Macbeth, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bartholomew Fair, performed by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario, June-October 2009.

Jonathan Goossen
Dalhousie University

Jonathan Goossen. "Review of Macbeth, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bartholomew Fair, performed by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario, June-October 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>. 


Macbeth. Director: Des McAnuff. With Colm Feore (Macbeth), Yanna McIntosh (Lady Macbeth), and Timothy D. Stickney (Banquo).

Julius Caesar. Director: James MacDonald. With Ben Carlson (Brutus), Tom Rooney (Cassius), Jonathan Goad (Mark Antony), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Julius Caesar).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director: David Grindley. With Timothy D. Stickney (Theseus), Cara Ricketts (Hippolyta), Tom Rooney (Puck), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Bottom).

Bartholomew Fair. Director: Antoni Cimolino. With Christopher Prentice (Winwife), Jonathan Goad (Quarlous), Trent Pardy (Bartholomew Cokes), Lucy Peacock (Ursla), and Tom McCamus (Justice Overdo).


  1. The lead-up to the Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2009 season was fraught with the financial uncertainty of the times. In 2008, the Festival had run its first deficit in fifteen years, losing a whopping $2.6-million due partly to a drop in attendance. So when by April 2009 ticket sales were down again by nearly 15% over last spring, it began to brace itself, announcing that several of this year’s planned performances were being put on hold (“Stratford”). But the surprise influx of $4.6-million from the federal and Ontario governments' economic stimulus packages soon brightened up the spring and encouraged management to put the full schedule back in place. Summer, however, was slow to appear: despite an initial bump in interest due to the increased advertising that the grants enabled, ticket sales at the end of June were as cool as the Ontario weather, causing the Festival to go cap-in-hand to its own board members and politely ask that they throw in some of their personal resources to help keep the Festival in the black (Posner).

  2. Moreover, and not unrelated to these budgetary vacillations, there were continuing rumours of strife between the board – conservative at the best of times, never mind these – and its flamboyant artistic director Des McAnuff. His vision for the Festival has resulted in restoring musicals to its marquee Festival Theatre (from which they had earlier been banished in the name of more traditional dramatic fare), and includes plans for a significant renovation of that venue’s legendary stage, neither of which is thought to sit well with his superiors (Posner). McAnuff, in only his second year with the Festival, is a complete outsider to Stratford, unlike many of his predecessors. He has spent the last 20 years in both San Diego and New York, where his work has consisted largely of decidedly pop American musicals, not the classical fare on which Stratford has historically prided itself. McAnuff was originally hired in 2007 to share the artistic directorship with Stratford veterans Marti Maraden and Dave Shipley, but his bent brought about this more classically-oriented pair’s disgruntled resignation just six weeks before the 2008 season opened. That McAnuff subsequently remained in sole leadership of the Festival disappointed many critics who had hoped that Maraden and Shipley’s influence might finally succeed in pushing it out of what they frequently lamented as the populist rut it had fallen into under former artistic director Richard Monette (Parolin 198-200).

  3. The most tangible indicator of McAnuff’s direction was to be found in his 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet. His design effectively overwrote key aspects of the Festival Theatre’s stage, while the production opened with loud gunfire, ranged in time from the twentieth century to the seventeenth and back again, and cast McAnuff’s young Broadway protégé Nikki M. James as Juliet alongside Gareth Potter’s Romeo. Critics were lukewarm toward the production: “McAnuff delivers an exciting piece of theatre. But when it’s time to zero in on the two young lovers, there’s [sic] no bells and whistles left” (Ouzounian, “Foiled”); Potter and James “have little chemistry” (Nestruck) and “just can’t carry the text” (Ouzounian). The consensus was that if his casting could match his directorial flash, McAnuff showed promise. For 2009, he put only three Shakespeares on the playbill (typically there have been at least four), all relatively safe bets financially: Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and a short run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rounding out the Festival’s English Renaissance offerings,[1] however, was a production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. While Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson’s two best-known works, are staged at least somewhat regularly, director Antoni Cimolino believes this to have been Bartholomew Fair's first appearance on a professional stage in North America. Since even in Britain it barely makes an appearance every ten years or so, and that only since the 1950s, the play was a surprisingly risky inclusion by McAnuff on the playbill. Ultimately, it paid off: while each of the Shakespeares had their compelling aspects, Cimolino’s Bartholomew Fair struck a fine balance between fidelity to Jonson’s unique style and imaginative directing, making it the most consistently successful of the group and providing some hope that despite his pop penchant, McAnuff is open to letting others put more intellectually demanding fare on his stages.

  4. McAnuff himself directed Macbeth at the Festival Theatre. It bore some strong resemblances to his Romeo, beginning with an explosion and gun battle, employing a significantly altered stage, and making regular use of technologically demanding lighting and visual effects. Paying heed to the critics, though, he cast two Stratford veterans in the lead roles: Yanna McIntosh played Lady to Colm Feore’s Macbeth. The play was set in “mythic mid-20th-century Africa,” the program notes explained, in order to conjure up “a blood-drenched world” in which nations are “freeing themselves from their colonial pasts and forging their modern identities.” The most obvious nod to this colonial setting came at play’s end, when, after defeating Macbeth with England’s aid, the new king Malcolm chaired a news conference. The significance of his decision there to call his thanes “earls” after the English custom was accentuated by the large Union Jack hanging next to the blue and white saltire of Scotland behind him (5.11.29). The strong racial implications of the setting, though, were strangely ignored by McAnuff’s casting. His was an Africa more utopian than colonial, in which a benevolent white king (Duncan was played superbly by Geraint Wyn Davies), flanked by a thoroughly mixed-race court, offers his seat to the wounded black foot soldier who comes to tell him of Macbeth’s heroics. Had white Macbeth not been married to a black woman, one might have detected a racial bent to his later tyranny, but even then, Malcolm’s return, hand in hand with the white English, could hardly have been that of an indigenous liberator. So even as McAnuff?s setting highlighted the play?s implicit colonial themes, his casting confounded any attempt to understand why, reducing the former to something of a gimmick.

