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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Much Ado Indeed

Kathy Gallant
Published Thursday July 23, 04:43 pm
Shakespeare festival celebrates 30 years with two great plays


Runs to August 23

Next to the Mendel


The Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival has become a staple in the Saskatoon theatre scene for the last 30 (!) years. This summer, audiences are being treated to a vivid pair of performances on the majestic banks of the South Saskatchewan River, as the season includes the captivating comedy Much Ado About Nothing and the dramatic and dark tragedy Othello.

The performances officially opened on July 8, and will run to August 23. The two Shakespeare classics will be performed on the company’s newly constructed stage, while partnering cultural events will run alongside on the PotashCorp Community Stage.

Artistic producer Will Brooks says that the first few shows have gone very well, and he’s appreciating what audiences have had to say so far.

“We’ve had a few shifts, and we’re trying out a number of new things, and so far the response has been great,” he says. “People are loving the change in our new main stage in ‘the round.’ We wanted to add something fresh, and along with the great set design, the round has encouraged this fantastic, intimate experience for the audience.

“This set up gives them a chance to really listen to the text that Shakespeare wrote. It’s another great way to connect the dialogue to a modern audience, which is really the core of what we do.”

Each production has its own director, which adds even more distinction between how the pieces are delivered. Brooks took the creative reigns for Othello, while Pamela Haig-Bartley led the interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing.

“It’s an interesting process, certainly, this year,” says Brooks. “We set the plays in time periods that are very different from one another. With Shakespeare, there can be thematic similarities, but we try to focus on how different they are. Last year was the first time in a while we had two different directors. Every director has tricks, and we like to try to reflect our own thoughts of style and sensibility.”

Another development that’s come about this year is a partnership with the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company (SNTC). Othello’s setting is a modern spin on the 2015 corporate world, with its title character being a Cree man, played by Michael Lawrenchuk. The cast is rounded out by Lauren Holfeuer as Desdemona, Josh Beaudry as Iago and Nathan Howe as Cassio, among other versatile cast members.

“It seemed pretty clear to me that if we wanted to do a play that touched on race relations, while on the riverbank in Saskatoon, we should do it with some sort indigenous approach,” says Brooks. “It has been interesting to see how the very modern Saskatchewan First Nations context meshes together with a 400-year-old play.”

In an effort to give the audience an authentic experience, small bits of the Othello text were translated into Cree.

“We wanted the language to have a place,” says Brooks. “It’s engaging — people pick up on the emotion and intent of what the character is saying, even without knowing many words. The strong acting gives way to this as well.”

Brooks says that thanks to this solid partnership, a great amount of positive reinforcement and feedback has come pouring in.

“People have expressed that they are very appreciative that SNTC is involved,” he says. “As an organization, we really want to be connected with our community — people, audience members, crew, artists, and like-minded groups. When we contacted SNTC, there were a number of things they found exciting about the prospect, and we’re thrilled that they came on this journey with us.”

Another interesting aspect of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan is that almost every year, quite a few actors have roles in both productions.

Robbie Towns, for example, plays the principal male role in Much Ado, the witty and irreverent Benedick, while his female rival (and love interest) Beatrice is played by Jenna-Lee Hyde. The setting is post World War II, and features dancing and vivid costumes. Kent Allen takes the role of Leonato.

Towns also plays the meek Roderigo in Othello. Prior to returning to Saskatchewan, the second-year Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan veteran did a ten-year stint in London, England, after acquiring his Masters at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“When I first heard that Much Ado was being presented post-WWII, I knew they would be casting a bit younger, so I was hoping to play the role of Benedick,” he says. “There are sweeping speeches of text that are beautiful and poetic. When you’re the only one on the stage, you’re trying to get through these pieces and make them relatable, while also making the jokes land for the audience and bringing classic text to a new generation. It’s been quite the process.”

He describes his role as Roderigo in Othello as smaller, but definitely a blast to perform.

“He’s a bit of a waste of space,” says Towns with a laugh. “He’s in love Desdemona, who doesn’t really know he exists, and he gets used by Iago and loses his money.”

The juxtaposition of these two plays has made for an interesting dynamic, says Towns.

“With Much Ado there’s levity, and Othello is darkness, and it is fascinating to be playing in both.”

He also loves the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, meaning they can either be played straight, complete with period-style costumes and sets, or dropped into any other time period — while remaining relevant.

“They still hold up, [and] it goes to show how good the writing is because it can be any time and place — we dropped in modern colloquialisms, for sure, but the spirit of Shakespeare is very much alive,” says Towns. “I hope people in Saskatoon know that they have some fantastic theatre here. This festival is one of the best in the country. Its idyllic location next to the river makes it even more special.”

Brooks agrees that the locale for the production has always been, and remains, a large part of its charm.

“People who haven’t been before are often surprised about how casual and approachable the setting is,” he noted. “It’s outdoors, it’s an oasis, and it’s an open and welcoming environment.”

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