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Shakespeare in Love, Revisited

Shakespeare in Love, Revisited, image,
Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden, courtesy of The Stratford Festival.

Shakespeare in Love, Revisited
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher

(February 2, 2018 – Toronto, ON) If I was forced to make a short list of films that I thought had really smart writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Shakespeare in Love would be on the list. Shakespeare in Love gets a lot of it smarts from Tom Stoppard, who cowrote the screenplay with Marc Norman. Stoppard, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, also wrote, among many others, Empire of the Sun, Brazil, The Russia House and Billy Bathgate. Both Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill were written by Richard Curtis who also gave me some of my other favourite films including The Girl in the Café and the Black Adder TV series. But it’s Shakespeare in Love that came to mind. when I saw a recent performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear by the Groundling Theatre.

Part of the attraction was I had seen previous Groundling productions and liked what they were doing, plus the company was founded in 2011 by Canadian stage, TV and film actor Graham Abbey. But most of the attraction was seeing Seana McKenna in the role of Lear. In Shakespeare in Love we are treated to the fantasy of a women (Gwyneth Paltrow) appearing on stage at a time when all productions were an all-male affair. Women were first permitted to perform on the English stage in the early 1660s, after the Restoration of King Charles II. One date that is mentioned is 1629 when a touring troupe of male and female French players showed up in England. The first woman to appear in a Shakespeare play did so in 1660 – 44 years after the Bard’s death. So part of my interest in Lear, as the play was now named, was seeing a woman in the role traditionally played by a man.

McKenna was nothing short of brilliant as Lear and the relationship between her and her daughters achieved a poignancy that I think must have been unachievable with a man in the title role. In its time the play traces Lear’s descent into madness. Today, with Alzheimers the frightening scourge of an aging population, McKenna’s depiction of the disease’s unrelenting path is deft, tragic and heartbreaking.

Martha Henry and Brent Carver. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden. Courtesy of the Stratford Festival.
Intrigued with the idea of women playing roles once reserved exclusively for men I remembered we had published a story last October about the Stratford Festival and about Martha Henry, who will turn 80 this month and will play Prospero in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s great drama of loss and reconciliation, and the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone.

What else might Stratford be up to?

 In addition to Martha Henry playing Prospero, Lucy Peacock will play Satan in Paradise Lost. Inspired by John Milton’s epic poem of the cosmic battle between good and evil, Satan’s revenge and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, this Stratford production is being billed as an “ultra-contemporary new drama” that is “fiercely engaging, irreverently funny and deeply moving.” And Seana McKenna returns to Stratford to take the title role in a production of Julius Caesar (pictured at the top of this article). This will be her 27th season at Stratford.

With women in Hollywood and Canada still overlooked for plum screen roles and now bringing to light decades of sexual harassment or assault, will the day come when women begin to inhabit the roles most associated with men? Will the next James Bond be played by a woman? What about Robin Hood? Maybe some remake of a Glenn Ford western; he made 27 of them. I wonder who might fill his cowboy boots in The Fastest Gun Alive?

It is more than simply interesting to see women take lead roles in Shakespeare plays. While the words remain the same, the accent, if you will, the perspective, the focus shifts and the story bends and is refreshed in a way that results in something far more than switching genders. I think it’s too soon to say if this is a trend and if what is happening on stage can translate to film. It might be something that only works best with Shakespeare. As noted in that October article, in a 2010 filmed version of The Tempest, Helen Mirren played Prospero, changing the character’s name to Prospera.

For a look at the complete calendar for the 2018 season at Stratford, click here.

Northernstars logo imageRalph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began writing about film and reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.