Normally the Freewill Shakespeare Festival happens at the end of June, beginning of July, with two of Shakespeare’s plays running in repertory at the big amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park. Big crowds enjoying beer and popcorn, squirrels and thunderstorms, along with a professional company of about 12 actors performing in both shows. That wasn’t a good plan for 2021, so the festival pushed back to August and scaled back to two separate cohorts, doing small cast versions suitable for touring to community league spaces and large backyards. Macbeth is coming to my own community league in Ritchie Park on Saturday August 28th, at 2pm, for pay what you Will, for example.
Both of this year’s productions, directed by festival AD David Horak, started with previews outdoors at Louise McKinney Waterfront Park, and are now joining the Edmonton Fringe Festival for performances this week in a convenient overlap of two traditions.
Much Ado About Nothing is being performed in the tent in Light Horse Park known as Vanta Youth Stage. The cast of five (Troy O’Donnell, Ian Leung, Sarah Feutl, Christina Nguyen, and Fatmi El Fassri El Fihri) runs through a fairly traditional adaptation of the romcom in a bit under 75 minutes – traditional except for having the five of them play all the roles. So, for example, Sarah Feutl is great as the quickwitted loyal Beatrice taking pleasure in banter with her cousin Hero and with Benedick, but she also plays Claudio (Hero’s love interest) and the old Sexton taking down the criminal charges. There was also a framing of the five actors arriving at a tour destination under Covid precautions, cut down from a company of 15 for an unexplained reason, and deciding which play to perform. A few times through the performance the actors reminded us of this layer, making the character-shifts amusing rather than clumsy. The funniest shift was when O’Donnell-as-Leonato-the-accuser was confronting O’Donnell-as-Borachio-the-accused, eventually frog-marching himself away.
I saw Macbeth in the preview, but at the Fringe it’s playing in the air-conditioned space known as Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, just north of the streetcar tracks and new crosswalk on Gateway Drive. It’s a less conventional adaptation, using just three actors (Nadien Chu, Rochelle Laplante, and Laura Raboud), skipping over many of the details in favour of exposition (with a bit of editorial) delivered by one or another. It sticks to the Shakespearean text for most of the familiar scenes and monologues, but adds in some ukelele-accompanied songs at some of the most brutal moments (Banquo’s murder, Lady Macduff’s murder) for a bizarre touch. Raboud is disturbingly good in the title role. Laplante plays Lady Macbeth and Malcolm among others; Chu covers King Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, etc.
Before the narrative started, the three performers occupy themselves in bouffon fashion, picking out a new leader from the audience, affirming the choice, then chorusing that their time’s up, nothing personal, but your leadership has come to an end, and then moving on to another selection. This was entertaining at the time and seemed to lead in to the action at the start of the play with Duncan being replaced by Macbeth and then being tormented by the idea of not being able to pass on the crown to his child.
At the end, the young Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland. The bouffon voice appears again reciting something about the cycle continuing. Suddenly I realized that in my whole long acquaintance with this play, since studying it in Grade 12, seeing two Stratford productions while living in Ontario, and more recently productions of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, Theatre Prospero/Thousand Faces Festival, Akpik Theatre’s Pawâkan Macbeth, and The Malachites, I have always thought of the end of the play as getting back to normal, a sigh of relief for the rightful ruler on the throne and an assumption that the new regime will be wise, kind, and stable, a time to shudder and shake myself for the end of the nightmare brought about by two people’s ambition. It had honestly never occurred to me that I don’t know nearly enough about Malcolm and his advisors to assume a happily-ever-after. Just as when a self-serving government has been voted out or overthrown, or when public-health measures and community co-operation are getting a pandemic wave under control, we cannot congratulate ourselves and walk away.
And maybe I’m not the only one who needs to hear that.