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Emilio Vieira and Michael Man in The Two Noble Kinsmen, performed by Toronto theatre company Shakespeare Bash’d.Kyle Purcell/Supplied

I’ve seen all of William Shakespeare’s plays now. Well, the 38 in my (slightly dated) complete works, anyway. Here are my five favourite based on productions that proved his true, timeless greatness as a playwright – and three that I’ve yet to ever fully love in performance.

The Bard’s best bets...

1. Coriolanus

Favourite production: Stratford Festival, 2018

Director Robert Lepage came up with one of his greatest cinematic stagings for this tragedy about a general who becomes a populist politician. His design team’s brilliant visuals were backed by a superb Stratford Festival cast. The knock-your-socks-off climax was simply Lucy Peacock acting her heart out while delivering Volumnia’s plea for peace. (Shakespeare’s Roman plays are underrated these days despite their resurging relevance. I’m of the belief that if Julius Caesar had stayed on high-school curricula, the Western world would be in a better place.)

2. Hamlet

Favourite production: Schaubühne Berlin, 2008

I fall in and out of fascination with Hamlet. Productions motivated by “it’s this male actor’s time now” nearly ruined the play for me, but non-traditional casting and ensemble approaches help subvert the script’s status as a long-time tool of theatrical patriarchy. Still, German great Lars Eidinger’s narcissistic performance as a toxic Hamlet (the lines between actor/character were blurred) in Thomas Ostermeier’s celebrated messy production at the Schaubühne Berlin is the most memorable I’ve seen. Eidinger was gobsmackingly awful: I’ll never forget him berating audience members who dared to go to the bathroom mid-show.

3. Macbeth

Favourite production: Sleep No More, Punchdrunk, 2011

Macbeth is a play that’s captured my imagination so deeply on the page since I was a teen that I have almost always found it a mite disappointing on stage. The exceptions are Antoni Cimolino’s visceral 2016 production at Stratford starring Ian Lake, and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Punchdrunk is a brilliant British company that did more than any other to make immersive theatre into the international phenomenon it now is. Over close to a decade, directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle – along with their designers and cast – developed and refined a physical and visual language to tell the Scottish play that culminated in this 2011 off-Broadway production featuring simultaneous action taking place on five floors. An adventure that everyone experienced differently, it truly transformed live performance.

4. Twelfth Night

Favourite production: Filter, 2006

It’s a close competition between Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for most reliably funny of Shakespeare’s comedies, but the former edges out the latter on this list for featuring his finest fool (Feste) and the greatest of his gulls (Malvolio). The play naturally supports imaginative direction and design, as in Jillian Keiley’s wonderful production with the Old Trout Puppet Workshop (National Arts Centre, 2016). My absolute fave, however, was a stripped-down, concert-like version directed by Sean Holmes for a British company called Filter. When Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek ordered pizza for the audience, it felt like a real carnival had broken out in the seats – only for puritanical party pooper Malvolio to come in and spoil the fun. I joined in the cheers when Sir Toby delivered Shakespeare’s greatest diss: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

5. Othello

Favourite production: Donmar Warehouse, 2007

I’ve never been anywhere as emotionally shaken by a Shakespeare production as I was by director Michael Grandage’s Othello starring a truly tragic Chiwetel Ejiofor as the title character in the West End. I recall trembling and then weeping as Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona got dressed for what what she seemed to know was her death scene. Oh yeah, Ewan McGregor played Iago. It was a bit of a blank performance, but, as it turns out, the two-faced character is most chilling when you can’t quite pin down the source of his evil insecurity.

Shakespeare’s top three duds.

1. Romeo and Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s film of Romeo + Juliet (and its soundtrack) was a touchstone of my youth, but I’ve never seen a stage production that didn’t leave me bored after Mercutio dies in Act III, Scene I. There’s so much wailing and plot and frustrating character choices to get through after that the death scene comes as a relief.

2. Love’s Labour’s Lost

The most tedious of Shakespeare’s comedies, with in-jokes of the time that only scholars and classical actors pretend to still find funny.

3. King Lear

Like Hamlet, Lear suffers from expectations, an unlikeable lead character, underwritten female characters and casting being the primary motivation for too many productions. You can’t top some of its scenes, but I’ve never seen a Lear without longueurs.

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