Taming of the Shrew, Trinidad Style

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Strolling along the Avon River on the way to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, we chanced on an outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew by a little company from Trinidad-Tobago. I was fascinated, and only with regret tore myself away to go to our scheduled performance at the Swan.

The set was the most minimal imaginable: a gauzy cloth thrown over a tree branch forming an inverted V for entrances and exits. That was it. Calypso songs between the scenes commented on the plot, but Shakepeare’s text was otherwise unaltered.

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

And we understood every word, every idea, every joke Shakespeare wrote. How did they do it, despite Trinidad accents and 400-odd years of linguistic change? Simple. They spoke every line to the audience as if they really cared that we would understand. They played it like Vaudeville, glancing occasionally at the other actors, but talking to us.And they carried it off with swagger and panache, with that wonderful Trini calypso energy.

And in doing so, a lot of the troubling aspects of Shrew vanish. Hey, folks, don’t take this so serious! This isn’t sociology, this is WWE. Current champion, Katherine! Challenger, Petruchio! As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1592). I like to think that this was written for touring, when the company would set up in an innyard, or under a spreading oak tree, and try to engage and win over a crowd using time-tested techniques employed from before Aristophanes to Saturday Night Live.

I looked up the company on the internet. It’s called The Oratory Foundation (www.oratoryfoundation.com).

“The Oratory Foundation is a school with the mandate to touch and teach through oration and creative forms of the spoken word. It promotes and encourages the use of various forms of oratory; it is a teaching institution providing the opportunity for the pruning and perfecting of poetry, oratory and performance.”

The performance we chanced upon is part of a series of free outdoor productions sponsored by RSC called The Dell Open Air Theatre (https://www.rsc.org.uk/events/the-dell). ”

“On weekends during June, July and August, our outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, hosts a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Dell was launched as part of the Complete Works Festival in 2006 and has hosted more than 300 amateur theatre companies, community groups, schools, universities and professional theatre companies to growing audience numbers of all ages.”

What a good idea.

August 4: Miss Littlewood

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Joan Littlewood was a theatre innovator who had a huge influence on how theatre is made. A tough cockney who  quit RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)and walked from London to Manchester, she joined with young Jimmy Miller (later AKA Ewan McColl) in 1933 to do agitprop anti-Nazi street theatre. Together with Gerry Raffles, all-round technical fixer-upper, they created an ensemble approach to theatre that revolutionized theatre practice. After the war, the company, now called Theatre Workshop, survived hand-to-mouth and unsubsidized, without a permanent home base. In 1953, Gerry Raffles found a derelict theatre in East London, Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company scrubbed it up and moved in, creating new work and a new way of working, until a series of hits, transferred to the West End, brought international recognition: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The biggest hit of all was Oh What a Lovely War (1963), which told the frightful story of the First World War using a combination of clown show, documentary segments, projections, and songs from the barracks and the music hall, all deftly crafted and arranged into a riveting experience in the theatre.

Miss Littlewood, a musical by Sam Kenyon, tells the story. Or rather, stories: the making of a theatre company, the life of Joan, the Joan and Gerry love story, and step-by-step what happened. Sam Kenyon came late to the party, having had no direct experience of Theatre Workshop, but had the help of Murray Melvin, a company member in the later years. He also had Joan’s Book, Joan’s autobiography, which (by the way) is a terrific read.

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Toronto’s theatrical innovator, George Luscombe, was in the company in its earlier days, when the techniques were all being worked out. He brought the Littlewood approach to his company, Toronto Theatre Workshop, with a distinguished history of shows: Hey Rube, Mr. Bones, Ten Lost Years, Ain’t Lookin’ and lots more. I was in TWP and co-wrote a play with George, The Wobbly. My own theatre work has been in the Littlewood/Luscombe tradition.

So I had great incentive to see this show. Two days after we landed in London, we scooted up to Stratford-upon-Avon for the production’s last day.

Bottom line: it was worth it. MIss Littlewood was lively, with catchy songs of the right flavour, navigating its way through all the stories gracefully. Given that it wasn’t an ensemble production, but a musical about an ensemble, it managed to put across the feel of group creation. The most significant convention was having members of the company take turns playing Joan in the phases of her life — women black and white, skinny and solid. It was quite striking how the core of Joan was carried through all the transitions.

