Calling It Even

After this weekend, I’m willing to call it even with the universe.

It’s been two and a half years of pandemic. Two years since well-laid plans were scuttled.

There were things on that list that may not be recoverable. Who knows whether anyone will ever do the entire Shostakovich string quartet cycle somewhere I can get to over the process of one week? In fact, Shostakovich quartets are the unicorn, it seems–I’ve still not managed to see another one beyond the two I heard pre-pandemic and a third one arranged for chamber orchestra. Other concerts might take awhile to duplicate–but they were all for works I’ve heard live before. On the other hand, I’ve heard new, different works this past year, including that wonderful trip to New York, where I heard the perfection of Shostakovich 5 and, of course, Akhnaten.

But there were other plans, too, for the Stratford Festival: productions of Hamlet, Richard III, and Spamalot. The final of these has not yet materialized, but I saw Hamlet at the end of May, and yesterday I finally saw the long-awaited production of Richard III with Colm Feore–such a prominent actor in my early years of Festival attendance, and now a national treasure of sorts. And I saw it with about 20 friends, which, in itself, made it far more special.

There were six of us sitting around during Crown Tourney last May. It was just before I was set to see Hamlet, and I expressed my excitement about it, and about going to see Richard III when I could get a good deal on tickets. Both couples chimed in that they’d love to see that as well–and thus, the genesis of a plan. A FB group was formed, and as the numbers climbed, we realized we’d have plenty for a group discount. Another friend, who’d arranged tours at the Festival before, took point and arranged both a group discount and a chance to talk with a couple of the actors afterwards, while one of the original group to chime in took point in lunch reservations at Bentley’s, a Stratford restaurant that has been there for decades.

Yesterday was a gloriously sunny day, not too hot, wonderful for driving through the rural routes of southwestern Ontario. Google sends me a different way every time; I don’t argue with it–I just crank the Shostakovich and roll.

I started off with the Sixth Symphony, the one that evokes an amphitheatre in Western New York at midsummer, under the stars. I wanted to evoke that again, as in the same amphitheatre, author Salman Rushdie was brutally attacked on Friday as he was about to participate in a discussion. The Chautauqua Institution, it seemed, when I heard the Shostakovich (and Rachmaninov), was a magically charmed place, full of big ideas and glorious music and that kind of intellectual (largely Christian) religious thought that’s increasingly rare. You could stroll unimpeded through the site. There was no security at all, other than a manned gatehouse–at least that I could see. And now, that special place would always, always be remembered as a place of violence. But I wanted my memory back.

After the short Sixth and then the Fifth, I arrived in Stratford. I wanted to check out Art in the Park, where a jeweller friend sells her amazing work every Saturday. I had a lovely chat with her and looked at some gorgeous work, including a vendor who made charming robots out of old tin cans, several Group of Seven-influenced painters, and another jeweller whose five-pointed gold filligree pendant I could not resist. A few other friends attending the play appeared. We eventually made our way up to Bentley’s.

Despite its longevity in Stratford, I’d never eaten there. I loved the interior, with its Frank Llloyd Wright/Deco vibing decoration. We all spread out along a couple of long tables–I believe there were 16 or 18 of us there, some from as far away as Ottawa. The food was outstanding–beer battered fish that was done to perfection (golden batter, flaky inside) and a salad with a apple maple vinaigrette. It was absolutely wonderful to eat with friends and laugh and talk fabric and other fun things again.

Then, off to the new Tom Patterson Theatre. It had been due to open in 2020; but since Stratford did not do a full season last year (doing all their productions under tents), it also had to wait for its debut. And it’s an amazing space, with sweeping woodwork, a thrust stage, and no seat more that about 12 rows away. It’s strikingly intimate, much more so than the Festival Theatre, and much more rectangular–where the Festival stage is more of a square. There was a t-shirt to purchase, and I grabbed what looked like the last fruit scone for later. We met up with the others who had not gone to lunch before we headed into the theatre.

