The annual Shakespeare festival in Ontario, Canada, is not just about the Bard's plays, but also gives the visitor a feel of 16th century Elizabethan England.
Her white dress billows across the black, circular stage. She becomes a tiny speck on a vast ocean of water. “Will all the perfumes of Arabia ever sweeten this little hand of mine?” she moans.
It is a piteous cry in the dark that makes the audience shiver. We have already witnessed a spate of cold blooded murders, walked in dark corridors, supped with ghosts and watched hideous witches boil strange concoctions. No, this is not a castle in Dunsinane, and we are not seeing 12th century warriors turned tyrants. Nor are we in the Globe in Elizabethan England. This is a modern theatre in Ontario staging the annual Shakespeare festival, which attracts more tourists to Canada than the Niagara Falls. So welcome to Stratford, readers, though not on Avon. This delightful North American city — a village not long ago — has recreated 16th century England down to the last swan gliding on the Thames. It is the second home of the Bard who stands tall as you enter its dreamlike Shakespearean Gardens.
“Ye are welcome, my fair guests….” says artistic director, Richard Monette mimicking Henry VIII. The stage is set in the incredible 2200-seat Festival Theatre, with its unique design that boasts of the largest backstage area ever. Its awesome ambience leaves you gasping as you pass through the imposing foyer to enter a magical world. Every seat in that theatre gets an unimpeded view of the stage where, minutes later, we see three weird sisters appear and vanish in the blink of an eye into cavernous hiding places beneath the stage. No curtains, no props. Not surprisingly, the architect of this unique play house, Robert Fairfield, won the prestigious Massey Gold Medal for his innovative design.
It is a far cry from the Globe Theatre of Southwark in London where Shakespeare staged his plays. Here, boys do not play the roles of women, and boisterous spectators do not throw rotten apples at the actors. The Festival Theatre has no space for unruly behaviour. Instead, there was a stillness beyond words that night as the actors spoke their lines, that even a softly uttered phrase like “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me…..” resonated across the theatre as if Macbeth shouted those words to the whole world. From the eerie opening scene until the brutal end, the audience sits spellbound.
But, the play is NOT everything here. The Stratford festival may draw 600,000 people every year. Many of them come not to see Shakespeare plays, but to get a feel of 16th century Elizabethan England in Canada. The city of Stratford, where motels are named “As You Like It” and inns are fittingly called “Rave Review!” does just that. Even its location near London — which is your first halt — takes you back to the real Shakespeare country with its fairy tale streets and historic buildings. Wards named Avon, Falstaff, Hamlet or Romeo reinforce the Shakespeare connection. The streets lead you to the theatres, via dream gardens with their rivulets and swans. The Bard himself stands here majestically to welcome the theatre lovers. I believe that the Festival Theatre was inaugurated by the iconic actor Alec Guiness with the words: “Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this son of York!” Stratford is the ultimate tribute to the author of those lines.
The Canadian department of tourism has named the Stratford festival as the event of the year. The season starts sometime in April (coinciding with Shakespeare's birth date) to the end of October. Throughout this period, the city comes under his spell. Tourists don't look for anything other than savour its special charm. The sidewalks and cafes, the parks and the gardens are all filled with people who quietly saunter taking in the nostalgia of a bygone age. They may linger near the Avon, watch the swans glide gracefully into make-believe caves, and then explore the well laid out parks and gardens; or, they may walk along those charming streets, stop near a sidewalk café to savour a cup of coffee and watch other tourists doing the same. After these delightful pastimes, they move on to one of the four theatres, Festival, Avon, Tom Patterson and the very intimate Studio Theatre. The festival season in Stratford does not limit itself to Shakespeare. The Brothers Karamazow, Oedipus, The Count of Monte Cristo ... all there for the visitors.
At his best
I had a choice of three plays that night: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry VIII and Macbeth. I chose the last to watch the Bard at his best. There was no reason to regret the choice. Written at the height of his career, Macbeth is a tragedy preoccupied with ghosts and visions and prophesies. It is also a play where the main protagonist eludes the reader with his many-sided persona, his foibles and frailties. He may commit cold blooded, premeditated murders. Yet, his remorse and introspection touch our hearts. Graham Abbey could have stepped out of Shakespeare's play itself in flesh and blood. His superb rendering of a complex character was a humbling experience. I walked around the empty theatre that night to keep the spell unbroken.
In my mind, the Stratford Festival of Canada will always be synonymous with Macbeth. Whether it is the dagger that leads him to a sleeping victim, or the ghost of Banquo haunting him, or the three witches tempting him with false promises, the performance of the Thane of Glamis “who shall be king hereafter” was an unforgettable experience. The Stratford Festival of Canada would have been poorer without it.