Brilliant world-premier reflection upon art, friendship, and grief, initially set in Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon stable the night of his passing. A masterpiece of both literature and drama, this memory play delves into three complex characters during an overnight, post-performance meeting of the Lord Chamberlain's Men with Queen Elizabeth as the execution of Essex looms. Moving, passionate, and expertly crafted: an important addition to Shakespearean drama.
Directed by Martha Henry. Set by Allan Wilbee. Lights by Louise Guinand. Music by Stephen Woodjetts. Sound by Todd Charlton. Choreography by John Broome. Fights by James Binkley.
Peter Hutt (Shakespeare), Brent Carver (Ned Lowenscroft), Scott Wentworth (Jack Edmund), Evan Buliung (Matt Welles), Keith Dinicol (Percy Gower), Paul Dunn (Harry Pearle), Joyce Campion (Tardy Tardwell), Florence MacGregor (Lady Mary), Diane D'Aquila (Queen Elizabeth), Bernard Hopkins (Lord Robert).
The Stratford Festival's world premiere of Canadian playwright Thomas Findlay's Elizabeth Rex is staged within the intimacy - 487 seats - of the Tom Patterson Theatre on the banks of Lake Victoria. The drama's second performance, given on Canada Day, is preceded by the singing of the Canadian national anthem. The patriotic undertone suits the play's focus on England's Elizabeth I and her struggle between royal duty and personal emotion. The elongated wooden stage and jutting beam framework represent the murky interior of Shakespeare's Stratford barn as the Bard, played with introspective intelligence by Peter Hutt, enters upstage with lantern in hand. White moonlight creeps between the boards behind him as he feebly coughs into a handkerchief. Amid the ominous tolling of a bell and distant cries from boyhood friends, Hutt intuits that "Will Shakespeare will die today."
Hutt's ailing poet addresses the audience as he recalls a similar location fifteen years earlier - in 1601 - the time of his spiritual death, "the beginning of the ending of my world." Players in full costume join him onstage - now the royal barn of Queen Elizabeth at Nonsuch Palace - after a court performance of Much Ado About Nothing. The players, led by a drummer, carry props and costumes and pull a wagon as the stage comes alight and a Lord Chamberlain's Men banner becomes visible in the lofts above them. The company must be housed within the royal stables due to the curfew commanded by the Queen in the aftermath of the Essex uprising and the scheduled execution of Essex with the coming dawn. Shakespeare serves as reflective peacemaker for the colorful players and crew, including the Burbage-like Jack Edmund, all Irish swagger and arrogance, the fading clown Percy Gower, bemoaning his paucity of lines, the doddering costumer Tardy Tardwell, upset over ripped stitches and the lack of replacement thread, and especially, the insolent Ned Lowenscroft, portrayed with fervid desperation by Brent Carver. Ned plays the company's lead female roles, but he is syphilitic, poxed with bruises and running sores - "I will go mad" - and he fears he will not be alive to perform as Shakespeare's in-progress Cleopatra. The bedraggled Ned, angry with Jack for missing a line and cue that nearly caused him, as Much Ado's Beatrice, to prematurely exit, seems fragile but fiery, in futile resistance of his terrible fate.
Findlay provides insight into post-performance Elizabethan theatre as the players undress and unwind. Shakespeare composes lines for Antony and Cleopatra - a play about a broken hearted queen and a "headless hero" with striking parallels to Elizabeth and Essex - as the actors store their props, practice their dance-steps and singing, retire to the hay-filled lofts, and, still energized from performing, playfully taunt Tardy by hiding her spectacles atop her bonnet as she gropes and frets her way about them. They use one player's "bum-roll" as a seat cushion for the Queen's lady-in-waiting, who arrives in advance of the monarch's expected visit.
With the entrance of Diane D'Aquila as Queen Elizabeth, Findlay's new play soars into a plethora of concepts and conflicts, then sears with grief and lost love. D'Aquila's Elizabeth, confident and eloquent, brash and opinionated, commands the stage as she does her kingdom - "were you invited to speak?" - and it is she who returns Tardy's spectacles, giving the unaware old woman a sudden close-up glimpse of the royal presence. In ghastly white face and red wig, the Queen wears her collared Gloriana gown with an opulent rope of pearls. She shows no fear, even of Ned's omnipresent tamed bear, and explains - but does not apologize for - her brusque demeanor with the comment that it is Shrove Tuesday, "a day set down for penance."
The Queen uses the Lord Chamberlain's Men to distract herself from the impending execution of her former lover Essex, and she reveals sympathy for Shakespeare's Beatrice - "I will live a bachelor" - especially her "sigh no more" song. D'Aquila's Queen develops immediate chemistry with Carver's Lowenscroft, an intellectual tension that simmers with emotional mutuality. She refers to Ned as "The Beatrice"; she says to him, "you have a great deal to say...for a woman"; and her pragmatic reply to Ned's wan, "we're all poxed, one way or another," is a harsh, "life kills, that is its purpose." Her strident tone emanates from her grief over the loss of Essex's love, and she attacks someone who refers to Essex as a reprobate - "learn your language; the man is an ingrate" - mockingly marvels at a letter of appeal on Essex's behalf - "three 'majestys' in a single sentence!" - and utters a dismissive, "damn all men; every last one of you."