The play itself was all that I had wanted. The set was dressed with what looked like a dig site coordinated by the University of Leicester, which, of course, our group all recognized as alluding to the excavation that unearthed the burial place of the real Richard III under a car park. Indeed, the play opened with a team of archaeologists discovering something–and then clearing the stage for Colm Feore to make his entrance as Richard, emerging, as it were, from the grave.

The show was costumed more-or-less historically-ish. Richard, in particular, had a striking leather doublet with detailing in the back suggesting the curvature of the spine that the unearthed remains exhibited–and this detail continued to be suggested in his further costume changes. Feore also played him with splayed, twisted legs, one foot turning painfully inward (a physicality that must be painful to play consistently). He was marvellous–despite the disability, his Richard was strikingly athletic and restless. Other standouts in the cast were Andre Sills as the Duke of Buckingham–a tall, broad-chested ally to Richard whose sudden fall catches him completely by surprise, and Seana McKenna as Margaret, Henry VI’s French wife, whose prophetic curses all come true. Margaret gives no fucks and is happy to see everything burn. All three of the significant female roles were wonderfully played.

One thing that was particularly apparent during this staging is how apart and alone Richard is from his family and others. His confidants? The audience, who apparently represent his own mind, and Feore made this clear. In fact, the only time we see a number of people in close proximity to him is when the ghosts of all his victims appear (several from the side aisles) to enter his tent the night before the battle to haunt him. (This, incidentally, was the scene I wrote my Shakespeare Seminar test paper on in high school, and the title of that paper–“The Enemy Within”–is still perfect.) At the climax, after a battle with nearly every cast member on stage fighting, with barriers erected to evoke the fog of war (and even allow an apparent puppetry horse to appear), when Richard cries for a horse, he is absolutely alone on stage. It takes a couple of moments for his enemies to appear, along with a single ally–who then, from behind (as is historically accurate), kills the king. Almost immediately, the scene shifts so that Richmond, now wearing modern clothes, is at a press conference preaching unity, the medieval completely fading away before our eyes as Richard is returned to his grave by a military honour guard. It was an incredibly clever way to end the play.

Afterwards, a talk with two of the actors–who turned out to be the Duke of Buckingham himself, Andre Sills, and Emilio Vieira, who played Catesby. We only had half an hour with them, but listened to some great insights into everything from wigs to whether they preferred period clothing or modern clothing, to how they were finding playing to masked audiences. It turns out Sills also plays a significant role in All’s Well That Ends Well, which I’ll be seeing on the 24th.

So–we’ll call it even, Universe. I got the Richard III performance I had longed for for more than two years, but friends made it even better than I expected.
Today didn’t go as originally planned–but that was a good thing. As our two RPG games were both cancelled, we opted to go to the Fergus Scottish Festival, where we got to see pipe bands (massed and doing “pop up” shows, saw people throwing heavy things up in the air and down a field (no caber toss, alas), watched a sheep being sheared, saw some 18th century reenactors, bought a hat and some whisky shortbread cookies, and best of all, had a haggis sandwich.

Before all of this happened, on Friday I took a trip down to Ottawa St. and returned with real silk chiffon. I have decided to finally rebuild the vintage 1930s black velvet dress, replacing the burnout silk velvet sleeves with the tears with plain fabric, which should hopefully make the dress wearable again. I also stopped in Michael’s for some embroidery floss. The Halloween decorations are coming in, and I found a black cat doll in in pinstripe jacket that reminded me of Shostakovich, for some reason (maybe it was the same unwavering blue-eyed gaze from my embroidery). I decided to remodel him, removing the bright orange pants and replacing them with much classier black linen ones (based on the pattern from the original pants) and adding a pair of specs. So–Shostacatvich.

And on Thursday, I finished my second Paper Nano project (another odd coincidence, as the first kit came from my trip to Chautauqua.)

Relatively speaking, the next week and a half are fairly quiet. People are returning from Pennsic, not a few with the Plague, making me think that my decision to stay home this year was likely a prudent one. I certainly did not feel the pangs of FOMO that I did in 2019.