By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
As the playwright has said (zestfully, in Twelfth Night) “this is very midsummer madness.” Except that it’s in the bleak midwinter.
Have a peek at Edmonton’s newest festival, the Winter Shakespeare Festival inside the vintage wooden vault of Holy Trinity Anglican Church. For the last three Januarys, Malachite Theatre, a trans-Atlantic London-Edmonton collaboration, has staged a Shakespeare play in early January, just barely after retail stores start allowing returns. Who on earth would do this? During the post-holiday hangover when “the air bites shrewdly,” we’ve had the re-charge of seeing Henry V, Twelfth Night, and last year Macbeth.
For the start of this new year and new decade — and taking their cue perhaps from Cassius’ pep talk in Julius Caesar “I am fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly.” — they’ve launched a Winter Shakespeare Festival.
’Tis true, we do already have festivities devoted to the work of Will. But that’s in the summer (speaking of air that bites shrewdly), and the venerable Freewill Shakespeare Festival (which this year pairs Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth) seems a long way away. The Winter Shakespeare Festival is now (Friday through Feb. 2), and indoors.
Artistic director Benjamin Blyth alternates two productions for the debut edition of the Winter Shakespeare Festival. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s early romantic comedy, and a cheeky and counter-intuitive choice for winter, starts Friday. And it runs in rep alongside the political thriller Julius Caesar, which starts performances Jan. 9.
In his Malachite productions, Blyth has always been alert to contemporary resonances in the plays. The problematic idea of nationhood, for example, was at the forefront of his Henry V. With its provocations about power and populism, democracy vs. tyranny, the drift of revolutions, Julius Caesar should prove equally fascinating.
Blyth’s casts, which he sends into every nook and aisle of the church sanctuary, tend to be play across the gender divide. His production of 2017, for example, starred the country’s first female Henry V (Brynn Linsey).
The inaugural festival is similarly divided. In Dream, Monica Maddaford occupies the plum role of Bottom the stage-struck weaver with delusions of theatrical grandeur. In Julius Caesar, the title ruler is played by Tom Bradshaw, with Miranda Allen as Brutus and Nikki Holowski as Antony.
The festival comes with “satellite events”: staged readings of two fascinating plays by Shakespeare contemporaries — both with Edmonton in the title (really! OK, it’s a north London borough). The Merrie Devil of Edmonton (Jan. 29), originally thought to be by Shakespeare, is an Elizabethan city comedy about the fortunes of a magician. The Witch of Edmonton (Jan. 22) is a truly weird play about an old woman who makes a pact with the devil in the form of a dog. Hey, the jolly avant-garde of the 1620s! Edmonton theatre artist John Richardson has adapted the texts for contemporary performance.
Tickets and full schedule: wintershakespeare.com.