Friday, June 15, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 18th post

I thought I would do something different - review a Canadian play. As it happens, Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex has been published as a stand-alone play, and it is staged occasionally (though certainly not frequently).  I believe in North America, it premiered at Stratford, ONT and its first US production was Ann Arbor at Performance Network (I actually saw a number of shows there during my undergrad days -- glad to see they are keeping up the good fight).  Then it played the Twin Cities,  NYC, DC and just recently Chicago. As far as I can tell, it didn't actually play Toronto, but I might be mistaken. It did have a 3 week run in Montreal.  As a side note, I am glad that Findley managed to live to see the play open at Stratford as well as win the 2000 Governor General's Award for English language drama (thank you, Wikipedia)

Edit: Elizabeth Rex is going to be featured at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver this summer (2013).  I probably will not go (since nothing could top the production I saw in Chicago), but will encourage others to do so.

I did go quite a bit out of my way to catch the Chicago production while visiting Chicago over the Xmas holidays (third row seats no less).  Diane D’Aquila,who originated the role of Queen Elizabeth at Stratford, reprised her role.  She was terrific, as was the entire cast.  It is quite interesting that there are some significant changes to the stage version from the published version.  A second lady-in-waiting role was eliminated and the Queen interacts a bit less directly with the bear in the staged version.  The revisions aren't earth-shattering, but seem to make sense.  However, it isn't clear to me when Findley would have made them (I certainly assume that these were authorized changes...).  This review will draw on both the stage and published version where appropriate.

The basic conceit is that Shakespeare and his troupe have put on Much Ado About Nothing in a command performance for Queen Elizabeth, but most of them have gotten caught up in a curfew (to prevent any popular uprisings against the queen on the eve of the execution of the Earl of Essex).  They end up spending the night in the Queen's stables.  It quickly emerges that one of the lead actors (Ned) is dying of the pox (syphilis), which he caught from a soldier who went off and died fighting the Irish.  (The pox=AIDS meme is established but not driven into the ground.  Still some of the subtexts remind me of queer theatre of the late 1980s or early 1990s; not necessarily a bad thing, just I wasn't expecting it.)

The Queen -- still troubled by the need to execute Essex -- visits the actors. (In this play the working assumption is that Essex was once her lover -- and that everyone knows this.)  After their initial deference wears off, there is a long night of truth-telling.  To be sure, it is hard to believe the actors would ever let themselves go to the extent portrayed here, but then there wouldn't be much of a play, so some suspension of belief is required for sure.  The basic bargain struck is that Ned, who plays all the female lead roles, will help Elizabeth mourn Essex as a true woman should, while Elizabeth will help Ned man up and face his death with some dignity.

An interesting side plot is that Shakespeare is unwilling to complete Anthony and Cleopatra while Elizabeth is still ruler, as it seems too transparently about her.  Findley also adds in the true historical fact that Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, was also due to be executed also with Essex.  Shakespeare had clear ties with Southampton, and many scholars contend that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets with Southampton in mind (though whether they were truly lovers is in much dispute).  Findley has Shakespeare plead with Elizabeth to spare him, though he will not grovel to save Southampton.  For the most part, Shakespeare is a relatively minor character with a few good lines, while the real focus is on the interactions of Elizabeth and Ned.

Elizabeth Rex is certainly not a perfect play, but it is clever and a committed piece of theatre.  It never comes across as a third-rate attempt to imitate Shakespeare, though the attempt to wrap things up neatly wasn't completely convincing (to be fair, this is frequently a problem in Shakespeare's plays as well). Overall, it did help that Diane D’Aquila really sold the role, particularly in the waning hours before Essex's execution when she begins to have second thoughts.  It probably does play a bit better on stage than on page, though I saw the play and read it so closely together that they are now mutually reinforcing in my mind.

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