Standing beside me (yes, standing room again) was a woman who taught English and Drama, and was responsible for staging very ambitious productions (Les Miz). She had returned to see it a second time, bringing her mother. Joan continues to inspire, and Miss Littlewood is worthy of its subject.

August 3: Duchess of Malfi at Stratford-upon-Avon

Joan Iyiola, Alexander Cobb, he Duchess of Malfi

We made it to the closing night of The Duchess of Malfi at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Judith got a seat, and I had standing room not far away.

In many ways, a stunning production. The Duchess was played by the electrifying Joan Iyiola, at the farthest remove from the passive victim that

Nicolas Tennant, Joan IyiolaThe Duchess of Malfi

the role may suggest. Alexander Cobb and Chris New are the two venomous brothers who torment her for secretly marrying her steward Antonio (Paul Woodson). Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand, in particular, draws a fascinating portrait of a nerdy scholar capable of the utmost depravity. Nicolas Tennant as Bosola, the reluctant instrument of their designs, finds all the psychological corners and niches in that fascinating character. The acting (everyone) in short is what brings us over an ocean to see.

The Duchess of Malfi

And there’s more. Maybe too much more, but . . . I’m still wrestling with it all. The stage is literally (not figuratively, literally) bathed in blood. There is a huge black carcass of a bull in one corner of the stage. In the first act, the Duchess hauls on a chain to hoist it vertical; in the second act, Ferdinand cuts it open and red, gooey, sloshy blood gradually covers the stage. As the action progresses, the actors walk and slither through it, roll in it and die covered in it. Excessive, yes. Distracting sometimes. Overly simplistic. And yet, though I should have reacted negatively, I didn’t. Sure, go ahead, my psyche said. Bathe in gore. Let’s do this thing! And it helped that sometimes the actors would stand up, reminding us that this is just theatre, folks.

Joan Iyiola, The Duchess of Malfi

There are other concepts that were less successful. Someone decided that the key to this play is machismo and misogyny. In case we don’t figure this out for ourselves, the action is set in a gymnasium, and troops of muscular men do gymnastic dances now and then. All this seems like a Good Idea that ends up not adding anything of value. Webster’s play has a claustrophobic nastiness that does not need shows of excessive manliness. The grunty, sweaty dances were fun in their way, but didn’t really contribute.

Anyhow, caveats aside, a great night in the theatre.

August 2: Biker Gang Opera at Wilton’s Music Hall

Outside Wilton's Music Hall

Outside Wilton’s Music Hall

Wilton’s Music Hall is our local theatre, a ten minute walk from our east-end London flat. It operated as a music hall in the 1860s and 70s, and subsequently became a Methodist Mission (1888 to 1956). It was abandoned and derelict for decades, with periodic efforts by local activists to revitalize it. Finally, in 2004, the refurbishing began, and now it’s restored to a strange and wonderful new glory, with the patina of age still evident in faded paint and old creaking stairs.

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

The production Thursday night was Donizetti’s comic opera, La Fille du Regiment, re-imagined in English as The Daughter of the Regiment, the Regiment in this case being a biker gang in California. The Opera della Luna production, with a new libretto by Jeff Clarke, is spritely and fun. Elin Pritchard as said daughter sings the demanding role admirably, and as a biker-lass she is completely convincing. Snatched up into society and put in a frumpy little-girl dress, she does her best to adapt, but eventually returns to the gang to find happiness in the arms of her Latino boyfriend, ably acted and sung (9 high C’s!) by Jesus Alvarez.

Tower Bridge raised

Ah, London!

Tower Bridge raised

Tower Bridge raised

We landed at Gatwick Wednesday morning, August 1. Beautiful sunny day, a lot like southern Ontario. England has been in the grip of a drought, but it has cooled off slightly in our honour. The emerald isle is more yellow and brown than usual, but it glows in the bright sunshine.

We took our time walking from London Bridge Station to the flat. Had lunch in Hays Galleria and then ambled in leisurely fashion along the Thames and over Tower Bridge. It’s good to be back.

