After the hell (at times) of Edinburgh last week, dashing around seeing some 30 shows on the fringe and one in the international festival, I’m now in theatrical heaven after flying last Sunday to Canada, where I’ve continued my own personal theatre festival season by visiting Onatario’s two major regional theatre festivals — the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake for the first time, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival season for the second year running, which are both much more manageable.
The Shaw turned 50 last year, while Stratford this year celebrates its 60th, so they’ve been around for a while. Even more amazing is the fact that these are both tiny towns (resident populations —15,000 and 30,000 respectively), and the festivals, far from running for a week or two, run for 7 months apiece, putting theatre at the very centre of their economic lives.
The Shaw and Stratford are respectively producing 11 and 14 shows this year, across 4 venues in each place, so they’re naturally dependent on visitors to make up their audience rather than locals. (Stratford, which often has two performances a day in each of its four spaces, has up to 7,000 theatre seats to fill on some days — and every performance I’ve been to so far has been packed.)
We of course have our own Stratford in the UK, also doing Shakespeare (and upon which this one is entirely modelled; they’ve even named the river that runs through it the Avon), but it’s interesting that we have no theatre that commits itself to doing Shaw’s plays in the same way (though the National is, coincidentally, doing one right now, The Doctor’s Dilemma), while the theatre that bears his name in London is that sterile conference venue on the Euston Road. It’s amazing that Ivor Novello gets a handsome West End theatre named after him when the best that Shaw gets is a theatre buried inside a hotel.
The closest we have to these two festival theatre towns in the UK is, of course, Chichester (whose auditorium is in fact modelled on the one at Stratford), an otherwise sleepy Sussex town that comes alive thanks to the theatre at its centre. And Chichester, which is also in the midst of an anniversary year having opened first in 1962, have recently had the financial endorsement of a £12m grant from Arts Council England to enable them to embark on an 18-month restoration of its main house and backstage areas.
While the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park has had its own extensive (and expensive) work done to its front-of-house landscaping, that hasn’t, alas, yet extended to putting a roof on it, so it is still hopelessly dependent on the vagaries of the weather and what feels like our increasingly wetter summers. (If Wimbledon can get an on-off canopy to cover the Centre Court when necessary, why can’t the Open Air follow suite?)
I feel I have spent the last few weeks chasing their musicals around; last year’s Into the Woods is now being recreated at New York’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, where I saw it a few weeks ago and it was being talked up for a transfer indoors to Broadway, but it seems that Ben Brantley’s negative review has put paid to that. In the New York Post, Michael Riedel wrote of its director Timothy Sheader that, “after this fiasco, he’ll be lucky if anyone hires him to put on a Punch and Judy show in Tompkins Square Park.”
Actually, I think Sheader’s production of Into the Woods, brilliantly framed by the device of turning the narrator figure into a young boy, is frequently revelatory, though he isn’t helped in New York by some of the casting, with Brantley writing in his review, “Admittedly, much of the cast isn’t up to the demands of an intricate Sondheim score. But even those who are, like [Donna] Murphy and [Jessie] Mueller, find their numbers undermined by the distractions of frantic and unfocused staging. When the songs in a Sondheim show get lost in the woods, you know it’s time for some serious deforestation.”
I had more problems with Sheader’s current production of Ragtime, of which I wrote in my Stage review, “Against a wrecked billboard featuring an election poster of Barack Obama with the slogan ‘Dare to Dream’ still visible below its gashed centre, Ragtime’s focus turns from being a story about the transformation of a nation seen through the eyes and experiences of three families (WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant) to a show which we are invited to see through the prism of the crushed ruins of the hopes that America once represented.”
I went on to say, “I’m not sure that Ragtime, with music that is full of anthemic surges and haunting melodies, can really support this metaphoric weight, nor should it need to. Sheader’s conceptually bold but ultimately ruinously over-stated physical production layers too much onto the layers that are already there.” So it was a great relief last Sunday to see a fine production at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival Theatre of the show that played it entirely straight. And no, the show absolutely doesn’t need interpretative help. It speaks (and sings, gloriously) for itself.
No wonder that suspicions were raised earlier this week when Regent’s Park announced plans for Sheader to direct The Sound of Music next year. As @Dom_OHanlon tweeted, “Dread to think what Regent’s Park will do to Sound of Music after Ragtime. Set it in a mental asylum perhaps? Or in Stalinist Russia?”
I checked in myself with Ted Chapin, the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organisation in New York, and he assured me, “The contract says quite clearly that we are only interested in a straight-forward production.”
No critic immerses themselves more fully in the Edinburgh Fringe experience, I feel, that Lyn Gardner, and this year — in the re-branded Guardian theatre blog that now has her name over the banner and for which she has been filing a daily entry — she’s continued to prove it writing earlier this week, “At the fringe promoters breakfast at Fringe Central on Sunday, I spoke briefly about my love of the fringe and why after almost 30 years of festival-going I still find it one of the most exciting places on earth. It offers endless possibilities, and I seldom leave without having caught at least a fleeting glimpse of the future of British theatre. Yesterday I saw a show called The Darkroom at C by a student company from Sussex. It wasn’t must-rush-and-see brilliant, but the promise of writer/director Ellen Carr was obvious.”
She also offered these priceless exchanges with Edinburgh cabbies: “On the first Sunday of the fringe when it was raining cats and dogs, I hopped in a taxi. ‘The rain must be good for business,’ I said. ‘Oh no,’ replied the driver, ‘nobody comes out in the rain.’ I also caught a cab this Sunday when the sun was shining. ‘The sun must get everyone out and be good for business,’ I said. ‘Oh no,’ replied the driver. ‘When the sun comes out, everyone walks’.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the theatrical universe, the immediate future for Sydney Theatre Company has been decided — after Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton (who is also her husband) step down from their joint roles as its artistic directors, the company have just appointed a new artistic director. And he is, drum roll, Andrew Upton!
In an interview in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year when she was in London to star in Big and Small at the Barbican, Blanchett told Dominic Cavendish, “I think the [Sydney] press like to say that of course I’m never there because I have a film career - but you can’t run a company unless you’re hands-on. There’s a duty of care, you don’t just set the ball rolling. What has been fascinating has not just been the artistic directorship - we’re also CEOs so we’re responsible for the company’s financial health and balancing those things has been a real challenge. We’ve got one more season left - the board asked us to stay on for another term but we have three young children and even though we job-share, that’s difficult to juggle.”
So now it turns out they’re not going to job-share but Upton will go it alone and Blanchett comments in the press release announcing it, “We weighed up all of our personal and professional needs and felt that - with Australia as our home - it was a great way to bring all of our initiatives at the Company to fruition. It is very important for STC to consolidate and build at this time. I’ve always said he was the brains behind the operation!”
She may well have had her tongue in her cheek there, but its slightly shocking to hear this most intelligent of all actresses demurring to the man in the partnership nonetheless.
A date for your diary: I return home overnight on Sunday to finally return to London on Monday morning, having been away since July 10 (apart from a stay at home of less than 12 hours in between returning from my New York wedding and honeymoon and departing for Edinburgh).
So I’ve got a lot of catching up to do next week (I’m already scheduled to see 12 shows!); but I’m only sorry that I’m not home a night earlier so I can go this Sunday to the new Hippodrome Casino to see a stellar cast that includes Caroline Sheen, Stuart Matthew Price and Simon Thomas, plus a choir from the brilliant MTA school, celebrating An Evening with the Composers, which will introduce the work of American writers Scott Evan Davis, Georgia Stitt and Michael Patrick Walker to English ears. I can’t be there, but you can.