A LETTER FROM STRATFORD: The 2012 Stratford Festival in Canada Glistens With Christopher Plummer, Des McAnuff and More

By Mark Shenton
29 Aug 2012

Laura Condlln and Yanna McIntosh in Elektra.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Bedford's own production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, in which he starred as Lady Bracknell, originated at Stratford in 2009, before transferring to Broadway's American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. This year, Plummer, who is now 82 and whose own Stratford career has stretched from Hamlet in 1957 to Prospero two years ago, returned in an intimate and personal one-man show, A Word or Two, about his favorite literature, from Shakespeare, naturally, to AA Milne and the Bible, that is a sheer delight and is sure to have an ongoing life beyond Stratford. (The run ended on Aug. 26.)

Plummer's show is directed by Des McAnuff, who retires as artistic director after this season, whose own production here last year of Jesus Christ Superstar also transferred to Broadway. McAnuff may be best known, of course, for such Broadway hits as Jersey Boys and The Who's Tommy (which he will return to Stratford next year as a guest director to re-stage), but Stratford also provides him with an opportunity to test his mettle as a serious classical director, too, and his staging this year of Henry V on the main Festival Theatre stage is an epic, traditional pageant galvanized by an exciting performance by Aaron Krohn in the title role. I saw Krohn last year, too, as Lenny in a production of Pinter's The Homecoming, and one of the pleasures of visiting Stratford, just as it is with the U.K. equivalent that is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the chance to watch actors grow in stature and contrast. You also, of course, watch them here between different shows in the same season: Seana McKenna, the Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker, for instance, is also Clytemestra in Elektra, but she is also a local star known for many Stratford seasons.

Seana McKenna in The Matchmaker.
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The sense of continuity continues offstage as well as on. The theatre's brilliant publicity director Ann Swerdfager's late father Bruce had been one of the theatre's founding acting members, appearing in every show for four years before moving on to become company manager and then general manager of the theatre.

And before becoming a full-time theatre person, Bruce had, according to an obituary in the Toronto Star in 2007, held a day job as an office machinery salesman for Remington Rand, and at the end of his first season as a Stratford actor, he once recalled, "I got a big check from Remington Rand even though I was on a leave of absence. It was the commission from a whole room of typewriters I had sold ….. just before I started working at Stratford. It was more money than I'd made all season from the theatre. And I said, 'Am I crazy? Do I really want to go into this business?' And I did. When I left my job selling something solid like typewriters to work for something as shaky as the Stratford Festival, everybody thought I was crazy. Well look at things now. Who would have guessed the Stratford Festival would outlast the typewriter?"

It's proof, again, that theatre is one thing that will never become redundant, even if the world around us is changing rapidly. And sometimes, clearly, you should just follow your passion. Stratford is full of it, and has plenty to be passionate about. It may very well be what I hope heaven will be like. There's world-class professional theatre; great accommodations; terrific informal restaurants (all of whom ask you if you are going to see a show first, though there really isn't any need: everyone seems to be!); and a beautiful river running through it (yes, it's called the Avon).