Over Labor Day I was lucky enough to get to Stratford, Ontario, to watch a slew of theater shows. We hit a nice mix: The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy, Othello, notoriously tragic and difficult, and Billy Elliot, a contemporary musical.
I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy art forms that aren’t writing, because they give me a space to think about craft—the making of characters, scenes, emotions, plots/progressions—in ways that don’t correlate directly to writing, but are cognate enough to broaden my writing palette. Theater at Stratford is always one of those craft-broadening experiences for me.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was everything one would expect and want from a Shakespeare comedy: ill-advised love letters, convoluted plots to humiliate a proud fool, disguises, cross-dressing, elopements, and jealous spouses whose love is clarified and reaffirmed in the end. In now-classic Shakespearean tradition, the show was set in an alternate time period, the 1950s aesthetic complete with checkered suits and beauty parlor hair dryers. I recently gave a talk on suspense in fiction at a writers group, and it was interest to see how much of the play’s humor revolves around comedic suspense, or the control of information between the characters and the audience. In theater, unlike writing, information control also becomes spatial, as the audience may know the bumbling Falstaff is hidden in the laundry hamper on stage while Mr. Ford may not.
I hadn’t seen Othello live before, although I enjoy Laurence Fishburne’s 1995 film adaptation. The director (in his notes in the program) stated that he wanted the production to reflect on contemporary racial issues, so the Venetian soldiers wore army camo and carried assault rifles, and more than once Othello—the only black character on stage—had to deescalate a situation where others have drawn their firearms on him without real provocation. Probably my favorite part of the show was a hip-hop dance routine at the beginning, with moves that acted out and foreshadowed the whole narrative arc (such as the dancers strangling others and themselves).
As a non-Shakespeare show, Billy Elliot the Musical provided contrast as well as unexpected continuity. As a retrospective on the 1984–85 UK miners’ strike, Billy Elliot raises political issues of class, visibility, and human dignity—issues that, like those in Othello, we continue to wrestle with today. The role of dance and music to express what otherwise can be so hard to express played out in both performances as well. Billy Elliot is also, of course, a coming-of-age story about an artist pursuing his dream in the face of big obstacles, so for an aspiring writer like me, there was a lot of emotional resonance, and I may have cried a couple of times.
Beyond the shows, Stratford is full of other creative experience. Beautifully laid-out gardens and parks provide places to walk and think. Art in the Park and gift shops full of indigenous art, books, home goods, and well-curated antiques make for enjoyable browsing. And there are plenty of fun and well thought out restaurants to eat at. I always come away from Stratford with a lot of images and impressions and ideas jumbling around in my head.