At Bard on the Beach until September 11
Posted July 16, 2013
I love this play by the late Canadian writer Timothy Findley. It’s not as great a play as, say, Hedda Gabler or Macbeth but it offers an equally monumental opportunity for a mature actress at the top of her game. Colleen Wheeler is just such an actress. And it asks such an interesting question: what does it really mean to be a woman or a man?
Findley sets up a theatrically potent situation: Elizabeth I has condemned her lover, the Earl of Essex, to be beheaded for treason. It’s unclear whether he really is a traitor but much of the populace believes he is; failing to execute him will be seen as weak and England, beset on all sides, does not need a weak monarch.
To pass the time before the Earl meets his fate at dawn, Elizabeth commands the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, under the direction of William Shakespeare, to perform Much Ado About Nothing. After the performance, she wanders into the barn where the players are housed for the night. “Oh, I love a barn”, she says wistfully and immediately we see the burden that royalty has placed on her. Simple pleasures are not for her. She’s a woman whose sovereignty demands that she be strong, decisive, even brutal; she has turned her back on qualities some consider ‘feminine’.
Amongst the players is young Ned Lowenscroft who stars in Shakespeare’s plays in the female roles; he has just finished performing Beatrice for the queen. A week in bed with a dashing young captain has ‘poxed’ him; he’s dying of syphilis and his lover has been killed in a skirmish. Ned needs courage, a so-called ‘manly’ attribute, to carry on.
“If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man”, is the deal Elizabeth offers Ned. He has spent his whole career pretending to be a woman; she has spent her life behaving like a man. Through all of this we glimpse Timothy Findley, a gay man, who battled his own demons.
Colleen Wheeler was made for this role. Her deep voice, long stride and commanding presence make her a powerhouse on stage. Findley’s Elizabeth is sharp-tongued, quick and clever and all this Wheeler executes with regal haughtiness. When Ned presses her to say the name of her lover – not “the Earl of Essex” but “Robert”, it’s a moment of heart-wrenching poignancy.
Haig Sutherland stole my heart years ago on the Playhouse stage in David Hare’s Skylight. He steals everyone’s heart in Elizabeth Rex. Because Ned is dying, he has nothing to lose by provoking the queen. “King Henry in skirts”, he hurls at her – a reference to her father Henry VIII who systematically killed off his lovers. Sutherland is an actor without artifice and consequently his performance feels stripped clean and utterly honest.
The air between Wheeler and Sutherland crackles with thrust and parry. Findley moves us to profound pity for both of them caught, as they are, having little chance to be themselves. “I shall die never having been myself,” the queen complains but perhaps on this very night – this only night – she will be herself.
David Marr, who played Ned in a Playhouse production years ago, is Shakespeare in this production, capably directed by Rachel Ditor. Young Dustin Freeland and Anton Lipovetsky are sweet as the two other female role players in the company; Bernard Cuffling portrays an older actor who wistfully remembers playing the women’s parts in his youth. Andrew Wheeler is the very sexy, very haughty actor Jack Edmund, sympathetic to Ireland and hence no admirer of the queen.
There’s a bear, a very good, very well behaved bear. And fabulous gowns by Mara Gottler.
It’s a fascinating play, an excellent production and a departure from Bard’s usual fare of Shakespeare plays.