 

Judith and I went on the Women’s March against Trump from the US embassy to Trafalgar Square. The streets leading to the embassy were packed, so it took a long time to get to the embassy.

When we finally reached the embassy, the march to Trafalgar square had started. We followed.

It was a very moving experience, because of the calm, purposeful determination of the women.

A vintage panto at Wilton’s Music Hall

Day one in London, Thursday December 15.

Despite potential jet lag, went to  our local theatre space, Wilton’s Musical Hall. Derelict for years, the nineteenth century musical hall has been restored not to its former glory, but to a faded and tattered state that confronts its age with honour. The play was a panto, Mother Goose, written by Roy Hudd, featuring himself as the ultimate mother of all dames, and directed by his wife, Debbie Fitcroft. It was good fun, nicely designed and costumed, tuneful and energetic. The experience was a bit odd because there were no children in the audience. The cast tried its best to persuade us that we could be children at heart, but all the “look behind you” and “oh no you can’t” conventions really require the real little creatures. Should probably have caught the matinee.  Some cast photos at various locations inside and outside the building.

The Artword Story 1: Why “Artword”?

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery, 1986. “Paintings from the Virtual Museum”.

Judith and I close down Artword Artbar every August and every January. These are times to reflect, re-energize and see some shows that aren’t our own.

I also thought it would be a good time to tell you some things you may not know about Artword.

First, the name “Artword”.

“Artword” started as the name of a quarterly magazine, written “by artists for artists. (Full name “Artword Artists Forum”) Judith was editor and I was the publisher.  We published 24 issues from 1989 to 1994.

The first few issues were called “WorkSeen”. This was because Judith was an active member of Workscene Collective, which ran the Workscene Gallery.

Judith and I had a little business doing technical documentation (still do!), so we had computers, layout programs, and an actual laser printer, back when they cost $2500-5000. So we had the bat and ball, and the diamond was in our back yard.

We were fortunate to gather a team of excellent people, and we made our decisions pretty much together. Our philosophy was that decisions should be made by the people who did the work. And that was pretty much how Workscene Gallery also had been operating.

After a few issues, though, we were called to a meeting the Administrative Committee of Workscene Gallery. They had concerns. One of our best, and most reliable writers, who wrote a satirical column called “Le Flaneur” had written a phrase which they considered possibly sexist. It wasn’t, but they thought it might be.  The phrase was not “politically correct”, a new concept at that time that was just trying out its wings.  They decided that they should review the content of every issue before we published it.

None of them had written anything. None of them had sold any ads. None of them had helped painter Andy Glinski drive out to the art galleries and art stores to deliver the copies. (4,000 copies a month, free.)

So we said no. And they said, well then you have to remove all references to Workseen and change the name. We said fine. We can think of a name.

So we thought. And we came up with “ArtWork”. And our designer and layout person, sculptor Lynn Campbell, designed a logo. ArtWork.

It didn’t seem quite right. Somebody thought it was too “artist as worker”, too agitprop. But for me, the issue was the letter K. It was a fierce letter, arms and legs sticking forward, a bristling letter. How about (I suggested) the letter D. Artword. Combining Art and Words. And it required minimal redesign of the logo.

So Artword it was. Since then, everything that Judith and I have done has been called Artword. When we started our theatre in Toronto, it was Artword Theatre. When we set up our not-for-profit, it was Artword Cultural Projects.

And when we came to Hamilton looking to create a theatre, and decided instead to buy a Portuguese sports bar and turn it into a cultural oasis, we called it Artword Artbar. (World famous for its Artword Artbar Artbeer).

The name Artword turned out to be a bit problematic. People have trouble reading it and understanding it. The say Artworld or Artwood or Atword or Atwood or (indeed) Artwork. But we have persisted. Artword it remains.

Photos from Once I Lived in the Box

Some photos taken last night (February 4, 2016) of Learie Mc Nicolls’ Once I lived in the Box, at Artword Artbar.

Dancers: Angelo Del Franco, Sharon Harvey, Tanis Macarthur and Learie Mc Nicolls. Music by Edgardo Moreno and lighting by Judith Sandiford.

One more performance, tonight February 5, 2016, at 8 pm.