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Des McAnuff (left) and Antoni Cimolino

Reading quotes in a press release is like being handed a play's script without any stage directions. You're given the dialogue, so to speak, but you don't know how it was said. It's all text – the subtext's up to you to direct in your mind.

Here's a scene study for the amateur theatre directors out there. The background: The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is about to undergo a change in command after five years under artistic director Des McAnuff, a robustly inventive interpreter of Shakespeare. His replacement is long-time Stratford administrative head honcho Antoni Cimolino, whose recent work as a director is known for its fidelity to what the playwright set down on the page.

In a release announcing his upcoming first season, Cimolino takes the opportunity to say a word about his philosophy of running a classical theatre festival centred on Shakespeare: "First, I will put the actor and the text firmly at the centre of what we do … In a culture that has become so visually oriented, I think people crave the kind of storytelling that relies above all on the uniquely compelling power of the spoken word."

So, how would you ask a performer playing Cimolino to deliver those lines? There are at least two ways to go. In one, an artist is excitedly and straightforwardly outlining his statement of principles. In the other, a leader looking at a decade-long decline in audience attendance is sending a signal to the press and patrons that the era of his predecessor – with his visually oriented productions – is over.

I wasn't there when Cimolino said those lines, if he ever spoke them aloud. If I were looking to stage a gripping drama, however, I know which directorial interpretation I'd go with.

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Since he assumed the mantle of North America's premiere classical theatre company five years ago, Des McAnuff has unquestionably raised the festival's profile, in Canada and around the world – but that hasn't stopped certain observers from wondering whether he was the right man to run it.

Indeed, in contrast to his widely acclaimed and commercially successful work on Broadway rock musicals, such as Jersey Boys and The Who's Tommy, the American-Canadian director's reputation as a stager of Shakespeare has been rocky.

Take one of his critically controversial productions of Twelfth Night. In it, the 17th-century words of William Shakespeare were set to a contemporary pop score punctuated by electric-guitar riffs that McAnuff himself had composed with Michael Roth, while the characters' costumes time-travelled through different eras, sometimes jumping centuries of fashion from one scene to the next. The set was no less eclectic: One scene took place on a tennis court, another under a fully stocked refrigerator that hung in the air like a chandelier; another took place in a steam room, McAnuff's favourite place to relocate scenes and provide flesh-flashing titillation.

This Twelfth Night was popular with many critics, but it also attracted vehement detractors who wondered where the Shakespeare had gone. Chicago-based director and critic Terry McCabe was so appalled by how McAnuff's production favoured "visual quirkiness over dramatic logic" that he used it to open his indictment of director-driven theatre in his book, Mis-directing the Play. "Directing that seeks to control the text, instead of subordinating itself to the text, is bad directing," McCabe wrote, excoriating McAnuff for entertaining "by means of sleight-of-hand rather than by storytelling."

This Twelfth Night that McCabe hated wasn't at Stratford – it was staged in 1990 at California's La Jolla Playhouse, a prominent regional theatre that McAnuff ran off and on for 24 years. If it sounds familiar, however, that's because McAnuff borrowed many elements from it for a 2011 production at Stratford – one that led to a similar bizarre mix of over-the-top raves and vitriolic negativity.

The question of whether McAnuff knows how to "properly" direct Shakespeare has been raging for over two decades.

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Indeed, the debate over McAnuff's merits as a classical director is a flashpoint in a larger artistic argument that has been raging in the Anglosphere since the actor-manager model of putting on plays disappeared after the Second World War: Who is more important to the vision of a production – the director or the playwright? Should theatre's primary allegiance lie with authors or, as in the film world, auteurs?

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.