The Stratford Festival seems to have fully bought into the idea of “original practices” this year.
The opening week of its 61st season began in the Festival Theatre with a production of Romeo and Juliet presented as it would have been in Elizabethan England.
And it ended in the same theatre with an original practices production of The Three Musketeers – that is, done as it would have been if Alexandre Dumas’s adventure novel was adapted for the stage soon after being published in 1844.
That’s what it looked like to me, anyway. Miles Potter’s director’s note makes no mention of original practices, but his production certainly is an excellent example of what stage entertainment must have been like in the first half of the 19th century.
Imagine going to the theatre before the advent of movies, when it was a pop-culture medium where you could catch the contemporaneous equivalent of Fast & Furious 6. The workers who flocked to the cities during the Industrial Revolution led to an explosion in demand for mass escapism that, at the time, only the stage could satisfy.
Before the likes of Ibsen came along and made theatregoing an edifying, middle-class activity, the 19th-century stage was full of romances and melodramas (and Shakespeare) where the emphasis was on pageantry and spectacle.
Peter Raby’s adaptation of The Three Musketeers may have been written in 1968 for Stratford (this is the fourth time they’re mounted it), but it has the musty feel of an older text, with a focus on action and exposition and little literary about it.
Every second scene in the first half seems to end with the heroes touching swords and crying “One for all, and all for one!”, a predecessor of action-movie catchphrases like “May the Force be with you” and “Yippee ki-yay mother-”… well, you know.
Upon arriving in Paris from Gascony in the reign of Louis XIII, hot-blooded young D’Artagnan (Luke Humphrey) makes fast enemies, then friends with a trio of the king’s musketeers known as the “three inseparables” – the dashing and daring Athos (Graham Abbey), the poetic and philosophic Aramis (Mike Shara) and the hungry and hedonistic Porthos (Jonathan Goad). You may have heard of them?
First, these four are enlisted to track down the Queen’s jewels in England in a mission full of drink, damsels in distress and energetic sword-fighting sequences with the Cardinal’s guards. Under the top-notch fight direction of John Stead, the cast handle their épées as masterfully as ballet dancers do their pliés.
In the second half of Raby’s adaptation, the musketeers help foil another plot to instigate war between England and France. Here, the clatter of swords is replaced by the chatter of lords – and, ultimately, this led to much rustling and dozing among the patrons, young and aged. Like the summer blockbusters of today, The Three Musketeers overstays its welcome by an hour or so.
Throughout, however, shaggy-haired Humphrey has wonderful enthusiasm and energy as D’Artagnan – he has exactly the charm and stage presence a play like this needs to stay lively, not to mention delightful chemistry with his love interest, played by a buoyant Bethany Jillard.
Acting in the 19th century was more demonstrative than it is now as performances had to reach the backs of large theatres filled with restless, likely drunk, audiences – which is, of course, entirely different from opening night audiences at Stratford today.
The main musketeers – Abbey, Goad and Shara – as well as Deborah Hay as villainess Milady de Winter, all admirably act in this manner. Abbey, on occasion, breaks original practices by showing evidence of Athos’s inner life, but we’ll forgive him.
Michael Walton’s lighting follows original practices insofar as it looks dark and murky as if the stage was lit by oil lamps. Now here, I thought the conceit had fallen down, since gaslight had made headway in most major cities by 1844 or so. Further research, however, led me to the discovery that at the Comédie Française, many actors objected to bright lights at first, so oil lamps were often used until later in the century. Clever! Another thing that makes this very 19th-century is its depiction of women: Though The Three Musketeers is being presented as part of the Schulich Children’s Plays series, there’s no feminist script-doctoring. As Potter says in his director’s note, “the attitude of the piece toward women is of its time.” If he had been rebooting the Dumas franchise rather than mounting an original practices production, I might argue with that. But he was, right?