Every year I teach three Shakespeare plans: Midsummer Night’s Dream to Level 1/Grade 10, Julius Caesar to Level 2/Grade 11 , and Macbeth to Level 3/Grade 12. In past years, when I was teaching Grade 9, I used to teach Romeo and Juliet. Every time I start a class on Shakespeare I tell my students “What we’re doing here is a very artificial exercise. This is not how Shakespeare is meant to be experienced. It was written to be performed, not to be read off a page, studied in class, questions and essays written about it. What we’re doing here is like studying butterflies pinned to a board instead of watching them fly.”
Of course, I assign the questions and the essays anyway. But I always try to show a good movie version of whatever play we’re reading, and if the timing happens to be right, I like to take students to see the play we’re studying if anyone’s doing a performance (I don’t know why a theatre company hasn’t latched onto the idea of doing regular annual performances of the handful of plays that are on the school reading list — they’d have a huge guaranteed audience every term). Most of all, whenever I get the chance to see Shakespeare performed live myself, I try to go. And if that performance is outdoors on a fine summer’s evening, so much the better!
I’m fortunate to live in a place that, though a small city, offers such an embarrassment of riches in the live theatre department that I have to pick and choose what to see. Sometimes miss performances I know I’d have enjoyed, just because there’s not time to see everything. For twenty years we’ve had a wonderful outdoor summer festival called Shakespeare by the Sea. I’ve attended many of their performances going back to the very first season, out on the rocks at Logy Bay. I even spent a summer (1996) as an extra in Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, just to have the experience of being behind the scenes on the set of a play. In addition to that original performance space I’ve seen their plays downtown in the Murray Premises courtyard, at Bowring Park, at Harbourside Park and in various other locations.
For the last three years, we’ve been lucky enough to have another summer festival just a short drive outside town: the New World Theatre project in Cupids performs Shakespeare and other plays of that era in a semi-0utdoor theatre in the village of Cupids. It’s a wonderful tiny performance space built in the style of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, partially enclosed with a canvas roof over the seating area but still out in the open air.
This summer I’ve managed to take in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Bannerman Park with the Shakespeare by the Sea troupe, and The Tempest in Cupids. Both were very different experiences but I highly recommend both.
Midsummer Night’s Dream is a high-energy, fun performance by the mostly young Shakespeare by the Sea company. This is a play I know very well from teaching it and watching the movie version with each year’s class, so I can almost recite the lines along with the actors. That makes it easy to analyze what works and what doesn’t, and the perfomances and modern dress worked really well in this one. The production had a great Bottom and possibly the most enjoyable Puck I’ve ever seen, and in my opinion Puck and Bottom are what make Dream either work or not work. These guys (Glenn Gaulton as Bottom and Mitch McGee Herritt as the irrepressible Puck) really made it work, and the rest of the cast was solid. We took the kids along; it was the first full live Shakespeare play we’ve exposed them to and I think a fun, well-produced outdoor Dream is a wonderful gateway drug to get kids started on Shakespeare. My only criticism was that they used a large open performance area and the actors were quite a ways from the audience: added to that the fact that it was in a busy city park with a baseball game in progress nearby, made it difficult to hear some of the lines. I wished we’d been squeezed into a tighter space, closer to the actors, for better projection.
Projection is not a problem at the New World Theatre Project’s Indeavour Theatre in Cupids, where the space is so well-designed that even when actors are doing lines that require them to speak softly to one another, the audience can clearly hear every word. The Tempest was sort of the polar opposite of Dream for me in that it’s a Shakespeare play I don’t know well at all: I read it once in college and I think I’ve seen a production on TV once. A couple of times I had to check the program to clarify who was whom or to refresh myself on the plot details. But really, that was just me being obsessive: I didn’t need any of those clues to get wrapped up in the story.
This Tempest is a really interesting production in that it incorporates lots of local elements. Prospero’s island is pretty clearly Newfoundland, with occasional minor changes to the text to reference local animals and plants — we won’t worry too much about how the shipwrecked Duke of Milan wound up in this part of the brave new world. More significantly, the “spirit” Ariel is costumed and played as a Beothuk Indian, and an added character, another Beothuk spirit who does not speak any of Shakespeare’s lines but appears silently in many scenes, is given the name Nonosabasut, after a real-life Beothuk chief who was killed by English settlers. Cathy Elliot, who plays Ariel, also composed the score, which mixes the many songs of The Tempest with Aboriginal chanting, drumming and dancing in a way that makes the whole production truly magical. Add to this a powerful performance by Newfoundland theatre legend Greg Malone, who is best known as a comic actor but gets to show off both his comic and dramatic sides here. The rest of the cast is strong too — my personal favourite is Neil Butler, an actor whose work I have admired for at least twenty years. He plays a double role as the wise old councillor Gonzalo and the drunken butler Stephano, but I guarantee you will remember him as the drunken butler rather than the wise councillor!
If the setting of Midsummer Night’s Dream sometimes detracts a little from the performance (though Bannerman Park is an undeniably suitable location for a tangled tale of young love gone wrong!), the setting of the Cupids theatre does everything possible to enhance The Tempest, and makes it well worth the one-hour drive from town. My only quibble in Cupids has nothing to do with the quality of the production; I just wish the lovely little teashop on the grounds would stay open to serve supper after the performance is over. I’m sure enough people would be hungry by 8:30 to make it worth their while!
Midsummer Night’s Dream continues Sunday and Monday evenings at Bannerman Park at 6 p.m. until August 13; it’s a free show with donations welcome. The Tempest continues Saturday and Sunday nights at Cupids until August 26 (later in August there are some weeknight shows as well): tickets are $30, with cheaper tickets available if you’re willing to bring a blanket and sit on the ground (warning: groundlings may be coerced into dancing with the actors!). There’s also a dystopian, post-apocalyptic King Lear, again produced by Shakespeare by the Sea, going on Friday and Saturday nights at Signal Hill, though I haven’t seen that yet. (Each company has some non-Shakespeare productions on the go as well, but let’s stay focussed here).
If you are in the St. John’s area and like Shakespeare at all — or if you were bored by Shakespeare in school but suspect there might be more to the Bard than the questions your cruel English teacher assigned — please go see one of these productions. And if you’re not in the St. John’s area, but if there’s an open-air (or even indoor!) summer Shakespeare production anywhere near you, please, just for me, go watch a play — the way Shakespeare would have wanted you to see it.