  5. The play began with a recording of African chant, which culminated in a spectacular explosion that elicited screams from many in the theatre. After Duncan’s soldiers swarmed the stage, battling an offstage enemy with automatic rifles, the Weird Sisters arose from alongside the bodies of the fallen to declare that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.10). Their melodramatically halting delivery obscured the incantatory nature of Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets, and, combined with their social activist-style dress, made them pedestrian rather than occultic. The action film-like opening seemed meant to set us up for Macbeth as a coolly understated action movie hero in the Bruce Willis vein, a paradigm which helps makes sense of Colm Feore’s otherwise curious first two acts. Rather than the acutely perceptive and imaginative Macbeth that emerges from his very first lines in the text, Feore gave us a man almost in a trance at the appearance and prophecy of the Sisters. While usually superbly conscious of his lines as verse, he regularly paused before delivering the last foot of each, which he would then often inflect upwards, making his observations into questions. Feore was perhaps trying to portray an intellectual, thoughtful sort of Macbeth, but it came off too coldly. The man who declares that the mere thought of murder could “unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs” was not present until after the murder of Duncan (1.3.134-35); at the outset of the play, Feore seemed already the man who could utter the numb “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech of Act 5 (5.5.18).

    Macbeth, 2009. Colm Feore as Macbeth and Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Shakespeare Festival Archives

  6. Yanna McIntosh’s Lady Macbeth also began coolly. Her presence was commanding when she first appeared, dressed in deep purple caftan and alone on a bare stage reading Macbeth’s letter, but her icy request, “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,” was more stilted than frightening (1.5.38-39); what fear the scene did generate was due more to the slick floor-up lighting and soundtrack than to her delivery. While not suited to the intensely determined and scornful Lady of the first two acts, McIntosh shone as the one who comes unglued from both her mind and her husband in the latter three. She was almost as scared as the gathered nobles were when she desperately tried to explain away Macbeth’s wild hallucinations at his coronation banquet. In the hand-washing scene, she began by dashing about the stage in fits and starts before slowing down over an imagined basin of water to speak hauntingly, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (5.1.42-3). Her hand-washing here also nicely recalled her gestures during her earlier “unsex me here” speech, where she seemed to be wringing the womanhood out of her hands and forearms.

  7. Just before this scene, Tom Rooney added poignancy to the Porter’s always-popular humour. We had just seen Macbeth’s awe at his blood-drenched hands when the Porter entered, still partly drunk, in his underwear and overcoat. He perched precariously on the dining room table and began scanning the audience with a flashlight that mimicked the larger spotlight on him. “Who’s there?”, he asked as he paused with the flashlight on particular individuals he deemed to be a “broker,” “legislator,” and “priest” (alterations from the original “farmer,” “equivocator,” and “tailor,” respectively), all knocking on the door for admittance to his “hell” (2.3.4-14). While “broker” was doubtless a timely update, the loss of “equivocator” broke the continuity of the Porter’s later description of drink as an equivocator with his interest in human ones here. Nevertheless, Rooney’s rendering foregrounded the implicit metatheatricality of the moment: this comic scene’s harsh dissonance with the one preceding it wrenched us out of the play’s world to contemplate the relationship of it to ours and ourselves.

  8. At the visual centre of the banquet scene was the table the Porter had recently mounted, set with silver dinner, stem, and flatware that, together with the nobles’ buttons and brass, gleamed brilliantly in the intense lighting. Banquo’s ghost arose noiselessly from the trap to take Macbeth’s place at table with a lolling, bloodied head that seemed only tenuously attached to its body. Feore’s Macbeth had begun to thaw during the previous murder scene and here reached his emotional peak. He was vividly conscious of what he saw and of his guilt for it, and his terror was matched by his wife’s frantic attempt first to control, then rebuke him for it. The scene was the most brightly lit of any in this mostly shadowy production, and as such was put forward as a fulcrum of sorts for the Macbeths both personally and politically.

  9. McAnuff later juxtaposed Act 4 Scene 2, the murder of Macduff’s family, with 4.3, in which Macduff pleads with Malcolm to return to Scotland. Making clever use of the Festival stage’s predominantly diagonal axes, Lady Macduff’s dialogue with her son about his father was played across one diagonal and paused just before the messenger arrived to warn her of Macbeth’s plans. Then, with those actors remaining in place, lighting signalled Macduff and Malcolm to begin their conversation across the other diagonal. After testing Macduff’s loyalty by claiming to be more morally unfit to rule than Macbeth, Potter’s Malcolm went down on one knee before Macduff to pledge himself to Scotland’s service – a gesture that neatly recalled his father’s earlier deference to the wounded messenger. They in turn paused just before Ross entered to tell Macduff of his family’s fate, letting the original scene resume with the brutal murders Ross was about to report. After this, Ross finally began his account of what the audience had just seen. This overlapping was striking and served to qualify Lady Macduff’s condemnation of her husband as a traitor, as we see him desperately plead for his country, and to foreground the stark personal cost of his public-minded choice to seek Malcolm in England.

