In the twisting of the Fates’ threads to bring me to Canada, there is likely nothing more significant than the Stratford Festival. Starting in 1983 and lasting through to 1989, my parents and I came every year to the small town of Stratford, ON to see a variety of plays by Shakespeare, usually one or two (and sometimes, three) each year. I’d become entranced with Shakespeare after participating in a Shakespeare in the Schools program (where I played Hamlet) in the sixth grade and studying a couple of his plays in school in later years. I would go on to take Shakespeare Seminar as one of my senior-year English electives, where we studied over half of the plays in some depth. Our first trip to Stratford, we stayed in a small motel that I’d likely love today, but the highschooler I was back then decried its lack of a swimming pool and rustic location. We saw three plays: Macbeth, As You Like It, and Tartuffe (which I’d read in French class), and fell in love with the beauty of the riverside setting of the Festival Theatre, with its swans and garden plantings. For years, a poster from that year’s festival hung in my bedroom
I remember fondly the excitement each year when the Stratford guidebook would show up and we’d learn what plays were being featured that year. We’d carefully choose our chosen shows and then Dad would phone up the box office to order tickets. We’d then book the motel — the Festival Inn became our favourite, especially after they expanded, because of their prime rib dinner–and wait for the tickets to arrive in the mail. The second year we went, we also went to Toronto, which became a tradition. One year, we went to the Elora Gorge and the St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market (much smaller back then). Sometimes we’d stop in Buffalo and see my Aunt Kitty. And we saw all kinds of plays–my favourite being the 1984 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost with Joseph Ziegler as Berowne, although I was also taken with the 1986 production of Pericles, a Shakespeare rarity, with the young Geraint Wyn Davies in the lead. (We’d later see him all over Canadian TV, particularly in Forever Knight.)
After getting married less than a year after coming to Canada, my husband and I chose to honeymoon at Stratford (although we stayed in Tavistock at a lovely B&B called the Blue Shutter Guest House). We saw two plays – Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. Colm Feore (who I’d first seen in Romeo and Juliet a few years before) played the lead in both plays; the latter also featured Brian Bedford as Dogberry. We toured the costume warehouses as well that year.
After that, my attendance became sporadic. My parents came up to visit one year and we went to a play with both them and my husband’s parents. I remember seeing HMS Pinafore one year. I visited Stratford a number of times for SCA events, but as I progressed farther into my graduate studies, I lacked the funds or the time to attend productions. We’d hoped my parents would visit again, but as my mother began her decline, they never did. When we moved back to Canada after a few years in Columbus, the habit was broken.
Yet, I was always wistful. I’d see the list of plays come out every year, and I’d remember.
And then, an offer to attend a performance at Stratford for the bargain price of $41 was too good to pass up. My $41 could get me a seat anywhere in the theatre–I wouldn’t know precisely where until a couple of days before the performance. I looked at my schedule, and decided that a performance over the Thanksgiving long weekend would work best. The play that best fit that schedule was a Saturday matinee of The Merry Wives of Windsor, featuring that very same Geraint Wyn Davies I’d seen in his first year at Stratford in a much more serious role. It’s a play I’d never seen before, live or otherwise.
It was a date.
In many ways, the town of Stratford is little changed in 25 years. Out on the edge of town, there’s now a Walmart and most of the restaurants I remember have been replaced. The Festival Inn is still there, but is now under the Quality Inn marquee. Many of the mom-and-pop hotels persist, but there is a new Best Western hotel where the older Victorian Inn used to be. The downtown shopping area is still filled with touristy boutiques, although there’s now a focus on upscale casual clothing for women of a certain age more than on “gift shops” full of tchotkes (the venerable Chelsea Bazaar is now more focused on household wares, but it still retains a little of the old feel). Fanfare Books persists, as does the shop showcasing Indigenous arts. But it does look like some of the businesses are struggling. I saw a fair number of empty shops, and the small “mall” in the downtown area was empty. Similarly, on the way in, I had noticed that a few other venerable businesses were gone, notably the old Lee Gardens Chinese restaurant. In general, the eastern approach to the town was looking a little more shabby than the last time I’d seen it.
