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6. "'In th' Marketplace": Summer Shakespeare

Beginning as it did under a tent and by a river, the Stratford Festival is linked to the most common way of presenting Shakespeare in Canada: in the summertime, under a tent or in the park. Almost every province of the country currently enjoys such summer Shakespeare, as Canadians seem to prefer pairing their Bard with a beautiful landscapeñperhaps the result of long winters spent indoors. Perhaps, however, this is also the theatrical equivalent of the theme so frequently encountered in Canadian fiction, of the power and immensity, the sheer presence, of the land. The trend was seriously introduced in the 1880s and became a staple of Canadian life after the 1930s, particularly in "cottage" country: the Muskokas. The so-called "straw hat" theatre took longer to establish itself in the cities. One of the earliest of such outdoor urban Shakespeares was found at the top of Mount Royal in Montreal at Beaver Lake. The Open-Air Playhouse (where Christopher Plummer, among others, appeared) produced The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It under the direction of Malcolm Morley, founder of the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa. Today, summer Shakespeare festivals may be found in almost all provinces of the country.

Many of the summer festivals produce a similar list of plays consisting of a style which works well out of doors, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. The hallmark style of these productions is similar enthusiastic rushing about, playing comedy for its outrageousness and slapstick, tragedy for its melodrama. Consistently billed in its promotional literature as "accessible," "fun for children of all ages, 8 to 80" and "radical," summer Shakespeare purports to "blow the cobwebs off" the Bard. [1] However, this "renovation" of Shakespeare seems to be confined to outdoor settings, contemporary references (especially to pop culture icons), broad humour, and frenetic rhythms. Thus, for example, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (founded by Gordon McCall) produced a futurist Hamlet as a rock star in a post-nuclear world--in reviewer Chris Dafoe's witty phrase, Hamlet as "The Road Worrier" (Dafoe, 1996, A11).

The theatrical equivalent of pop culture bestsellersñaccessible, profitable, least differentiatedñsummer Shakespeare is a mass-market commodity aimed at the largest possible audience. Yet these productions have their magical moments, too, especially when Canadian weather intercedes. British Columbia's Bard on the Beach (founded in 1990) plays in a custom-made tent open to a "glorious backdrop of city, sea, and mountains". Large casts and elaborate costuming as well as the wonderful natural setting make it a popular theatre. During a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1991, Chris Humphreys, playing Oberon, ran, as always, for his upstage right exit:

I had always used it [the exit] to launch myself, my arms and feathers flying, into the sky and drop out of sight onto a mattress a few feet below. Except this time, at the very moment I leapt, silhouetted against the stormy sky... the entire horizon flashed white with sheet lightning! The audience gasped in almost eerie unison, as if they were fused by the vision. The actors were speechless. I rolled and ran for the tent.... God, the ultimate lighting director. That night the company played as if every speech was lightning-lit. Every weather reference was cherished. With uncanny timing, the storm wound down along with the play. It was magical.
 (Humphreys in Green and Moore 309)

7. Alternative, multicultural and First Nations Shakespeare

Reinforcing the mobilization in the 1970s against British and American cultural influences was a groundswell of alternative theatres with their political and artistic revolt against large regional theatres, which represented the bulk of professional theatre in Canada and most of the dollars. Surprisingly, however, alternative theatre has been very receptive to a re-reading of the classics, including Shakespeare, and has often quickly blurred into the mainstream, as may be seen by the example of Quebec actor, director, and filmmaker Robert Lepage, who quickly moved from alternative to mainstream commercial theatres and became an internationally-acclaimed theatre wizard. Protesting against the "colonial" attitudes and traditions of British and French-born directors, against American imports, alternative Shakespeare has often been "de-stabilized" or "de-centred"; that is, contrary to the populist desire for entertainment found in summer Shakespeare, alternative versions staged a politically-charged and serious Bard.

Despite the enormous influx of immigrants, multicultural Shakespeare, even in such diverse urban centres as Toronto, is still rare, as is First Nations Shakespeare. Among these rarities was an adapted Hamlet, staged by the Modern Times Stage Company at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999. Directed by Soheil Parsa, the play was set in the Orient and the costumes were a mixture of kimonos, business suits, and Indian saris. The action was punctuated by gongs and the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes was reminiscient of a martial arts contest.

The Tempest has been particularly amenable to post-colonial stage interpretations, well before such interpretations became popular among scholars. The Tamahnous Theatre Workshop produced The Tempest at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1974, directed by John Gray. In 1992, in British Columbia, the Bard on the Beach festival staged The Tempest with a Northwest Canadian theme, in which Ariel was played as Nanabush (an aboriginal trickster figure).

Other First Nations Shakespeare includes a Winnipeg group called Shakespeare in the Red, founded by First Nations actor Michael Lawrenchuk and British director Libby Mason in 1996. The group tours with predominantly Native productions of Shakespeare to theatres, schools, and community venues; and carries out workshops and other professional training for professional and semi-professional actors. They have experienced enthusiastic response from audiences to To Thine Own Self Be True (an amalgam of scenes from various Shakespearean plays and sonnets, accompanied by Native instrumental and vocal music). Herb Weil (University of Manitoba), who has provided this information, wrote of the "both jarring and beautiful" power of especially the passages on dispossession and alienation.. [2]

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[1] From a promotional pamphlet for the 1997 Shakespeare by the Sea Festival, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The artistic director was Patrick Christopher. [Back]

[2] Herb Weil, in an email to me, 29 March 2000. [Back]