In classical music, the transition from last-stand violinist to concertmaster or soloist can be arduous, frustrating and often takes years. The odds of getting into the musical limelight remain slim without a chance to shine in a less pressure-packed situation such as being thrust into the first chair hours before a Carnegie Hall concert owing to the resident star’s sudden illness (which, famously, did launch Leonard Bernstein’s career with the New York Philharmonic in 1943).
For the proverbial spear carrier, moving up the ranks in a repertory company can be equally tough.
Thank goodness for the wisdom and vision of establishing the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. Since 1998—supported through an endowment, the Department of Canadian Heritage (which just announced additional funding of $450,000) and private donors—the recent participants alongside many alumni provide the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with the specialized human resources necessary to ensure the continuous passing of the torch from generation to generation. In a seamless manner, this training ground develops talent and rewards the dedication of tomorrow’s theatre artists.
Better still is to program a main-stage production that showcases the graduates in meaningful roles, allowing them to prove their worth (or, in the greater scheme of things, point to a career change before it’s too late to realize and accept the fact that not all of those who complete the 20-week residency will find work).
Double better still: in this season’s featured play, veteran director and octogenarian Michael Langham accepted the invitation to return to Stratford and share his decades of experience and insight with those who hadn’t been born when last he plied his craft in the service of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1961). Such integration of gung ho youth with seasoned practitioners is frequently a two-way learning adventure: “With these actors, I feel I’ve rediscovered the play,” admits the director in his house-program note.
Triple better than that: casting seasoned thespians in the well, er, old parts creates the perfect artistic storm of skill sets that has the potential for spectacular results: Witness the opening performance on the last May day of 2008—it was a commendable success.
This especial play, which could easily be renamed Love Language Lots, is chock-a-block full of scenes, situations and silliness that provide marvellously varied opportunities to see what the newcomers have learned thus far.
As Berowne, Ian Lake delivers a near speech-perfect performance that’s a mini tour de force of crystal-clear diction and mixed levels of declamation—here’s a Romeo in the making.
Alana Hawley provides an appropriately haughty/sly Princess of France and her trio of accompanying beauties—led by Dalal Badr’s precocious Rosaline—give their would-be suitors much to aim for.
Jon de Long bubbles along effusively in his quest for a mate but needs a few more trips to the vocal coach to truly render his unaccompanied song.
Boyish Trent Pardy seems a few whiskers short of being the King of Navarre yet his passion and poise are never in doubt.
Playing Nathaniel the curate, Gareth Potter provides the ideal foil to the unbridled pomposity and manic wit of John Vickery’s hilarious Holofernes.
As was the case in The Music Man (this season’s family-show hit) the very youngest actor (Abigail Winter-Culliford is Moth) joyously steals every scene she’s in, conquering copious quantities of consonants and vowels as a matter of course, singing up a storm that is sensitive to the subtleties of major/minor modes and has an engaging built-in sass that confounds her elders and delights the crowd. But let us not forget: Shakespeare knew the value of child players long before W.C. Fields complained of the danger of being upstaged by the “acute.”
On the visual scorecard, Charlotte Dean has assembled a fine, functional design and costumes that keep the eye engaged (the Russian garb is a hoot). The only flaw is the late-inning hoods for the retiring beauties whose hair baubles thwart their covers.
Stephen Woodjetts’ score helps reinforce the incredible action at every turn—with one notable exception. The closing spring/winter “chorus” is a tad too “untogether,” requiring several more outings to the pitch woodshed to leave the throng humming in memory rather than wondering why “that” was needed in the first place.
But back to the veterans.
Langham’s ability to draw performances rather than make them gives this version a compelling mood of fun from the git go. (Conservatory grad and assistant director Timothy Askew couldn’t have a finer mentor.)
Employing Peter Donaldson as the hapless Don Adriano de Armado (earnestly butchering the language more frequently than politicians) was both a welcome treat for the audience and a real-time master class in empathetic buffoonery for his younger colleagues.
With so much going on at so many different levels, it’s just great being in the room, marvelling at the incubation process for the theatre of the future. JWR