  10. During the intermission between Acts 3 and 4, two steel watch towers were set up at the rear of the stage and hung with large-screen monitors that usually depicted security camera views of the entrances to Dunsinane. The three apparitions that the Weird Sisters conjure for Macbeth also appeared on them, both uses helping to build a picture of what by this time had become a Macbeth desperate but emotionally spent, who had “almost forgot the taste of fear” (5.5.9). In the very briskly paced final scenes, Macbeth was largely carried along by an action he initiated but had now lost control of. A bona-fide Jeep was driven out on stage for the final battle, which reached its climax with Macbeth and Macduff’s machete duel. Macduff ultimately beheaded Macbeth with a fold-up camp spade and delivered his head in a steel bucket to Malcolm. This spectacular conclusion, though, went only part way towards mitigating the curiously monotonous effect that the play’s second part had: its fast pace tended to homogenize the sombre moments, like that surrounding Lady Macbeth’s death, with the hotter battle scenes that surround it. Too, perhaps because we were largely deprived in the initial acts of a Macbeth we could pity, we were only able to fear him in the end, simply hoping for his downfall, rather than pitying the demise of a great man. The concurrent sense of attraction and repulsion towards its heroes that tragedy evokes and which is so present within Shakespeare’s text was not effectively elicited by either of the Macbeths. We never quite fear Lady Macbeth and we are not given enough of her husband’s compelling moral imagination to really pity him, resulting in a production that, while innovative at several points and fantastically showy at others, failed to have upon us the tragedy’s full effect.

  11. Instead of the particular time and place in which McAnuff sets his Macbeth, James MacDonald attempted to place Julius Caesar outside of, or perhaps in every time. Designer David Boechler’s costumes for the Roman men were for the most part curiously hybrid affairs: the upper half was a suit coat and dress shirt, while the bottom seemed meant to replicate a short toga, worn over dress pants. Then later, during the civil war, Antony and Octavius’ soldiers were attired in armour reminiscent of Storm Troopers (though they carried only automatic rifles, not laser guns). The Romans also had a recurring set of quirky religious gestures, most notably crossing one’s arms stiffly in front of oneself for a moment before any solemnity. The overall effect of these things was unfortunately more awkward than illuminating. The toga-esque skirts seemed at best an extraneous layer to an already full suit of clothing and at worst a sort of labourer’s apron that made sitting down with both ease and dignity a difficult proposition. When Antony entered to the conspirators after Caesar’s murder with his coat off and sleeves rolled up, he looked more like a bartender than one of the soon-to-be “triple pillars of the world” (Antony and Cleopatra 1.1.12). Throwing in the gestures and the soldiers’ nod to inter-galactic culture, the Romans’ quirky, atemporal formality was more evocative of the original Star Trek series than of high political drama.

  12. Boechler’s stage for most of the first three acts consisted of a row of marble stairs leading up to a grand colonnade. For the latter acts, one side of this structure remained while the other lay in rubble. The design was particularly effective for staging Caesar’s murder: he stood on the middle stair while the conspirators slowly encircled him from above and below, but without ever obscuring the audience’s view of his face. Shortly afterward, Antony made good use of the stairs during his funeral oration, beginning at the top (from where Brutus also spoke) but then gradually descending to the level of the mob to uncover Caesar’s bier and display his rent cloak. At other times, though, the imposing structure restricted the actors’ movements to a relatively small bit of floor space at the very front of the Avon Theatre’s proscenium stage, leaving the stairs as a sort of pedestal on which they could do little more than strike various poses.

  13. Despite some of the design features they had to work around, most of the productions’ lead actors shone. Tom Rooney’s Cassius – short, almost scrawny, and slimmed even further by his long, fitted coat – was the perfect contrast to Ben Carlson’s tall, thick-set Brutus. Cassius mixed scorn for Caesar’s lack of physical prowess with a delight in having been able to best him while swimming the Tiber, thus giving us in his first speech to Brutus two of the three factors that drove him over the course of the play. The third was his love for Brutus, whom he might well have permitted to wear a crown if the latter had wanted one. Rooney played this love as that of a mildly ingratiating younger brother to the older sibling he idolizes. His invocations of Republican freedom were at times meant to win Brutus and at others to diminish Caesar, but were always slightly too shrill to be his own sincere ideal. While Cassius constantly tried to draw Brutus to him, Carlson’s Brutus resolutely held Cassius at a distance. When Cassius would move close to him to entreat him to feel Rome’s need, Brutus would push off to rationally interpret and categorize his petition: “What you have said / I will consider” (1.2.168-69). He heard Cassius’ ideas but hardly saw the man so earnestly trying to gain his regard.

    Julius Caesar, 2009. Ben Carlson as Brutus (left) and Tom Rooney as Cassius. Photo by David Hou. Stratford Shakespeare Festival Archives.

  14. For the opening of Act 2, the imposing stairs were pulled aside, making a spacious garden in which Brutus could contemplate Cassius’ proposal. His interactions there with both his servant boy Lucius (young Nathan Klassen) and Portia (Cara Ricketts) revealed the reasons he held himself back from Cassius. While he was by nature warmly human and easily moved to kindness, his intense idealism and the abstract contemplation it required repeatedly overwhelmed this side of him. Carlson carefully paired these two ostensibly opposite traits: Lucius was several times on his way back to bed as he had been kindly allowed when Brutus’ mind would seize upon yet one more errand for him to run and brusquely call him back. After her moving request that he share his mind with her, Portia too was forgotten, not because he didn’t love her, but because of the urgent thoughts Ligarius’ intervening visit incited in him. In perceiving there the mental “insurrection” that a person suffers “between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion,” Carlson’s earnest Brutus gave us a better Macbeth than had Feore (2.1.63-69).

