By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Shall I compare thee to a … sum … a sum … a something, something… Damn it.”
In the opening scene of the play that launches the new Citadel season Thursday, we meet an up-and-coming playwright up against it. You know, the usual: debt, ridiculous deadlines, conflicting promises to two different theatre companies, demanding backers with both beady eyes on the box office — and a bad case of writer’s block.
The young man is William Shakespeare. And in an image of theatrical collaboration, he’s surrounded by his fellow actors, and a helpful playwriting rival named Kit Marlowe (Gabe Grey). Will (Andrew Chown) will get his groove back, with a little help from his friends, when he falls in love across the class divide with a stage-struck noblewoman. And suddenly Romeo and Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter, a comedy promised in desperation, will turn into something else, an outpouring into a luscious romantic tragedy we know.
A new era in Citadel history begins with Shakespeare in Love, the celebration of theatre adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from the Oscar magnet 1998 movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. And its signal of theatrical inclusiveness is at the heart of Daryl Cloran’s choice of his debut production as the company’s artistic director, he says.
“It plays to the strengths of this company!” Cloran declares of Shakespeare in Love one morning last week before rehearsal. “It’s a sumptuous, gorgeous show” with lavish period costumes by Cory Sincennes. “And a large cast, 20 actors!, that only the Citadel can do…. “
“But more than any of that, for me, is that the whole season, all the programming is based on the idea of inclusiveness.” Cloran uses the term ubuntu, an African word meaning “I am because you are” or “a person is a person through other persons.” Ubuntu is the name of the signature (and much travelled) Cloran piece, a collaboration with South African artists he developed with his Toronto indie company Theatrefront (it arrives at the Citadel in October).
“All of our shows are about that. Shakespeare in Love is a romance, and a comedy. But ultimately it’s about a group of actors, outcasts coming together to challenge that status quo about who gets to have a voice. Who gets to participate…. Whose stories are we allowed to tell, and who gets to tell them.”
In an era when women weren’t allowed on the stage, Viola de Lessep, Will’s muse, is the first (played by the Persian-Canadian actor Bahareh Yaraghi). And this radical departure doesn’t come without risk in the play; the Lord Chamberlain (played by John Ullyatt among multiple other assignments) can shut a theatre down for such a gross infraction of prescribed practice.
And speaking of Ullyatt, “this show has taught me about the bench strength of Edmonton actors,” says Cloran, who notes that nine of the 20 actors are from Edmonton (seven from Winnipeg, home of the Citadel’s co-producer the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, four from around the country). “John and Andrew MacDonald-Smith, our leads from Crazy For You, along with Farren Timoteo (a star of Peter and the Starcatcher) are now in supporting roles. Macdonald-Smith “keeps showing up in a different beard,” laughs the director. “He’s probably 25 different characters.”
The “ensemble nature” of both the plot, and the storytelling — “artists coming together to do something” — “is how the show is envisioned,” says Cloran of an adaptation that slides quite easily from the screen onto the stage since it’s about theatre.
“Everyone participates…. Throughout, actors are there onstage witnessing scenes they’re not in. You’re always reminded that we’re telling the story together.”
Paddy Cunneen’s music, with its period instrumentation, is recorded (and comes with the script). But all the singing on top, from a quartet of actors, is live.
Cloran explains that every night a different actor in the cast will step forward at the outset to introduce themselves, and welcome the audience. “They’ll say to the other actors ‘are you ready?’. Then they’ll look to the audience and say ‘are you ready?’ And hopefully everyone says Yes!” he grins. “We just trying to acknowledge that we’re all in this together, creating an ephemeral moment together with these bodies in space…. I’m hoping that connects the audience to the storytellers.”
The fun of Shakespeare in Love is the knowing, timeless way it’s steeped in theatre. The tension between appealing to the widest possible audience and the urge to create something challenging and unique is, amusingly, part of the dynamic. And it certainly hasn’t vanished from the theatre, to put it mildly.
Cloran, who has just moved to an exponentially larger theatre than his indie roots or his most recent artistic directorship in Kamloops (Western Canada Theatre), nods sympathetically. “You try to find a balance,” he says, “of how to encourage people into this building with shows they’re familiar with and excited about, and at the same time push our own mandate of challenging, important things….” He’s encouraged by the way that subscription and ticket sales are on target so far.
That “we’re all in it together” embrace of Shakespeare In Love even extends to its impresario and money men characters, who are all about bums in seats, not art. As someone says, “Comedy. That’s what they want. Love and a bit with a dog.”
Ah yes, there has to be a dog — as every producer and company manager in the play, and even the theatre’s royal patron, the Queen herself, keep reminding Will. And so it is at the Citadel.
Canines come with their own casting difficulties. “The dog is going to be the death of me,” says Cloran, permitting himself a sigh.
“Ah well, the people are gonna love the dog.”
Shakespeare In Love
Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Andrew Chown, Bahareh Yaraghi, Gabe Grey, Paul Essiembre, Garett Ross, Ashley Wright, Kayvon Khoshkam, Sarah Constible
Running: through Oct. 8
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com