With this famous quote (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1, Antonio) still echoing in my ears thanks to Dr. Ian Wilson’s illuminating discourse during Canada 3.0 2012 (cross-reference below), it was metaphorically kindled anew as I stepped across the threshold into the just-opened (on the Bard’s birthday, of course) Festival Exhibition space, kitty corner to the Avon Theatre.
Anyone visiting Stratford during this special 60th anniversary season must get themselves to Most Rare Visions: 60 Years of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It’s a truly marvellous compilation and compendium of six decades of history lovingly preserved, presented and curated.
“This year is a trial,” explained Archives Director Dr. Francesca Marini whose extensive background in theatre archives combined with an irrepressible passion for every item displayed in this necessarily modest space (a long-abandoned eatery that had become an eyesore) makes her the ideal fit to bring the Festival’s latest venture to life.
As has happened so often in the past (right from the git go as the world’s biggest tent brought some of the planet’s finest thespians, designers and directors under the big top of art), the Festival’s artistic trust is neither content to sit on its deserved laurels nor ready to take a safe path through this year’s milestone season.
Do plan to spend a play’s-length amount of time—there’s more than enough material to keep patrons of all ages happily engaged while recalling or discovering the Festival’s storied past.
Artefacts from the inaugural year (1953) including a swatch of canvas from the tent to the first poster and the original model for Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s design of the famous thrust stage immediately establish the historical context. Rare footage (1953-55) brings to vivid life the immensity of the temporary digs and also a feel for the era.
A recreation of Amelia Hall’s dressing table is miles away from the glamour of Hollywood stars yet her gown and Alec Guinness’ robe (Richard III) laid out side by side in all of their splendour remind one and all that (with apologies to Mark Twain) “clothes doth make the man.”
Each of the decades has a covey of still photos (sharing the wall space with many costume sketches in vivid colours and exacting detail). In the first set, Paul Scofield is simply riveting as Coriolanus; what a fine madness it must have been with Kate Reid and Christopher Newton in Macbeth (1962)—Newton directs Much Ado About Nothing to launch this year’s opening week; a radiant Martha Henry is caught playing Titania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in 1968; Reid again—this time with Douglas Rain—are ideally captured by Robert C. Ragsdale in his study of unbounded focus from the 1980 production of The Gin Game alongside William Hutt all dolled up as the delightfully dour Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being Earnest); from 1991, a gaggle of beauties—inside and out—are seen under the direction of Marti Maraden (Les Belles Soeurs); having early on walked the boards at Stratford, charter member Timothy Findley came full circle in 2000 as witness Tony Hauser’s ensemble snap from Elizabeth Rex; finally, from the recent past, is a magnificent David Hou photo of Dion Johnstone in full-cry form as Caliban in The Tempest (2010)—how timely to have this image within a few hours of witnessing a virtual rendition that had no depth of character (cross-reference below).
A number of videos from the CBC to the NFB provide further details and insights into the Festival’s early movers and shakers; an assortment of candid clips surreptitiously shot during the photo-call sessions of the ‘60s are also worth a peek. A painstakingly reconstituted Frank the Monkey (first seen at Stratford in the 2001 production of Inherit the Wind) is but one of dozens of props that appear throughout the exhibit space. A cupboard overflowing with crowns, wigs and masks just begs for a fancy dress ball of the highest order, replete with a goblet and mug to toast one’s health in any era.
“The Festival’s board and staff are very supportive,” said Marini as we chatted before my tour. “We all want to have a living, dynamic archive in an accessible downtown setting.” And that is precisely what awaits Stratford veterans and newcomers alike as this considerable prologue built around such a rich past speaks volumes about an eagerly anticipated future.
Here’s to another stellar season and many more exhibits to come! JWR