  15. Caesar, played by Geraint Wyn Davies, was equally compelling. His imperial haughtiness, even as it revealed the grounds for Brutus and Cassius’ fears, was superbly unselfconscious. This was most evident in the way Davies effortlessly delivered Caesar’s constant third-person references to himself – a habit which on the page looks stilted and unbelievable. His treatment of Calpurnia (Yanna McIntosh), who earnestly begged him not to go to the Forum, was to his mind generous, even though thoroughly condescending. This benevolent arrogance was his way with everyone around him, and what in it disgruntled the older Cassius and Brutus won the awe of the younger Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad).

  16. The murder, its aftermath, and the crucial funeral scene in Act 3 were played with properly tragic intensity until Antony’s entrance. In keeping with his apronned, blue-collar appearance at that moment, Goad proved unable to deliver the high-register passion of Antony’s lament, “O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?” (3.1.149) or his later declaration of “Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood” (3.1.261). He was, throughout his conversation with Brutus and Cassius, simply too matter-of-fact, too businesslike a man to express (never mind feel) the pathos of his lines. This unflustered poise fit him very well, though, when at the beginning of his and Octavius’ later purges, he declared, “Look, with a spot I damn him,” and calmly marked down his nephew for execution (4.1.6). There his brusqueness made him look like one shrewd beyond his years, but here it only precluded the grief and anger that Shakespeare inextricably pairs with Antony’s political opportunism.

  17. Brutus’ prosaic funeral oration, ostensibly inferior to Antony’s on the page, came alive in Carlson’s mouth. He saw only his principles in his explanation of the murder to the crowd, and earnestly believed that they would do nothing other than assent to them when they were made plain. This innocent confidence made his words few but fervent. But where Carlson made Shakespeare’s prose sing, Goad turned verse into chat when delivering Antony's subsequent speech. While certainly an exercise in deliberate understatement, Goad rendered the speech almost conversationally, as if addressing an audience of a dozen instead of thousands. Gradually descending the stairs as he spoke to finally mingle with the crowd around Caesar’s bier was visually effective, but his delivery had no corresponding movement.

  18. The final two acts of the play can be dull at the best of times, and MacDonald’s version did not avoid this tediousness. That said, Rooney and Carlson played Cassius and Brutus’ Act 4 quarrel powerfully, further working out the characters they had already drawn for us. If Caesar could see only himself, and Brutus, quite as unselfconsciously, only his ideals, Cassius emerged in this encounter as the one who saw the quality of the relationships between people. That between him and Brutus was his sole concern here, which made Cassius wholeheartedly accept, after all of Brutus’ repeatedly blunt analyses of his character flaws, his first oblique move towards retraction – “When I spoke that, I was ill-tempered” (4.2.170). For his part, Brutus hardly apologized or changed his assessment of Cassius, he merely grew weary of the quarrel. His complete disregard for the nature of relationships – between Antony and Caesar, the Roman mob and those who address it, principle and politics – was brought to the foreground in this scene as the reason for his failure. And while Cassius was perceptive enough to understand what Brutus merely dismissed, he prized their relationship too highly to stand his ground during the planning of Caesar’s murder, its immediate aftermath, or this argument in Brutus’ tent.

  19. Dion Johnstone’s Octavius was earnest if unremarkable, youthfully attempting to assert himself in the face of the older Antony. Goad improved his performance in the latter acts, but mostly because he was better suited to Antony’s calculated military manoeuvrings. He again turned the high rhetoric of Antony’s farewell to Brutus into pedestrian commentary; what he said about Brutus was true enough, he just didn't seem to believe it himself..

  20. MacDonald’s program notes consisted largely of vague generalities about history’s circularity and the sad continuation of violence upon the face of the earth – the sort of things that people who haven’t thought deeply about specific stretches of history tend to say – and this fuzziness of thought resulted in a somewhat directionless production. It was saved, though, by a core group of compelling actors and their thoughtful takes on the characters they played.

  21. Of the three Shakespeares at Stratford this year, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the most immediately successful. Quite remarkably for this play in particular, the text was completely uncut, and British director David Grindley showed himself (with one large and inexplicable blunder) to be often imaginatively attentive to it. He seemed more interested than McAnuff in working with the Festival Theatre’s unique stage, leaving it completely bare and unaltered at the outset of his production. Perhaps lest he be thought a traditionalist, though, the play started with a rather shocking gun battle (an in-house theme?) in Hippolyta’s Amazonian palace. After the wind cleared away the smoke and scattered autumn leaves, Theseus (Timothy D. Stickney) emerged on the balcony and to Hippolyta (Cara Ricketts) below began, “Fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour / Draws on apace” (1.1.1-2). The scene then abruptly broke and shifted to their wedding preparations in Athens, with a big band rehearsing offstage and janitors sweeping up the leaves. This opening thus cleverly acknowledged the violence that lingers at the margins of an ostensibly light play, while simultaneously keeping it there by setting it squarely within the play’s overarching comic context; both times I saw the production, Theseus’ opening lines evoked hearty laughter. The autumn leaves and some later snow flurries, rather out of place at midsummer, actually reflected Titania’s later observation that the feud between her and Oberon had made “hoary-headed frosts / Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose” and caused the seasons to “change / Their wonted liveries,” thus immediately linking the worlds of the fairies and mortals. Stickney’s Thesus was eminently self-confident but still deferential as he continued his opening speech and tried to win over a (these days, obligatorily) sullen Hippolyta. He sported formal riding wear for most of the play, while Hippolyta’s, and later Hermia’s dresses combined with the earlier jazz to locate the setting somewhere in the American 1950s, a time befitting the earnest yet flighty quartet of lovers who tentatively push the bounds of a still-ubiquitous parental authority.

