Saturday, August 13, 2005

Stratford Diary

The light posting over the last day or so is based on a number of factors, not the least of which is that I’m not spending a whole lot of time in my hotel room, but rather out doing the things that one does when they’re on vacation at a theatre festival in Canada. In addition, the wi-fi connection at the hotel is sketchy at best, so making entries takes longer than dial-up. But, to quote Lanford Wilson, you go with what you got.

So far we’ve seen three of the five plays on our schedule: Fallen Angels, a hilarious comedy by Noel Coward; Into the Woods, the popular musical by Stephen Sondheim, done very well; and last night we attended the opening performance of Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (We knew it was the first night because the theatre was sold out and high-ranking members of the Stratford organization were there, and they played “O Canada” before the curtain went up.) The play was performed in Stratford’s newest and smallest theatre space, the Studio, which seats 250. It was also the first time in the fifty-three year history of Stratford that they have performed any of Marlowe’s plays. But if last night’s performance is any guide, they have been missing out on some really good theatre lo these many years.

Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but he was the bad boy of the time. He was rowdy, he liked to drink and hang out in bars, and he was gay. Edward II reflects a lot of Marlowe’s character — it is rough in language although, in many ways, as well-crafted as Shakespeare, and he pulls no punches in creating flawed heroes and deeply treacherous villains. This particular production makes no apologies for Edward II’s love for and physical attraction to another man; indeed, the first greeting between the king and his lover on stage is a passionate kiss, and later on the director, Richard Monette, makes it clear that what we see on stage between Edward and Gaveston is just foreplay. It’s little wonder that this play was kept in the library here in quiet and staid southeast Ontario.

But there’s much more to the play than the gay plotline; Marlowe shows us the barbaric and childish behavior of a king with few limits on his power, and the rebellion of his barons is not a revulsion to the gender of the king’s lover, it is against his lowly station in life; he’s not one of them. Allies become enemies with the promise of favor and civil war is fomented simply for revenge. Marlowe does not hold back on the grislier side of kings — people are executed with the wave of a hand, and unlike Shakespeare, there are no long soliloquies between the beginning of a death scene and the end of life (in Act V of Othello, for example, you want to shout, “Oh, die already!” at Desdemona). And in this production, there is no doubt that Edward II meets a terrible end. (If you know the play, sorry about the pun.)

As is the case in all good theatre, the lesson in a play that was written 400 years ago can speak to our own time. An arrogant ruler who wants what he wants with no regard for his advisors, who favors the sycophants over the wise, and who sets in motion wars and conflicts with other nations over trivial or even false beliefs comes to a bad end, and his successor is left to clean up the mess. You may, if you wish, apply that to our time, but certainly Marlowe saw it in his own time as well, and the message rings true to many other points in human history; this play would have delivered the same punch in 1968 as today, albeit the gay aspect would have been a little more Carnaby Street and less International Mr. Leather.

Christopher Marlowe was killed in a bar fight, stabbed in the eye with a knife. He was 29 years old. I have no doubt that had he lived, he would have given Shakespeare a run for his money as one of the greatest playwrights of the language, and it would have been interesting to see the influence he would have had then…and now.

Today we see The Lark, then tonight The Tempest, starring William Hutt in his last Stratford production; he’s retiring from the stage at the age of 86. What’s really sobering is that when I first came to Stratford and saw Mr. Hutt perform, he was younger than I am now.

More later.