Thursday, 1 August 2013

Taking Shakespeare: a glimpse into the Bard's continuing presence

Taking Shakespeare
Stratford Festival 2013
Written by John Murrell
Directed by Diana Leblanc
The Studio Theatre
Runs until September 22
Approximate running time: two hours and five minutes (with one 15-minute interval)
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online
Review by Geoff Dale
STRATFORD – There are several solid reasons to take in John’s Murrell’s often compelling Taking Shakespeare but watching Martha Henry shine in a role custom-made for her talents is clearly at the top of the list.
The storyline is quite straightforward. A somewhat grizzled and weary Prof (played to perfection by Henry) is alone in her book-filled apartment, frustrated with the world – both her own and the isolated academic life that she has become accustomed to and almost fallen prey to over the decades.
Often a tad haughty, arrogant, impatient and clearly a social misfit at odds with a technologically-driven world, she clings to her role as a small-town university professor, shunning outside influences and steering clear of contact with others, even her own students, within her community.
Her saving grace is the works of William Shakespeare, particularly the complex and moving The Tragedy of Othello, a work she describes as “my Shakespeare” and the key to Murrell’s often somber two-person production, enhanced at times by several witty exchanges between the two central figures.
The other character is 24-year-old Murph (nicely played by Luke Humphrey), an outcast at least terms of academia, a video-crazed slacker and the son of the Dean of Humanities (a former student of the Prof) who has enlisted her old teacher to tutor him and to help bring him up to her “expectations”, a word that is repeated oft times through the production.
It’s an intriguing study of two individuals, separated by generations, experiences and common interests yet strangely drawn together by a single literary thread – Othello. Both actors, the supremely gifted Henry and the relative newcomer Humphrey (also in this year’s The Three Musketeers), handle their respective roles with an ease and comfort that makes the strange bond between the two believable and quite touching in places.
“By the time you’re old enough to understand Shakespeare, you’re too old to feel it,” the Prof moans with monotone displeasure, as she sees her life slipping away. Aside from the marvelous recitations from the Bard’s wonderfully tragic work, this may be the most telling of Murrell’s lines – one that to a large degree defines what sadness is for one person and how she or she copes with it.
Telling because it is one of the themes explored by Shakespeare and ultimately by these two characters drawn together, both for very different reasons. The Prof is a veritable well of information to be tapped by her initially reluctant student. Murph, on the other hand, believes the literature forced upon him just doesn’t connect and, besides, the titles are all too long.
The manner in which the two come to a mutual appreciation of the tragic Moor and the duplicitous machinations of his demonic tormentor Iago is moving and well-constructed, testament not only to the skill of the two actors but also director Diana Leblanc, who offers a firm, steady hand throughout the two hour production.
While this may not provide the kind of excitement offered by other Festival offerings this year like Tommy or even Humphrey’s other outing The Three Musketeers, Taking Shakespeare serves up a more relaxed, intriguing look at human nature and the greatness and, even more importantly, the timelessness of the Bard and its effect on people centuries later.
For those drawn to making comparisons, they might find a few parallels with playwright Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, the tale of an unlikely bond between aging classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, derogatively referred to by many as the Himmler of the lower fifth, and his eager young student simply called Taplow.
The connection between the two in Rattigan’s work is Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’Agamemnon. Unlike Murrell’s production the scenes shift from classroom and beyond, played out in the real world with other characters. But many of the sentiments are similar in tone.
Taking Shakespeare, when done properly as it is here, is a true actor’s clinic. Slow-moving at times perhaps, it is nonetheless one of the successes of the Festival’s 2013 season and merits.

Photo: Martha Henry as the Prof with Luke Humphrey as Murph in Taking Shakespeare. Photo by V. Tony Hauser.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars
This review was originally posted online at Donald's Dish.

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