  22. Before following them into the forest, though, we were introduced to the mechanicals, led by a fretful Peter Quince (Michael Spencer-Davis), whose main preoccupation was less with the play they had to practice than simply escaping hanging by the Duke for it. The troupe all sat on the floor along the front of the stage while Quince spoke to them from the floor, nicely lending the scene the feel of a genuine rehearsal. Bottom, played as an innocently exuberant Welshman by Geraint Wyn Davies, soon usurped Quince’s role as the group’s focal point by constantly interrupting the increasingly vexed director with rapturous declarations of his ability to play all the parts of the play. By the beginning of their performance at court, he would more than prove his boast.

  23. Just as the production was settling into its groove, though, the balcony suddenly broke off from the stage’s rear wall and tipped forward to the floor, leaving a large V-shaped wooden mass standing nearly upright in the middle of the stage. Then, to the strains of a garage band-like jam session, the First Fairy (Amanda Steadman) came strutting down the left centre aisle in a leather bustier and tattered jean shorts, gesturing seductively at Puck (Tom Rooney), who had just emerged from behind the upended balcony. The arrival of the remainder of the fairies confirmed them to be an early eighties street gang, all clad in tight denim or leather pants and studded leather jackets, with hair sprayed into varying sorts of peaks.. Oberon (Dion Johnstone) entered to the primitive rhythmic boot-stomping of his somewhat malnourished cronies, and appeared to be paying tribute to recently deceased Michael Jackson, circa Bad. Yanna McIntosh, in her third queenly role of the season, was Titania, his tough-talking, mini-skirted match. The sight of all of this brought a good number of whoops and hollers from the audience (perhaps the intent?) but the design’s essential dissonance with the playtext was immediately obvious. Shakespeare’s fairies are the benevolent (if mischievous) governing spirits of the natural world, possessing intimate knowledge of and influence over its every aspect. Grindley’s, on the other hand, could hardly have been counted on to identify a head of iceberg lettuce in a mini-mart, never mind “sweet musk-roses and … eglantine” (2.1.252). They were utterly out of place in the world of “hill” and “dale,” “bush” and “brier” for which the production wanted us to believe they had traded their native asphalt jungle (2.1.2-3). The fairies’ speeches in Act 2 thus became tedious because of the bald incongruity between their verbal images and visual appearances, making Grindley’s otherwise laudable decision to give us an uncut playtext into a mockery of his ability to read it. Even if he had meant to invoke a more folkloric and preternatural sense of the fairies than Shakespeare gives us, his choice was wildly wrong: his 1980s subculture models were paragons of costume and posture – artificial, not elemental.

  24. That said, Puck was still funny, a cocky yet eager-to-please underling to Oberon. While their benevolent regard for the human lovers’ plights was never believable, the King and Queen of the fairies at least had a genuine air of superiority about them: Oberon’s regular annoyance with Puck’s mischief was nicely condescending, and Titania could be equally curt in directing her fairies to dote on Bottom. These female fairies did a remarkable job of singing their (albeit sassy) lullaby to Titania, replete with a well-executed, hip-swinging dance routine.

  25. Laura Condlin’s Helena emerged as the most interesting of the four lovers when she and Demetrius arrived in the woods in Act 2. Condlin was also the most cognizant of her lines as frequently rhyming verse, and her delivery often highlighted its sing-song quality instead of trying to efface it. Her desperate desire for Demetrius’ love was just sufficiently dopey to keep her anguish free of melodrama. When she grovels, “I am your spaniel,” she dropped to her hands and knees in her prim grey dress and looked up at him with imploring eyes to pledge, “The more you beat me I will fawn on you” (2.1.203-4). After Demetrius finally walked off stage in disgust, she turned momentarily pouty and threw her shoe after him, but then quickly followed. Her later argument with Hermia took place on and around the jungle gym-like fallen balcony: as the women traded barbs, Lysander and Demetrius clung to its two upper corners, tenuously reaching down towards Helena, who always just evaded them. When Hermia finally realized that Lysander had indeed rejected her, she hung desperately on his leg, but succeeded only in stripping him of his pants, which he was pleased to leave with her while he pursued Demetrius, who in turn dropped his drawers to match Lysander before they went offstage to brawl. Hermia and Helena’s own subsequent verbal duel soon became a catfight, and Hermia managed to yank off Helena’s dress before she could escape. The four of them succeeded in portraying both the chaos that Puck’s interference had inspired and the farcical earnestness of the desperate lovers.

  26. Meanwhile, Puck had decked out Bottom with his shoes for donkey ears (attached with stiff wire so as to float just above his head) and a set of oversized dentures for teeth. Bottom’s romp with the enamoured Titania, which took place on a bed of autumn leaves, remained surprisingly tame. Titania and her fairies’ trashy street wear unfortunately succeeded in gutting the scene of any sense of preternatural magic in something of the way that the Weird Sisters’ appearance and language had done in Macbeth. There, though, Feore acted accordingly; here, despite looking more like a john with his whore than a man having an extraordinary encounter with a spirit, Wyn Davies tried valiantly to make the moment sound like something greater. Just before Theseus and Hippolyta entered to discover the sleeping lovers, the fallen balcony rose back into place, nicely symbolic of the restoration of order in the fairy and mortal worlds. From it Bottom delivered his account of his dream, and here, unencumbered by the crassly material appearance of Titania, he was positively rapturous, declaring in his soft Welsh tenor that “the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen … what my dream was” (4.1.205-7).

