In Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, Queen Elizabeth I turns to the theatre for distraction in the hours before a man she loves is executed for treason, by her order. The play, which deals with issues surrounding gender, identity and power, has just opened at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, and signals a change – a move away from an all-Shakespeare program.
"We're looking outside the canon for other plays that fit nicely," said Bard artistic director Christopher Gaze. "[We're] not changing the festival dramatically; it's just that we want other plays that would be intriguing for our theatregoers."
Elizabeth Rex deals with history, both real and imagined. The queen (Colleen Wheeler) has ordered Shakespeare's company to perform Much Ado About Nothing the night before the Earl of Essex is to be beheaded for plotting against her. She then seeks their company in the royal stables where the players must spend the night due to a curfew meant to suppress any execution-related rioting.
On that long, difficult night, Elizabeth finds a sparring partner – and intellectual and emotional counterpoint – in actor Ned Lowenscroft (Haig Sutherland). He is a gay man who has made a career of portraying Shakespeare's women at a time when women could not do so. She is a queen, ruling in a man's world. Neither is allowed to love – or mourn lost loves – freely.
"She's got nine hours before her lover is put to death and what does she need?" says director Rachel Ditor. "What's happening to her in those nine hours? Is she looking for absolution? Is she looking to feel validated in her choice? Does she want to grieve? She says at the beginning she doesn't want to. So is she there just to be entertained, to be diverted? ... Despite the fact that she's a queen, it's such a human situation. You're really just talking about people, not a monarch."
Ditor and Wheeler became immersed in their research, and are both able to rhyme off all sorts of facts about the Elizabethan period. Wheeler also committed herself to the role physically, shaving off her trademark curly red hair – a decision that was difficult to make but ultimately liberating to carry out.
"People associate me with that hair, so it's been really nice to get rid of it. And as an actor, it's really informative to feel that kind of nakedness," says Wheeler.
"Oh my God, it was such an event," adds Ditor, who was there. "It was sort of like sculptors who sculpt in marble or stone and they chip away at a block and then the figure emerges. That was what it was like, watching her hair come off in sections. It was like there was a person that was being revealed underneath it."
Elizabeth Rex premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2000, winning the Governor-General's Award for Drama that year, and has since been produced around the world. Ditor saw it in Vancouver at the Arts Club in 2001, and recalls sitting in the back row of the balcony, bawling her eyes out. When Gaze asked her about directing the play for this season, she went back to the script, and wept again.
This is only the second time Bard has produced a full length non-Shakespeare play (Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the first in 2005).
Gaze indicated in an interview last week that it will be an "ongoing pattern" for the festival to include a non-Shakespeare play in the season, even on the mainstage. Next season it will be Bill Cain's Equivocation, in which Shakespeare (or "Shagspeare") is commissioned by the government to write a play about the so-called Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This will be Bard's first co-production, in this case with Victoria's Belfry Theatre.
And there's another big change ahead for Bard: Within the next three years, the festival intends to introduce a commissioning program.
"I think the general view that I hold and our artistic goals committee holds is that we need to be able to change things up; we need to have some flexibility inside our programming," says Gaze. "I think if we just remain entirely dedicated to Shakespeare, we'll be shortchanging our patrons."
Elizabeth Rex is at the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage Theatre at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until Sept. 11.