Mis-directing the Play sides firmly with the words. McCabe’s polemic against what’s known as “director’s theatre” was published over a decade ago – and has been on the curriculum at the University of British Columbia’s MFA program in directing since 2004. Now there’s dramatic irony: For the five years that McAnuff has been at the head of the most prominent theatre company in Canada, his staging of Shakespeare has been simultaneously held up as an example of what not to do at one of the country’s top schools for directors. (UBC, of course, exposes its students to variety of views, but English-Canadian theatre institutions have traditionally been quite textually fundamentalist.)
In fact, the English-speaking theatre world in general has tended to be skeptical of directors taking too many liberties with a text. For that matter, there’s a bias toward what we hear over what we see embedded in our language. We are an audience – that is, a group of listeners. (In French, by contrast, we would be spectateurs, or people who see.)
Cimolino’s current sell-out production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is a perfect example of the kind of theatrical production that appeals to an audience’s ears – “the uniquely compelling power of the spoken word” – and on which the Stratford Shakespeare Festival first established its reputation.
The tough-to-pigeonhole play is usually seen as a thorny problem to be solved, with its complicated plot that begins like Snow White but veers into beheadings and battles, and which features the god Jupiter riding aside an eagle for good measure. Unlike other recent productions I’ve seen, however, Cimolino’s accepts the play at face value, lets actors such as Graham Abbey and Cara Ricketts have at the text – and the result has been widely celebrated by critics and audiences.
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Classifying McAnuff and Cimolino as polar opposites is, of course, misleading. Even looking only at their offerings in the 2012 Stratford season, Cymbeline has a couple of tremendously eye-pleasing moments, while McAnuff’s sweeping production of Henry V has quiet turns that chill – entirely through skilful delivery of the text.
Because Cimolino tells the story of Cymbeline without outside commentary, visual or otherwise, his production may be true to the text. But is it truer to Shakespeare’s intentions? Certain of the play’s original resonances – for instance, its exploration of the budding concept of what it is to be British – are, inevitably, lost on a contemporary Canadian audience.
McAnuff’s Henry V, by contrast, opens with a chorus clad in Team Canada and CBC T-shirts, and ends by unfurling a Canadian flag. And yet, by visually deviating from what Shakespeare wrote, it provokes its audience’s patriotism in a way the play may well have done when it first opened four centuries ago.
As it always has been with McAnuff, this has been jeered by some and cheered by others. In his glowing review, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones hailed McAnuff as “one of the globe’s most interesting interpreters of a populist brand of Shakespeare.”
But Lynn Slotkin, a prominent online critic based in Toronto, who had her Stratford press tickets rescinded for about 24 hours this summer due to her strong anti-McAnuff opinions, echoed what McCabe writes in Mis-directing the Play. “[McAnuff] is more interested in dazzling us with moving the set and changing the scenes than he is in illuminating the play,” she fumed.
As McAnuff’s tenure comes to an end this fall, I can’t help but think that – although his record with Shakespeare at Stratford can only be called uneven – he is one this continent’s most interesting directors of the Bard.
Yes, “interesting” is a wiggle word, but I mean it as a compliment. Even his less-successful productions have made me look at and think about Shakespeare from a different angle. I admire his driving desire to make the plays he directs engage with a 21st-century audience – whether through music or images or political overtones. And I appreciate how McAnuff has unapologetically championed the visual – without ever throwing the words out the window – at a theatre company that has long defined itself around text.
Will the Stratford Shakespeare Festival be as “interesting” after McAnuff hands the reins to Cimolino? As it struggles to win back the audiences that have disappeared over the past decade – starting well before McAnuff came on board – it’s possible that the best approach is to return to what worked before.
But the surest strategy, it seems to me, would be to cover all the bases. As Cimolino sets out to refashion the Festival in opposition to what he calls “a culture that has become so visually oriented,” I hope he’ll leave space to engage with that culture too – and that he will invite his predecessor back to direct Shakespeare (and not just musicals), giving those of us who love the Bard the chance to celebrate – and excoriate – McAnuff’s vision for years to come.