  27. The mechanicals’ play was, as usual, the highlight of the performance. Peter Quince rattled off the first part of his mispointed prologue in a thin, anxious voice, while its second part functioned as the narrative to a dumb show, hastily put on by the actors who were still dressing. The six newly wedded spectators, meanwhile, sat on cushions at the front edge of the stage, and the men regularly got up and mingled with the nervous actors while cracking jokes about their production. Snout’s wall consisted of a woven panel of twigs smeared over with several swatches of plaster, through which his head and hands protruded, making it look as if he were in the stocks. Pyramus and Thisbe realized during the dumbshow that Wall had no chink through which they could speak, so Snout quickly remedied this backstage by tearing open a flap in the panel at just the level of his crotch, making sure to demonstrate “this the cranny” to the audience during his own succeeding prologue (5.1.162). Bottom’s Pyramus then emerged in brocade Roman armour and was the epitome of melodrama until Wall showed him his chink “to blink through with [his] eye” (l. 175). Grindley thus made hilarious puns out of Pyramus and Thisbe’s subsequently reluctant references to “stones” and “holes,” putting both audiences into stitches (ll. 179, 188, 197-98).

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2009. Geraint Wyn Davies as Bottom. Photo by David Hou. Stratford Shakespeare Festival Archives.

  28. When the time for their joint suicides came, though, Pyramus and Thisbe recovered some sense of pathos. Pyramus fell in the middle of the stage after stabbing himself, but managed to drag himself pitifully to the front of it, first to Hippolyta and Theseus on the right, then over to the two younger couples on the left, so as to utter the third and fourth (respectively) of his five concluding “Die!”s (l. 295) At the play’s end, both audiences again joined for the applause. Finally, after the three couples bedded down for the night and the lights dimmed, the fairies entered holding candles to bless the house and the marriages. As painterly as the scene was, these fairies were hardly the sort to consecrate anything, but the mechanicals’ play put one in the mood to forgive absurdity. Grindley succeeded thoroughly with two thirds of the play, albeit the two easiest to get right. And certainly, even the attempt at an uncut production deserves admiration.

  29.  The plays of Ben Jonson are, of course, rather unlike those of his friend and rival Shakespeare. Jonson regularly mocked Shakespeare’s penchant for the idyllic and the fantastical, preferring rather to stage “deeds and language such as men do use: / And persons such as Comedy would choose / When she would show an image of the times” (Every Man out of his Humour Prologue 21-3). His brand of satirical city comedy, which documents and ridicules the manners and mindsets of Jacobean London, is at its most vivid and complex in Bartholomew Fair, a play first staged in 1614, and considered to be the last of his great comedies.

  30. The differences between the two playwrights are highlighted, interestingly enough, by some significant parallels between Bartholomew Fair and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; indeed, Michael Shapiro has called the former “an ironic ‘green world’ comedy” (167). Shakespeare’s Athenian wood finds its corollary in the fair that lends its name to both the title and setting of Jonson’s play. An annual three-day event that took place around St Bartholomew’s day in the Smithwick suburb of London well into the 19th century, the fair was a place rife with rip-offs, scams, and their practitioners and victims – not unlike our modern summer exhibitions. The play’s version of it involves a bewildering list of characters, divided roughly into four groups. Things begin in the Puritan household of John Littlewit and his wife Win, her widowed mother Dame Purecraft, and her suitor and spiritual advisor, the self-appointed prophet Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Initially unrelated to them are the amiable young idiot Bartholomew Cokes, his grudging fiancée Grace Wellborn, Cokes’s volatile man Humphrey “Numps” Wasp, and Cokes’s sister Mistress Overdo. Her husband, Justice Adam Overdo, presides over the court that attempts to maintain order at the fair, but he spends much of the play disguised as a clown, hoping to indict offenders with their own unsuspecting admissions of crimes. With the exception of Justice Overdo, both of these groups are either enticed to the fair or dragged along by those so drawn. Men-about-town Winwife and Quarlous, friends of John Littlewit, follow Cokes and company to the fair for the sport of seeing the young man gulled and act as commentators largely unimpressed with the fair’s goings-on. Winwife, as his name implies, also has his sights set on Dame Purecraft and her fortune. Everyone is only too warmly received by the play’s final group, the fair’s various proprietors: Ursla, the formidable pig-roasting woman, the horse trader (horse dealers operated in one corner of the fair grounds)and part-time bawd Jordan Knockem, trinket salesmen and puppeteer Lantern Leatherhead, ballad vendor Nightingale and cutpurse Edgeworth, to name the notables. Again like Midsummer, four of these characters find mates during their sojourn in the fair: Winwife steals Grace away from Cokes and Quarlous wins Purecraft by feigning madness. If all this is confusing in summary, it is much moreso after only reading the play, making no small part of a director’s task to be simply the coherent orchestration of the incredible numbers of speaking characters on stage at any given time and their often manifold actions.

