The first week of openings of the 2013 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival concluded with an absolute triumph. Over the course of many conversations with actors—first off by Ric Reid soon after I began to appreciate his wide-ranging skills at both the Shaw Festival and Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects—the best comic actors are thoroughly grounded in drama.
Looking through the cast list—even before the curtain rose on the opening night performance—there could be little double that ticketholders were in for a theatrical feast.
Of particular interest to me was just how Ben Carlson would render the pivotal role of Charles. First encountered in June 2007 (Saint Joan, Shaw Festival) before relocating to Stratford—notably the 2008 Hamlet, his timing, tone and wry understatement came together magnificently in service of Noël Coward’s pithy text.
Seana McKenna stole every scene she was in (much to the delight of her colleagues all of whom shared in her glory rather than reveal an iota of envy) as the hilariously eccentric (the Isadora Duncan ballet being a prime, side-splitting example) Madame Arcati.
Sara Topham’s Ruth rose from a somewhat cool Juliet (cross-reference below) starting the week to new heights, providing a master class of delivery—ranging from astonishment, through petulance to outrage and finally heavenly smugness as husband Charles seemed to have gone over the deep end, talking to his unseen (to everyone else) first wife, Elvira.
Michelle Giroux floated ethereally through the ghostly deceased spouse part generously letting “the living” get the best laughs off her largely invisible, catalytic presence.
Leading the physical comedy parade, hands down, was Susie Burnett’s madcap take on Edith. The maid of the manor’s running gag—literally, she nervously dashes to every doorbell or summons as if competing in the 100 yard dash for gold—is a hoot. When cautioned by her betters, the forced “slowitudes” are as riotous as they are varied: no one-trick pony here.
The visiting friends (Dr. Bradman, James Blendick; Mrs. Bradman, Wendy Thatcher) completely understand their supporting place in Coward’s scheme of revenge from the afterworld, but nonetheless, add colour and delectably droll commentary to the primary hues of the leads.
Of course, as good as the ensemble was, none of this would have been possible without director Brian Bedford. There are few drawing breath on the planet today who can hold a candle to his complete understanding of not only the playwright’s “what” (brilliantly mining the subtext and discreet references) but most especially the “how.” What fun it would have been to become a fly on the mantle (Simon Higlett’s single set was a miracle of detail) during rehearsals.
Once the lights go up on Bedford’s vision, the production sails though its three acts and seven scenes effortlessly; the time vanishes; everyone leaves the theatre reluctantly, hoping for the sequel as soon as possible.
With this collective ensemble (onstage and off), Coward—who still seems to live amongst us thanks to Carlson leading the playwright’s timeless pillories of human nature—has a worthy advocate to present his canon properly. Here’s to the next installment, “Always.” JWR