Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2011

I was told the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, has been suffering the effects of the world-wide downturn. Receipts are down by a third, I heard, and Americans, who once flocked there, are staying away in droves, they said, now that the once lowly loonie (or Canadian dollar) is worth about ten percent more than the once almighty U.S. greenback.

Well you couldn’t prove it by what I saw on a visit to the 2011 edition of this showcase of dramatic art that has been going strong since 1952.

The productions were as sumptuous as ever, often eye-poppingly so. Maybe there were a few more empty seats in the less desirable locations, but I can’t remember paying much attention before. The only show where empty seats were much in evidence was Titus Andronicus and, hey, it was Titus Andronicus. Lopped off limbs and torn out tongues are probably not a huge draw among the genteel crowds that the Festival attracts.

It was hard to get a room at the better B&Bs and I and the beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with were forced to move twice in a week. The restaurants were as full as ever, with reservations at more popular places sometimes impossible to come by. The streets were filled with strollers chatting animatedly about the show they’d just seen and the lake seemed to have more ducks than ever. In short, the place seemed to be prospering.

I can feel the wallet pain of those Americans because after all I am one, but it will take more than a declining dollar to keep me away from Stratford because, quite simply, there is no other place just like it in the world (although friends tell me that Ashland in Oregon is every bit its equal).

Here you can see world-class actors performing in terrific productions (marred only rarely by Darren Nichols-esque directors) boasting Broadway style production values with the Broadway-sized budgets to sustain them. Moreover, many of the Festival’s finest actors return year after year. One of the great joys of the theater, harder and harder to come by these days, is seeing the same core group of actors playing a wide variety of roles in a wide variety of periods and styles. Why, I wondered, were these great performers so loyal when any of them could be pulling down big bucks on television or film in Hollywood?

This year I learned one possible answer. It turns out that the green rooms in every theatre have a personal chef on duty. The Festival obviously takes Hamlet’s injunction to “see the actors well bestowed” very seriously indeed. However, I suspect the real answer is that Stratford gives them a chance to live the actor’s dream, which is to have a place like Stratford where they can do good work in a first-class setting for intelligent and committed audiences.

This year we over extended ourselves and saw ten plays in five days. (Note to self: Plan to stay longer next year.) I can’t honestly say we loved them all but that was usually because of the play not the production. We also missed what by poplar consensus is the season’s biggest smash, Jesus Christ Superstar. I must confess we left at the intermission of a matinee performance of Camelot largely because we had seen the heart-wrenching Grapes of Wrath the night before and had passed a restless night; we were exhausted.

For the rest, here is what we saw, in rough order of our enjoyment, with links to brief reviews.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Misanthrope

Twelfth Night

The Homecoming

Titus Andronicus

Richard III

Hosanna

Shakespeare’s Will

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