  31. Cimolino set the play in period, but designer Carolyn M. Smith embellished the costumes just enough to avoid being pedantically historicist. Surly Wasp was done up in subtle black and yellow stripes, Ursla’s stage fat was excessive enough to be grotesque, Knockem wore a leather ranch hat, and Cokes sported a garish yellow ensemble with a ridiculous codpiece. Smith’s designs subtly suggested that everyone in the play is a caricature once removed from reality, though they are hardly aware of it. Costuming thus helped to lift the play out of the category of mere social commentary and into that of literary drama – a distinction that Jonson was consistently concerned to make for his work.

  32. The Hope Theatre in which Bartholomew Fair was first staged doubled as a bear-baiting arena. In a sporting parallel, Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre was originally a curling rink and still serves as a winter badminton facility. Its long and narrow thrust stage provided most of the audience a nicely panoramic view of the fair. It was anchored at the rear by a huge curtain advertising Ursla’s roast pigs and ale, while just forward of it were flag poles festooned with multi-coloured pennants, creating a suitably gaudy setting for the fair. If the near-chaos of the scripted action weren’t enough, Cimolino had the floor around the stage regularly circled by a mother with wide-eyed child, a man on stilts, a juggler, a bearded lady, and other denizens of the fair, giving the impression that the scams and scandals that formed the play’s main action were only a small corner of a much larger enterprise. That these characters would often silently appeal to the first rows of the audience for attention served cleverly to include it with the stage gulls as people drawn to the indulgence and triviality of a fair not so far distant from daily life.

  33. Given his attentiveness to both the play’s disorder and its complicated metatheatrical consciousness, it was unfortunate that Cimolino entirely cut its induction. In it, the stage keeper comes out to inform the audience that it will have to wait while the actor playing Littlewit has a stocking mended, and then begins complaining about the play’s high-brow author and its resultant dullness. He is abruptly chased off by the prompter, who proceeds to ask the audience to sign a lengthy contract with the dramatist to sit still, not to expect too much of the play, judge it according to the fashion, or charge its author with slander. Alexander Leggatt, who worked with Cimolino as textual consultant, comments that “from its opening, the play [and] the whole theatrical occasion [seem] out of control”: its start is delayed, its end unknown, its success in doubt (136-37). Including these two frame characters, who, by acting like they are spectators with us, initiate disorder before the play has begun and root it partly in the audience, would have strongly reinforced the effect of Cimolino’s roaming extra-textual characters and confirmed his emphasis on the play’s chaos.

  34. Emphasizing its raucousness, Jonson wrote Bartholomew Fair almost exclusively in prose that can be more syntactically and etymologically complicated than Shakespeare’s comic verse. Most of the central characters handled the language admirably, though, delivering it with a knowing ease that belied its difficulty. Jonathan Goad, who disappointed with Mark Antony’s high register verse, was far more adept with Quarlous’s snide worldliness, while Brian Tree’s cockney Wasp was stingingly acerbic as he compulsively contradicted almost any statement made by anyone around him. Busy (Juan Chiorian) was equally impressive in his prophetic rants against the idolatries of the fair (which included “Papist” gingerbread men and puppets), piling up adjectives to describe the impieties he saw and adverbs to convey the fury he felt towards them as his eyes grew ever wider and his volume louder.

  35. The play has little in the way of a traditional plot: Jonson’s interest is largely to throw all sorts of people, from the highest to the lowest, into the roiling pot that is the fair and to watch what happens as it is stirred. One of the production’s best examples of this was the Ballad of the Cutpurse (set by ex-Barenaked Ladies’ frontman Stephen Page). By the midpoint of the play, Cokes, obliviously enamoured with the fair’s offerings, had lost one of his two money bags to the sly Edgeworth. Coming upon Nightingale practicing a new song, Cokes insisted on hearing the whole piece. The gist of the song is a warning to a prospective pickpocket, with the refrain, “Youth, youth, thou hadst better been starved by thy nurse, / Than live to be hangèd for cutting a purse,” that soon had literally everyone in the fair singing and whirling about the stage (3.5.71-72). From the theatre’s balconies, Quarlous and Winwife offered impeccably timed asides on the scene as Edgeworth (ironically in league with Nightingale) came closer and closer to nabbing the second purse of the blissfully dancing Cokes. He finally got it at the song’s boisterous climax, but Cokes only realized his loss when he afterwards went to buy Nightingale’s whole collection of sheet music. Edgeworth then quickly deflected attention towards the disguised Justice Overdo, and together with Wasp, they succeeded in having him hauled off to the stocks for the theft. The whole scene was ostensibly a wild mess, with over thirty characters dancing around the stage, yet Winwife and Quarlous’s commentary revealed that what was actually occurring was the flat deception of the fair’s all-too-eager patrons by its shopkeepers, cunningly executed by the seemingly innocent entertainer at the centre of it all. Cimolino’s cast did an extraordinary job of having the whole thing teeter on the edge of chaos without ever going over, poignantly illustrating Jonson’s deeply cynical view of human society.

