Happy 450th birthday, Will Shakspear

During his lifetime William Shakespeare spelled his last name in a variety of ways; I’m rather fond of ‘Shakspear’ myself.

Will Shakspear was born 450 years ago this year. He was baptized on April 26th 1564; the actual date of his birth is not known, but baptism at the age of three days would have been a fair assumption, hence the convention of celebrating his birthday on April 23rd (which, 52 years later, was the date of his death).

Personally I would have no problem calling Shakspear the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, of course, were meant to be seen, not read, and I’m sure millions of English schoolchildren, like me, have struggled with them as printed texts but been thrilled by them as they are brought alive on the stage. One of the things I’m proud of is that we gave our children the chance to see Shakspear live before they read him. It appears to have worked; they all seem to enjoy him.

Will Shakspear does not need my praise. I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking through an art gallery making disparaging comments about the paintings. Finally the exasperated curator said, “Sir, the paintings are not on trial – you are!” By all the standards we possess, Shakspear was at least ‘a’ great writer – I would say, ‘the’ great writer, the one who formed our language, captured our imagination, and gave us a compelling vision, not of humanity as it should be, but of humanity as it actually is, in all its nobility and wickedness. And he did it with that deliciously outrageous sense of humour that has given us not only tragic characters like Lear and Macbeth, or villains like Richard III, or pedants like Polonius and Jaques, but also wonderful comic figures like Sir Toby Belch, or Sir John Falstaff, or Robin Goodfellow (otherwise known as Puck), or Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head.

Thank you, Master Shakspear. You did your job well, and we can all enjoy the benefits of it, if we want to. A very happy 450th birthday to you, sir.


Much Ado About Quite A Lot, Actually!

One of Edmonton’s many ‘best kept secrets’ is the Free Will Shakespeare Festival. This is the twenty-second year that the ‘Free Willies’ have been using the Heritage Ampitheatre at Hawrelak Park to bring us their outstanding open-air productions of the plays of the Bard. Marci and I have been going down to the park to watch them since long before we moved to Edmonton in 2000; I think the mid-nineties might have been the first time we took in one of their plays while we were on a holiday trip. Over the years they’ve been getting better and better; some of the more memorable productions included Julius Caesar in 1998, Richard III in 2001, and the Merchant of Venice in 2004.
The man who gave one of the best ever performances as Richard III in 2001, John Ulyatt, is back this year as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Plying opposite him as Beatrice is Belinda Cornish, who is fairly new to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival, but who is obviously destined to be one of its stars. In order to be believable, these two need to be played with just the right combination of biting wit and sarcasm on the one hand, and obvious attraction and affection on the other, because they start the play at each other’s throats and end it in each other’s arms (well – more or less!). They are the archetypical ‘anti-romantic’ couple, whose love conversation later in the play continues to include playful little intimate put-downs and whose stubbornness at the end almost – but not quite – derails their own wedding! Ulyatt and Cornish have these two down to a tee; definitely the best portrayal of Benedick and Beatrice I’ve ever seen (and miles above the well known Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie portrayal).
Artistic director Marianne Copithorne has done a wonderful job bringing Shakespeare’s script to the stage, with clever production details and the odd non-Shakespearean line thrown in for good measure (“These are the dogberry days of summer”, says Dogberry as he lounges by the centrepiece of the stage). Her only questionable decision, in my view, was eliminating Leonato’s brother Antonio entirely from the script and having Friar Francis take over his few spoken parts. This leads to one confusing moment later in the play, where Leonato invites Claudio to marry ‘his brother’s daughter’ and everyone who is unfamiliar with the story thinks he is talking about Beatrice, as her (presumably dead) father is the only brother of Leonato who has been mentioned in the play to this point.
But this is a minor mistake in an otherwise brilliant production. If you live within easy distance of Edmonton, I strongly recommend that you get down to the park to see Much Ado before the season ends on July 25th. Individual tickets are $22.50 and a season pass (for both Much Adoand Macbeth) is $35. The schedule is available online here.