The Stratford Shakespeare Festival kicked off its 60th-anniversary season on Monday night, and 10 minutes into its opening production, it had already fully justified a seventh decade of existence.
With her turn as Beatrice in Christopher Newton's staggeringly heartfelt Brazil-set production of Much Ado About Nothing, Deborah Hay has truly surpassed herself.
The pilfered Shaw Festival star hits a new career high with her poignant portrait of a woman who hides personal pain and a desperate need for love behind a sharp and sassy exterior.
In Shakespeare's most truly romantic comedy, Beatrice is, of course, engaged in a "merry war" with her old flame, Benedick, played here with splendid crankiness and brief, embarrassed bursts of lovesickness by Hay's real-life husband Ben Carlson.
In her first scene on stage, Hay nails each of Beatrice's hilarious putdowns of the sardonic soldier, while at the same time glowing with barely disguised glee at being in his company again. When her big-eyed banter is met with inscrutable, beady-eyed barbs, she quietly turns away to remark, "I know you of old."
There's a whole play's worth of romantic disappointment and frustration at being a headstrong woman in a man's world implied in the heartbroken but hopeful way she speaks those five words.
And Hay's performance only grows richer from there, the cherry on top being a perfectly executed pratfall down a curved flight of stairs during the eavesdropping scene. This show-stopping moment of physical comedy acts as a palimpsest for her entire character arc: Beatrice clinging to the banister of reason with all her strength, but unable to keep from tumbling. There will be bruises in the morning, but gravity and love are unstoppable laws of nature.
There is more to the show than Hay, of course.
Returning home from what was a presumably a less-than-merry war, the prince Don Pedro (Juan Chioran) turns his attention to matchmaking. Before scheming to bring Beatrice and Benedick together, he warms up by pairing the young count Claudio with Hero, the only daughter of his rich host, Leonato (James Blendick).
Don Pedro's brother Don John – an evil match-breaking twin played as supremely socially awkward by Gareth Potter – has other ideas, however. He contrives to have Hero's virgin innocence called into question, leading to an altercation at the marriage altar.
There are no sour performances here. Tyrone Savage does a excellent job of establishing Claudio as an insecure hothead from the get-go, without ever becoming entirely unsympathetic, while Bethany Jillard is an unusually feisty Hero, who won't let her honour be slandered without a fight.
Chioran is in top form as Don Pedro, a man obsessed with bringing happiness to his friends, but unable to find it for himself. As Leonato, Blendick has great timing in his comic scenes, and he only slightly overdoes the pathos in the scenes where he learns of the allegations about Hero. (His fury would be more effective without the tragic jazz hands.)
Throughout, Newton – the former artistic director of the Shaw Festival – refuses to underline the jokes in the text, letting the humour emerge organically. What a relief to encounter a production of a Shakespearean comedy where not once does a character thrust his or her groin to highlight a dated double-entendre.
There are some elements missing, however. The scent of sex, for instance, is oddly absent, especially in the lacklustre tangos and salsa Jane Johanson has choreographed in between scenes.
And Newton's smart and sensitive approach doesn't match up well with the low-comedy business involving Dogberry, a malapropism-prone constable whose ragtag group of watchmen accidentally unravel Don John's plot and capture his accomplices.
Richard Binsley brings a touch of the bumbling spy Maxwell Smart to the part, but his dialogue is rushed, as if Newton found this part of the play tiresome and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
And yet, with as fine a Beatrice and Benedick as Hay and Carlson, that's an understandable impulse. Their unorthodox courtship elicits tears of laughter, sadness and joy, and it's really hard to ask much more from a night at the theatre.
Much Ado About Nothing
- Written by William Shakespeare
- Directed by Christopher Newton
- Starring Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at Stratford's Festival Theatre until Oct. 27.