  36. Lantern Leatherhead’s puppet show concludes the play in a manner not unlike the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play at the end of Midsummer. It is something of a microcosm of the play, in which Jonson turns his satire on his rival poets and their shared audiences. The script, written by the nominally Puritan Littlewit, is his version of the classical tales of Hero and Leander and Damon and Pythias, which, because the originals were “too learned and poetical for our audience,” he has made “a little easy, and modern for the times” (5.3.92-101). In reality, he has reduced tales paradigmatic of high romance and noble friendship to the prostitution and macho rivalry characteristic of lowlifes. For his part, the idiot Cokes treats the whole thing as serious theatre, first insisting that he be introduced to the puppet actors and then knowingly explaining the play’s “fine language” to those seated around him (5.4.48). Cimolino staged the show from the back of a gypsy wagon wheeled out for the occasion. Cliff Saunders as sole puppeteer Leatherhead seamlessly wove the delivery of his puppets’ rhymed script, commentary on the action, his own responses to the audience and those of his puppets, all to the musical accompaniment provided by several others of the fair. As the story was descending ever more deeply into the gutter (“Kiss the whore o’ the arse,” taunts puppet Hero [5.4.307]), Puritan Busy burst in, denouncing the idolatrous puppets: “Down with Dagon; …I will no longer endure your profanations” (5.5.1-2). Edgeworth averted what nearly became a brawl by suggesting that Busy debate the matter with Dionysius, the senior puppet. Busy took up the challenge in all earnestness and after fierce back and forth (“B: It is profane. D: It is not profane. B: It is profane. D: It is not profane” [5.5.59-62]), he thought to have won by bringing up the popular charge against the exclusively male stage actors of the day: that, contrary to Old Testament law, “the male among you putteth on the apparel of the female” (ll. 84-85). Puppet Dionysius proved too nimble-minded for him though, and, whipping up his robe, demonstrated that “the old argument will not hold against the puppets; for we have neither male nor female amongst us” (ll. 89-90). Busy finally admitted defeat to pleas of “Be converted!”, and sat down to watch the play’s conclusion (l. 99). While the whole scene was, like that of the earlier song, wildly kaleidoscopic, its cumulative effect was to incisively reveal the ludicrous pretensions of writers and their audiences, the Puritans’ shrill social activism, and ultimately, the laws presuming to regulate all of these things. If, despite its unintended farcicality, Quince’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” recapitulated the action of Midsummer, inviting consideration of the relationship between waking reality and dream, Littlewit’s equally farcical “Hero and Leander” boiled the action of the larger play down to irrational animality, suggesting that reality is closer to a vacuum than a dream.

    Bartholomew Fair, 2009. Cliff Saunders as Lantern Leatherhead. Photo by David Hou. Stratford Shakespeare Festival Archives.

  37. Realizing something of the hopelessness of the situation, even Justice Overdo refused to pass the judgment he had planned on all the “enormities” of the fair and instead invites everyone home to dinner (2.3.36). Cimolino writes in his program notes that the play thus functions as “a deliciously funny argument for tolerance,” and finds in it a “warmth and inclusiveness” absent from Jonson’s earlier plays. This general interpretation, most evident in Tom McCamus’s portrayal of Justice Overdo, is my only real quarrel with the production. Overdo stands in a long line of Jonsonian characters who deeply loathe the vice and stupidity so rampant in their London and function at least partly as Jonson’s own mouthpiece within their plays. Warm indeed in this production, Bartholomew Fair’s conclusion also bears the marks of hopeless resignation to folly and vice and not merely their good-natured indulgence. McCamus’s Overdo and Cimolino’s production in general seemed ignorant of Jonson’s wider oeuvre in this respect, resulting in a play that traded much of Jonson’s hard-headed critique for a more inclusive sentimentality. While Overdo is certainly a departure from his forbearers, both in his own foolishness and his leniency towards that of others, his plan to root out “enormities” lacked in McCamus’s rendering the fervency it needed at its outset. As a result, Quarlous’s poignant concluding admonition to him to “remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood,” was unnecessary: Overdo knew this from the beginning (5.6.89). Where Jonson turns his cold sights on every level of society and spares none, Cimolino flinches. That said, his moderation of the playwright’s acerbity may be the price we have to pay to see Jonson’s work produced by a big budget professional company. The pleasure of it was, for the most part, worth it. More generally, and in light of the Festival’s central emphasis on Shakespeare, the opportunity to see the works of his contemporaries reveals both the diversity and vitality of the larger Renaissance English theatre context in which Shakespeare wrote and the unique characteristics of his work – so evident when contrasted with Jonson’s genius.

  38. Bartholomew Fair was to my mind the most consistently successful of Stratford’s 2009 Renaissance offerings. Cimolino, both in this and past productions, seemed less concerned with showy visual appeal than with how the inherent limits of the theatre (especially as compared to film) can actually work in its favour. While certainly engaging visually, his Fair consistently foregrounded language and that which it expresses rather than subverting it in the interest of generating a more general visual aura or impression, as did both MacAnuff and MacDonald. And the compulsion to be novel that can insinuate itself into the minds of even the most scrupulous young directors seems to have been worked out of his system. Ultimately, though, the Fair’s success may equally be due to the fact that, for better and for worse, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Midsummer have graced hundreds of stages for hundreds of years, while Bartholomew Fair only rarely sees the light of day. The latter has very little production history either to mimic or react against, thus leaving room for genuinely imaginative stagings.

  39. While artistic director McAnuff certainly shares his predecessor’s penchant for spectacle, in putting Bartholomew Fair on the playbill, he broke strongly with Monette’s oft-criticized aversion to risk (Parolin 198), and this latter quality may well work to rejuvenate the Festival. Financially, at least, it has reason for optimism: the schedule cutbacks announced in spring were not only reversed by mid-season but turned into one week extensions, and season-end revenue figures were only down by 1.7 per cent over 2008 (Ouzounian, “Stratford”). Perhaps most pleasantly surprising was the real difficulty of finding seats for Bartholomew Fair, at least during the August peak of its run. This latter fact especially bodes well for classical theatre in Canada. 

[1] Racine’s Phèdre was also on the bill.

Works Cited


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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).