Down by the river, however, there was no shabbiness in evidence. There’s a brand-new theatre (the Tom Patterson) being constructed a little west of the venerable Festival Theatre building, slated to open next year and featuring gleaming glass. The gardens along the river, just beginning their autumn decline, were as gorgeous as ever, and I stopped for one of the town’s famous swans crossing the road.
The Festival Theatre itself seemed, with one exception, frozen in time. That exception was the replacement of the old “concession stands” with a lovely new cafe on the main level, where I enjoyed an exceedingly tasty berry and white chocolate scone. But there are still displays and sketches from past productions ornamenting the halls, and the interior itself is the same, hugely adaptable thrust stage it’s always been. It seats 1800 people, with no seat, famously, no farther than 45 feet from the stage. The gift shop across the street was still in the same location and still had much the same feel. I even purchased a t-shirt with a witty saying from the play I was seeing–something I did the last time I was there, too.
But…the play’s the thing.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not considered one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, but it has continued to be popular because of its almost complete lack of seriousness. The character of Falstaff first appeared in the Henry IV plays, a comic foil to the serious business of those plays, but this “sequel”–possibly written because of the popularity of Falstaff with Elizabeth I–is not really set in the 15th century; it more properly belongs in Shakespeare’s own time. Setting Shakespeare’s plays in other times and places does not always work well, but in this case, director Antoni Cimolino’s setting of Merry Wives in a 50s small town (maybe even Stratford, ON itself, around the time of the founding of the Festival) was perfect. Set dressing was a particular strong suit of this production–from the colours (bright and bold, with a lot of pink in the boudoirs) to the mid-century modern furniture and small touches, including lamps, rotary phones, a console stereo with vinyl albums and the like. The thrust stage of the Festival theatre has always been hugely adaptable, and was transformed at various times during the performance from the exterior of a house to an inn, a cow pasture, a doctor’s office, a beauty salon and a barbershop, a forest with a “haunted house”, and two different bedrooms. And the costumes were amazing–from the fit and flare dresses of Mrs. Page, the poodle skirt of Ann Page, the letter sweater and “floods” of the nerdy Slender, the “western wear” of the Hostess of the Garter, and the dressing gowns and double-breasted blazers of Falstaff. Adding additional atmosphere was an ensemble of about eight or so kids who would pass through during scene transitions playing various games or just adding to the small-town feeling.
The play itself was hilarious (although, as has been noted, the plot, which is more or less “let’s humiliate Falstaff”, gets a little strained in the latter half. ) The slapstick treatment, cheezy accents, and silly costumes (in the end sequence) brought the comedy of the text to life. Geraint Wyn Davies’ Falstaff was, more or less, a somewhat more gullible, innocent version of Benny Hill, both in the way he was dressed and his lecherous demeanour. He is a tremendously able physical comedian, a strength that served him well in this production. The two Wives–Brigit Wilson as the chain-smoking, baudier Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as the more elegant (but also more devious) Mrs. Ford–were both pitch perfect, their wit highlighting the buffoonery of the men around them. In general, the men in this play are buffoons of various sorts, in contrast with the women, who are cunning and smart. Lucy Peacocke’s Miss Quickly, costumed like the town eccentric, successfully conveyed her ability to meddle in multiple plots. The most hilarious take was certainly Gordon S. Miller’s Dr. Caius, the French doctor, with his outrrrrrageous Fwench accENT (all written right in there by Shakespeare), a kind of combination of Inspector Closeau and the taunting Frenchmen in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. (As an aside, Spamalot is on the schedule for next year at Stratford, and he’d make an awfully good Taunter.) But this is a work that really relies on perfect comic timing and a strong ensemble cast, and they had that in spades.
What really affected me most, however, was that sense of nostalgia, sitting there in the Festival Theatre (in the best seat I’d ever had, it turns out–six rows from the stage). There, I could almost believe again that I was a teenager, seeing Shakespeare in the company of my parents, or a young honeymooner, with her new husband. Shakespeare and the Festival Theatre itself are both timeless, and for a few hours I could forget the worries of 2019 in the midst of the echoes of 1991, and 1983, and the 1950s and the 1590s. In the theatre, life was beautiful and new again, and I could remember my life stretching ahead of me into the unknown, full of promise and potential.
And it reminded me that, in the midst of nostalgia, there are still new things to be discovered, new paths to seek out. Sometimes the past can point the way.