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Review from the Stratford Festival
Elizabeth Rex is a new play, one of far too few offered by the Stratford Festival. Commissioned some years ago by the Festival from Canadian playwright and novelist Timothy Findlay, the play was first workshopped in the Fall of 1997 with Paul Thompson directing. Thompson, best known to Canadian theatregoers as the artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto and as a major innovator of collective creations in the early 1970s, is credited in the current production as "with" rather than "and"; this production is directed by long time Festival colleague Martha Henry on the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre.
The play opens on the eve of Shakespeare's death, with the Bard recalling the events of another night 15 years earlier: the Shrove Tuesday before the execution, in 1601, of the Earl of Essex. Once the beloved favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, Essex has been convicted of treason for his role in an uprising against her, and the Queen has summoned Shakespeare and his company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, to ease her grief by performing a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, on the day before he is to die. After the performance, the actors are housed in one of the royal stables, and there Elizabeth visits them, seeking further distraction through the long night.
While Shakespeare serves as the narrative agent in this intriguing play, the central tension is created through the interplay between Elizabeth and the company's "leading Lady", Ned Lowenscroft, a tension that revolves dominantly around role playing and gender. For the diseased and dying Ned, played superbly by Brent Carver, no subject is too sensitive for him to avoid -- even with her Majesty. Carver's portrayal of the obviously gay actor (Beatrice in the Much Ado that has just been performed for the royal audience) in contrast to his Tevya in this season's Fiddler on the Roof is something to behold -- awesome. Reflecting on the number and strength of the characters that Carver has played (Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Leo Frank in Parade and the title roles in Hamlet and Cyrano de Bergerac among others), enhances this viewer's appreciation and respect for this gifted artist.
No less impressive in the piece, however, is Diane d'Aquila's Elizabeth, torn between her love for Essex and her ultimate need for control, as she faces off with the impudent actor. Peter Hutt's Shakespeare is fully wrought and appropriately droll and insightful (the playwright is working on a new play which is inspired by the tragic love of the Queen and her Essex, but to be named Antony and Cleopatra,). Also worthy of notice are Bernard Hopkins as the private secretary to the Queen, Florence MacGregor as Elizabeth's maid-of honour and Scott Wentworth's Jack Edmund, the actor who has just played Benedick to Carver's Beatrice. The rest of the company creates a solid and frequently comic environment for the play's central action.
Elizabeth Rex (under Martha Henry's focussed direction and set on Allan Wilbee's functional stable) stands as a testament to Findlay's strength as playwright, historian and psychologist. Although it would benefit significantly by taking some thirty minutes out of the text it is one of the strongest productions of Stratford's 2000 season and argues for more new plays.
by Timothy Findley with Paul Thompson
Directed by Martha Henry
Cast (in order of appearance): The Lord Chamberlain's Men : William Shakespeare - Peter Hutt; Edward (Ned) Lowenscroft ("Beatrice") - Brent Carver; Jonathan (Jack) Edmund ("Benedick") - Scott Wentworth; Kate Tardwell (Wardrobe Mistress) - Joyce Campion; Florence MacGregor - maid-of-honour to the Queen; Diane d'Aquila - Queen Elizabeth I; Bernard Hopkins - private secretary-to the Queen
Set and Costume Design: Allan Wilbee
Lighting Design: Louise Guinand
Composer: Stephen Woodjetts
Sound Design: Todd Charlton
Choreographer: John Broome
Fight Director: James Binkley
Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario
Festival Website - http://www.stratford-festival.on.ca
Running: June 21 to September 30, 2000
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including one intermission
Review by Joe Green based on July 1, 2000 evening performance