Presented by Infinithéâtre. Directed by Guy Sprung.
Moyse Hall, McGill University, Oct. 22 to 27, 2018
Shrewd move on Infinithéâtre’s part: having been blessed, and, it must sometimes feel, burdened, with a strict mandate to produce only Quebec-centric plays, they’ve turned to Shakespeare’s sonnets, getting around that funding requirement by transforming them into the words spoken by a myriad of Montreal folk. Thus we get partners in a same-sex marriage, Centreville shoppers, a busking folksinger (who gets the audience to singalong to the projected words of Sonnet 27), a Billie Holliday-style blues singer on her balcony, a bag lady on the Mont Royal (who asks of her reflected image the Sonnets’ most famous line: shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?), and so on, all the way through 32 of Shakespeare’s perfectly formed musings on love, lust, ageing and mortality.
It’s a good-humoured, often jokey celebration (with some heart-stabbing pangs along the way) of Shakespeare’s words, performed by an affable cast which includes such familiar Montreal faces as Ellen David, Shawn Campbell, and Holly Gauthier-Frankel, alongside Charles Bender, Carmen Grant, Amir Sám Nakhjavani, Mariah Inger and Manouchka Elinor. Those faces, though, are concealed by half-masks when they take turns to speak the rhymes. It’s those eerie, comical and startlingly expressive masks, brought along by mask-master Brian Smith, that give a real lift to the production (Smith and Sprung worked together on a Shakespeare’s sonnets project at the Stratford Festival in 2014). You’d be hard-pressed to recognize even the most familiar actor on stage at given times, not just because their faces are behind those masks, but because wearing them radically alters the shape of bodies and the pitch of voices. Carmen Grant, for instance, transforms herself flawlessly into an arthritic but cheerful old geezer, while Ellen David (at least I think it was her) shape-shifts into a stiffly officious old gent performing a wedding ceremony.
The show is being put on in partnership with McGill’s English department (and the Early Modern Conversions project), and there’s a bit of an informal make-do feel to the production, not least because of the black-blocks-and-bleachers performance space, which give it the look of a drama department rehearsal hall. Projected images of Montreal cityscapes bring some welcome visual panache.
Sometimes, the clarity of the words gets muddied under the masks. At other times the meaning is spelled out (can we have a break from actors illustrating the Bard’s bawdy quibbles by thrusting the hips and erecting a forearm?). And the lights-down-lights-up presentation makes the structure seem bitty rather than it having a sense of a through-line – only occasionally do we get a single character developing over the course of more than one sonnet.
But really it’s Montreal itself that is the character, and the rich variety both of the city and the moods of the sonnets are captured by the colorful tapestry of personalities, settings, even typefaces (at one point, a sonnet is projected as phone-texting between lovers, followed by an intimate pixelated pic.)
It might have been interesting, if only to touch on an obvious facet of life in Montreal, to transform one or two of the sonnets into Québécois French, a language that works well in Shakespeare, as witnessed by Michel Garneau’s “joual” Macbeth. But as director Guy Sprung said during the curtain call, this is a production that, like much of Montreal, is under construction, so who knows what route they might be diverted down in some future iteration?
UPDATE: Director Guy Sprung passed on this news: “David Schalkwyk, the internationally renowned Shakespeare Scholar, Professor at Queen Mary College, University of London, former editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and the Director of Research of the Folger Shakespeare Library, was there on opening night. Yesterday (Oct. 23) he gave a public lecture organized by the McGill Department of English, entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Voice’. He began his talk with an astonishing complement to our work, saying it was: ‘an extraordinary embodiment of Shakespeare’s sonnets’. He went on to confess that if he had seen our production earlier he would have ripped up his paper and started anew. Then throughout the talk he continued to make positive references to the actors and our ‘play’. It was a true vindication of our work and an example of how artists can be on the cutting edge of ‘research’ into academic perception of the literary heritage of humankind.”