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Shakespeare

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William Hutt, one of Canada's leading actors of Shakespeare's protagonists, in the Stratford Festival's 1996 production of King Lear.

The most produced non-Canadian playwright, Shakespeare's works are at the foundation of theatre in this country and are performed in all styles at virtually all the major theatres, in French and in English, across the nation.

Like Molière's, the works of Shakespeare appear as keystones throughout the history of theatre in Canada. His were among the first works performed in the New World, they were the raison d'être of the foundation of the nation's largest theatre (Stratford Festival), and they are still being taught in schools, with interpretations which change from era to era.

Though it is likely that soldiers performed snippets of Shakespeare -- perhaps even whole plays --(even if only in the guise of satire) before 1780, the first professional theatre company to settle in Canada, was Allen's Company of Comedians and they presented Shakespeare as early as 1786. Since then, managing to avoid the roadblocks Molière was encountering (church sanctioning), Shakespeare has flourished in Canada. And even despite the ongoing debates on Taming of the Shrew's sexism or Merchant of Venice's anti-Semitism (or perhaps because of them), Shakespeare continues to be popular.

What perhaps concerns us today is the relevance of the Bard. As with Molière, his works are being Canadianized (at Stratford since 1956 with Michael Langham's celebrated Henry V with franco-Canadian actors playing the French) or being completely deconstructed by artists like Alexandre Hausvater (whose 1990 adaptation of King Lear was a cabaret about ageing and family), Robert Lepage (who has directed Shakespeare for the National Theatre of Great Britain), and Martine Beaulne (whose rereading of La mégère apprivoisée/The Taming of the Shrew at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in 1995 was a study of theatre and the "roles" the sexes play). Among those translating Shakespeare are Marco Micone, Michelle Allen, Michel Garneau, Jean-Louis Roux and Antonine Maillet.

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Théâtre du Rideau Vert's 1993 production of Shakespeare's Nuit des Rois/Twelfth Night, directed by Guillermo de Andrea with Linda Roy (photo: Guy Dubois)

What abides is the Bard's ability to draw crowds. Although the Stratford Festival has cut back on the Shakespeare while it pumps up musical theatre, Shakespeare-in-the-park companies like Edmonton's Free Will Players, Calgary's Shakespeare by the Bow, Toronto's Shakespeare in the Rough, Oakville's Festival of the Classics, Montreal's Repercussion Theatre, Winnipeg's Shakespeare in the Ruins, Saskatoon's Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, Halifax's Shakespeare by the Sea, St. John's Shakespeare by the Sea Festival, Newfoundland, and Vancouver's Bard on the Beach continue to draw thousands.

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Graeme Somerville (l) and Steven McCarthy in Bill Glassco's 2000 production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure for the Montreal Young Company (photo: Lydia Pawelak)<

What remains clear about Shakespeare's works is that they continue to seduce artists and spectators in Canada, generation after generation. Companies continue to be formed around his works, such as HurlyBurly, in Toronto, which launched in September, 2001, with Macbeth; and Thou Art Here, founded in 2011 by Andrew Ritchie and Neil Kuefler, Aberta’s alternative Shakespeare company bringing the Bard’s work and adaptations to the most unexpected spaces with site-sympathetic productions.

Readings: Mark Leiren-Young. Shylock. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 1996 for a fascinating look at the controversies surrounding producing Shakespeare, specifically The Merchant of Venice.

See also the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project, which tracks the many manifestations of Shakespeare's plays in Canadian theatre: www.canadianshakespeares.ca

Profile by Gaetan Charlebois

Last updated 2019-09-29