Gerry Mackay (left) and Bob Frazer Credit: David Blue
Gerry Mackay (left) and Bob Frazer
Credit: David Blue

At Bard on the Beach until September 19

Posted July 12, 2014

SFU Professor Emeritus Malcolm Page, referring to another critic’s review of Equivocation, said it all: “A smart play for smart people.”

It’s a workout for the brain alright: a play within a play that takes plenty of historical licence. Shakespeare (here called Shagspeare) is the protagonist and recognizing the frequent references that occur throughout (like the three witches in Macbeth, for example) definitely heighten the enjoyment of Bill Cain’s 2009 play. A sarcastic quip, for example, while Shagspeare struggles to pen a new play comes from his daughter Judith (Rachel Cairns), “Try twins. That usually works.” Cain both celebrates and pokes fun at Shakespeare.

In the play, Shagspeare accepts from James I a commission to write a play about the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, the king and king’s family. The story outline comes from the pen of James I himself and it’s a biased, self-interested account of the unfolding of events. Shagspeare is caught on the horns of a dilemma: to write a play that is untrue or write a true account and, literally, lose his head. Playwright Cain suggests this is the basic problem writers face all the time: to hold a faithful mirror up to humankind and risk rejection or pander to the audience and give them what they want. Cain suggests that Shakespeare was the great equivocator and, comedy or tragedy, everyone leaves a Shakespeare play feeling okay. Even when bodies litter the stage there’s always that bit of hope held out: a new king, a wedding.

There are enough threads in Equivocation to make a new tent for Bard on the Beach, now in its 25th year.

But the setup is intriguing. It’s dramatic, clever and surprisingly funny at times. All but Shagspeare (Bob Frazer) and Judith (Rachel Cairns) are double cast and the play’s action moves fluidly between the rehearsal hall of actor Richard Burbage (Gerry Mackay), the Tower where Father Henry Garnet (also Mackay) is being held and the court of King James (Anton Lipovetsky). It’s hard to resist trying to find parallels in the double casting: Lipovetsky is a “shit-covered” Poor Tom during a rehearsal of King Lear; he’s also Thomas Wintour, one of the conspirators against the king; and he’s Sharpe, an actor in Burbage’s company; and, finally, a very fey James I who feigns flakiness but in reality, is a nasty piece of work. These are all great roles for Lipovetsky who is so fresh and sprightly that he keeps aloft what otherwise might sink under its own weight.

Anton Lipovetsky  Credit: David Blue
Anton Lipovetsky
Credit: David Blue

Bob Frazer, who has played so many Shakespeare roles – including Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth – finally gets to play the playwright himself. Cain posits a meeting between Shagspeare and Thomas Wintour, imprisoned and tortured as one of the co-conspirators. One of the best scenes in Equivocation comes in Act I when Shagspeare cradles the broken body of Wintour. Frazer and Lipovetsky make this moment almost unbearably tender.

Despite all the tangents Cain takes off on – principally Shagspeare’s lingering grief for his son Hamnet who died at the age of eleven, Act 2 is more compelling than Act 1. Gerry Mackay has great dignity as Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest who wrote A Treatise on Equivocation that so interested (within the context of Cain’s play) Shagspeare.

Anousha Alamian is both Nate, an actor, and Sir Robert Cecil, the villain of the piece. In another of Cain’s bits of dramatic playfulness, he makes Cecil a lurching, slightly humpbacked man, a reflection of that other bloodthirsty character, Richard III.

Shawn Macdonald plays Armin, an overacting thespian in Burbage and Shakespeare’s “co-op theatre company” as well as Sir Edward Coke.

Without equivocating, Equivocation is not for everyone. Wordy and complicated, it’s buoyed up by very fine performances and the capable direction of Michael Shamata. It’s theatre for those with a lot of theatre under their belt.

Bob Frazer and Anousha Alamian Credit: David Blue
Bob Frazer and Anousha Alamian
Credit: David Blue