to listen to an unnatural and strained delivery of Wilde's lines by some actors; one almost expects Saturday Night Live's Jon Lovitz to pop out of the wings and yell "acting".

The strongest performances were by Catherine McGregor as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley and Steven Sutcliffe as Lord Goring.

Don't mistake my previous comments for a pan of the play itself. The Shaw production of "An Ideal Husband" is worth seeing and overall an entertaining presentation. It also provides, for those who have never read the play or seen it performed but have watched the 1999 movie starring Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore, an effective correction to the movie's distortions of the plot and dialogue.

Those who, like Pat and me, regard Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice with particular affection may well share our scepticism about anyone's ability to mount a stage adaptation of the novel that is worth seeing. To that challenge add the devotion many feel to the already classic adaptation of the novel to the television screen, the one in 1995 that devoted 5 hours to a presentation of the story starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet supported by an absolutely brilliant cast of English character actors.

In fact the Grand Theatre production was brilliantly effective. The Grand's artistic director, Susan Ferley, also directed its presentation of "Pride and Prejudice". She wisely chose a version that had been staged by the Gate Theatre, Dublin. The novel's storyline is made clear to the audience through a very effective use of Elizabeth Bennett as a narrator speaking directly to the audience from time to time.

This production at the Grand Theatre ended in early April but deserves notice nevertheless as a superior effort not only by its director but also by its large cast and production crew.

The Grand Theatre mounts professional stage productions throughout the year. Its schedule is well worth keeping track of at www.grandtheatre.com.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca