Artistic director Des McAnuff has scored an incredibly rich programming coup by leading off the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s second set of openings with Vern Thiessen’s one-woman show, Shakespeare’s Will and John Mighton’s study of tragically unrealized female capability, The Little Years.
With so many commonalities, seeing them back-to back is highly recommended.
Intriguingly, it’s a pair of Williams who drive the action of both plays despite the fact that neither is seen in the flesh (Mighton’s production comes closest by having his William’s ashes appear in a vase—his largely faithful wife’s singular artistic creation).
Both Bills are men of words, achieving a degree of success during their lives—cut short by mystery and disease. Each of them also have sisters: the Bard’s (Joan) is summarily described as a bitch; the fictional poet’s sibling, Kate, is a social/societal misfit due to her burgeoning mathematical genius not being wanted from the fairer sex in the 1950s.
Progeny also figures prominently.
For the Stratford-upon-Avon native, a lanky daughter, Susanna, and her two-years-younger twins (Judith and Hamnet—better known as Harry; likely at his own behest) figure prominently in the action—especially the male heir who achingly leaves the planet before even puberty has a chance to take root.
For the centuries-later, marvellously named Will and Grace union, an only child—Tanya—must somehow attempt to continue the family name even as Aunt Kate’s long forgotten diaries and journals have kindled her niece’s unquenchable passion for math, physics and terrestrial studies (winning all of the prizes her unbeknownst mentor was never allowed to earn—“Why not take up a [suitable] vocation like stenography,” offers Alice, her Mothers-Knows-Best parent.
At both the matinée and evening shows, it falls to women to carry the drama (and men—Miles Potter, Chris Abrahams—to direct them …).
Having already masterfully worn the trousers as Richard III, Seana McKenna tackles the multifaceted role of Anne Hathaway with equal (albeit reversed) grit, insight and sensuality. What fun that the runaway hit of her several impersonations is her dad—decrying at full volume the Owen Meany capitalized rants of despair (“A CATHOLIC, a TUTOR, a SHAKE-SPEARE, and now AN AC-TOR!?”) from a widower who can’t fathom his daughter’s choice of husband.
In Mighton’s geometrically lit world (fantastically rendered by Kimberly Purtell; Kevin Fraser was also a marvel of creativity in moving the eye back and forth between Anne’s present-day stark reality and past memories of all stripes), the decades-long story has much resonance with Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times.
Bethany Jillard does double duty as Young Kate and Tanya. She has to endure a somewhat uncomfortable putdown at a school dance (having her sudden love interest—Gavin Tessier—pose as a faux mute belies certain knowledge of the different amongst us in any school setting—particularly in the era under scrutiny) but really comes into her own as the wide-eyed scientist-in-waiting.
Mother Alice is given a wonderfully vivid performance by Chick Reid. It’s abundantly clear who her favourite is; her incomprehension as to why any young woman wouldn’t want to get married, have kids (“So you will have someone to look after you”), then cook and clean the years away is at one with the stereotype of American Dream moms. Unfortunately, the scene in the retirement home fails on two accounts: Alice’s wanton cruelty to Kate seems far too lucid to be the uninhibited utterances of an old woman who adds too much salt to everything on her plate. Her daughter’s stoicism during the onslaught does harken back to earlier, bitter disappointments but her very appearance seems at odds with the reclusive, Prozac fuelled nature of the lost woman.
Yanna McIntosh is all that could be desired in the role of Grace, William’s wife. While having some artistic talent, she, instead, devotes her work life to environmentalism. As her husband’s fame grows (so like Shakespeare—perhaps any successful artist), his frequent absences for book signings and readings leave an emotional void that is filled by “I’m a brilliant artist, just ask me,” Roger (Evan Buliung is especially effective as he realizes that he is like Barry Manilow, far past his best-before date).
With so many intentional pauses, it can be difficult to keep the flow moving forward. As Kate, Irene Poole manages to make every transition deeper and more intense until finally shuddering into tears, which, to her, are as welcome as needed rain.
Both shows rely heavily on sound: a constant downpour brings us back to Anne’s current anxiety about what her now permanently absent husband’s will might contain. Pastoral birds belie the desperation all around them during Kate’s journey through an uncaring world; the drone of all manner of people (school chums, partygoers, sanitarium inmates/staff) perfectly underscores the constant anguish of an unused, beautiful mind.
As dark as both of these productions get, the marvellously coincidental visit of a much more loving Will and Kate can only serve to offer everyone a modicum of hope. JWR