Archives for category: theatre

Othello painting

Lately I have been rediscovering the joys of iambic pentameter, blank verse and colourful Elizabethan insults. When I was young, Shakespeare was a part of my everyday life, as my dad was a professor of English and would regularly quote the Bard at the dinner table. A gilt and velvet-framed image of Othello telling marvellous tales to a rapt Desdemona and her father used to hang in our front hall. My first introduction to Shakespeare’s plays was in a Classic Comic (popular in the 1960s and ’70s) similar to this one:

Hamlet comic

The story of Hamlet was conveyed in a simplified form, and yet some of Shakespeare’s language was retained to give a sense of the original:

Hamlet comic inside

I remember the play-within-a-play scene had a powerful impact on me that lasted for years. It was the moment when Hamlet’s uncle pours poison into the ear of the sleeping king, murdering his own brother. From the day I read that, I was never able to go to sleep again without the covers pulled up high over my exposed ear! (Not that I suspected my younger sister of wanting to murder me…)

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and we were lucky to have a town called Stratford on a river Avon, just like the English one. A Shakespeare festival was established in the town in the 1950s and my dad was a young actor there in the early days, along with Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk). The first festivals were held in a big tent, but eventually they built a beautiful theatre whose design reflects its modest beginnings:

Stratford Ont theatre

Inside the theatre is a traditional “thrust” stage which is modelled on the Globe Theatre stage (where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed). This photo shows a 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet:

Stratford Ont stage

Photo ©Stratford Beacon Herald 2013

When I was a teenager we used to drive the hour-and-a-half to Stratford several times every summer to see a variety of plays. I was very lucky to be around during the 1970s and ’80s when famous British actors like Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford used to perform. One of the plays I went to was Much Ado About Nothing in 1980, with Maggie as Beatrice and Brian as Benedick:

Much Ado Maggie Smith

Photo from Cleveland State University Library

Both actors were brilliantly funny in the roles! Thanks to my trips to the Stratford Festival, I was familiar with Maggie Smith’s wry asides and arched eyebrow long before her Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame.

When I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto (to study at the Ontario College of Art) and I took advantage of all the theatre on offer in the “big city.” I remember a fantastic production of Romeo and Juliet performed outdoors one summer in High Park. It starred a young and handsome Paul Gross as the wildly impetuous Romeo, and was perfectly timed for night to fall just as Romeo challenges and kills Paris in the tomb.

Paul Gross Romeo

Romeo and Juliet in park

Like my dad, my son is now interested in becoming an actor, and getting into drama schools requires mastering a Shakespeare monologue. Inspired by this, I have been exploring the plays as I dip in and out of my battered Shakespeare Complete Works. Unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t read much Shakespeare in university, as I chose to study French literature instead. My younger sister has become a Shakespeare professor too, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

The best way to enjoy Shakespeare is of course to see it, and if a live performance isn’t possible there is plenty of choice online. If you want to watch performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company there are some available on their website HERE, and schools can sign up to Drama Online. The Globe Theatre also has a wide selection of plays to buy or rent on their Globe Player website. The National Theatre broadcasts both live and pre-recorded films of Shakespeare plays (and many others) in cinemas across the UK and around the world through their National Theatre Live programme.

Al Pacino Shylock

And of course there are many Shakespeare plays that have been made into commercial films. One performance my son found particularly inspiring was Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. This was a 2004 film which also starred Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and luckily it is still available on DVD. My son likes the speech in which Shylock points out that Jews are just like any other human being, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” and therefore worthy of respect. You can see Al Pacino perform the speech on YouTube HERE.

The best thing about my son having to choose a Shakespeare monologue is all the great films we can watch! The hardest part is making that choice…


I’m looking forward to seeing an opera based on Macbeth next month, written by Giuseppe Verdi. And much like Proust’s famous madeleine biscuit, the thought of Verdi (whose handsome portrait you see above) brought memories of my youth flooding back!

When I finished university I moved to Montreal and rented a flat on the top floor of a small apartment block. The flat was small and bright with white walls and a skylight, and basically had three rooms: a bedroom in front, a long narrow living space, and a kitchen in the back. It was the first place I’d ever lived on my own, and I took great pleasure in furnishing it to my taste.

That striking portrait of Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini) hung on my kitchen wall (in poster form, not the original!) I have always admired the skill of the artist in capturing every whisker, those sparkling blue eyes, the velvety blackness of the coat and the sheen of that top hat. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Boldini worked in pastels, which I have never mastered. I just love this portrait and wish I still had that poster!

Another beautiful thing I miss from my Montreal flat is the bamboo bird cage that stood in my living room, under the skylight. I would never keep birds in a cage, but it was perfect for holding a trailing ivy plant which was very happy there. I have tried to find a similar cage online and was taken aback to find they are now called “vintage” (making me feel rather old!)

I lived on Rue Messier, which was typical of the area in Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. You can see the three-storey buildings with six flats in each, and the distinctive curvy metal staircases to reach the upper floors. I remember having to brush eight inches of snow off each step every morning in the winter!

I studied French and Quebec Literature in Toronto, and then moved to Montreal to live in a French-speaking environment. I had read the novels and plays of Quebec author Michel Tremblay and was a huge fan, so it was quite a thrill to move into the neighbourhood where he had grown up! Much of his work is set in those same streets around the Parc La Fontaine, and in one novel he mentions Rue Fabre, just a few streets away from my place on Messier.

The first novel in Tremblay’s chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal was called La grosse femme d’a coté est enceinte (The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant). You can see from the image above that my copy is well worn and well loved!

Photo ©Alchetron

Michel Tremblay is most famous for an early play called Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law). I have seen it performed in French, which is quite a challenge for a native English speaker since it is written in a working-class Montreal dialect called joual. The play has had such success that it has been translated into many languages, including Scots! It was a great pleasure for me to see a production of The Guid Sisters in Glasgow a few years ago. It took me right back to my youth in Montreal. And now an opera of Macbeth has done it again!