While the players band together, Carver's agonized Ned prefers the company of his man-sized tamed bear. Ned had saved the wounded beast from the dogs in the bear-baiting pits, and it shows life-long loyalty to him much as the Queen's lady-in-waiting does the monarch. While the beast is obviously an actor in realistic bear costume, the groaning animal is played with great dignity and canine loyalty, restless but always lying near Ned with its front paws crossed. It becomes agitated at the barking of the Watch's dogs, to which Ned wryly comments, "he forgets he's free," much as do Findlay's grief-stricken characters. D'Aquila's ardent Queen even turns her ire upon the poet, calling Shakespeare a "vagabond from reality" and claiming his "histories are full of lies." Her favorite line from Much Ado is instantly known by Ned - "kill Claudio" - because "England is my Hero," and she denounces Shakespeare as "too forgiving." With interval, the time of penance ends with midnight and becomes the "Day of Ashes." The second act begins as D'Aquila's Queen watches Shakespeare composing: she asks, "am I your subject?" and he cleverly replies, "no, madam, I am yours," although he admits to writing about Cleopatra's anguish as Antony is dying.
Findlay's threesome of characters are rendered complexly human by excellent performances, and the setting, context, and conflicts continually fascinate. Findlay's second act delves into raw human emotion, like the best of literature, and is portrayed onstage with absorbing realism, like the best of drama. The players arrange a makeshift banquet table, although the hot-blooded Irishman Jack refuses to join the English Queen. Tension between Ned and the Queen festers as the frantic Ned and the inflamed Queen trade increasingly personal barbs: "King Henry in skirts!" versus "Beatrice in britches!" Their cathartic emotions descend to the melancholy - as the Queen notes, "if tomorrow is to come, we must all be forgiven" - and begin a series of excruciating confessions.
Findlay's roller-coaster of passionate peaks and valleys is hugely entertaining and superbly written. For example, the Queen's desensitized admission that she "cannot be merciful" brings a sudden rush of tenderness from Ned, and the intuitive Queen requests of the sensitive young man: "if you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man." She has made herself, indeed, King Elizabeth - Elizabeth Rex - and does not know how to behave differently.
Ned Lowenscroft confesses that he too grieves for a lost love, a handsome English sailor who infected him with syphilis before drowning in a sea battle. Moments later, the Queen shrewdly intuits that Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnets are really unrequited passion for an unattainable - and now imprisoned - young rebel. Ned begins to quote a sonnet that Hutt's Shakespeare somberly completes, and their fellowship in grief becomes a bond.
D'Aquila's bravura Queen and Hutt's eloquent Shakespeare provide a historical center of intelligence and wit. Carver's mercurial Lowenscroft spins from this center into a complex and literary array of themes. His dying Ned becomes dramatically manic, calling for every lantern to be lit as he summons the players with shouts and the ringing of a bell. He arranges three army captain's jackets over chairs to represent the loves of the three characters, and they drink toasts to their lost Captains. Ned implores the Queen to play Cleopatra to his Antony with Shakespeare's newly penned poetry, but she resists the flowery words. Ned then shows her his own Elizabeth-like practicality in counseling her that, "death is death, madam - it comes, we go."
The Next Theatre Company, in Findlay's Shakespeare-like play-within-a-play, Jack Edmund plays all three "Captain" roles and Ned serves as each of the grieving lovers - himself, the Queen, and Shakespeare. Carver wrings words from Ned's heart with impassioned suffering, and the character's exquisite art provides an emotional cleansing for all of them. Wracked with anguish, he drifts past the seated Queen as she reaches to console him, but Percy wisely intercepts her hand to allow Ned to continue healing himself. When Ned concludes his monologue, overwhelmed with sorrow but acting stoically like he believes a "man" should, Hutt's Shakespeare embraces him. To continue the healing through acting out - as Ned remarks, "to find the woman, you must find the man" - D'Aquila's Queen removes her red wig and applies make-up, then a new brunette wig and Ned's black gown, and she becomes an attractive woman, much like Shakespeare's Beatrice. The two characters still collide, despite their bond, as when Ned threatens the Queen with a sword to admonish her into admitting grief over the loss of the traitor Essex. Her response - "if I could kill every man in my kingdom, I'd do it" - is sputtered in anger, but the words intimate the Queen's suicide, as she has stressed her manliness from the outset.
When a church bell tolls and the stage darkens to signify Essex's death by execution, the Queen spasms in horror at the cannon blast she knew would be imminent. After Lord Robert arrives and describes Essex's submission to the Queen's decree "without a word of protest," she speaks to Jack in his red military uniform, addressing him as if he was her beloved Essex. As the monarch and masculine England itself, D'Aquila's Queen forgives him. "I have played the Prince," she says, but the words are not enough, she must forgive Essex and part with him as a woman and as his lover. When she solemnly asks Ned, "how does one say goodbye?" the apt player responds, "I can show you."
In a poignant and poetically beautiful finale, each player walks upon a slowly spinning blade of light at center stage. Jack portrays Essex, and Ned bids him farewell as Elizabeth, and more importantly, for Elizabeth, who watches intently: "all these joys, no more." As Ned stands on a now motionless blade of light, Jack moves away, and Ned plaintively calls to his drowned Captain. D'Aquila's manly Queen, now a woman, kneels before Carver's womanish Ned, newly a man, but the spirit and depth of their shared feeling transcend mere gender.
Healed, D'Aquila's Queen dons her garish red wig once again with the help of her attendant, a lovely young girl whom the Queen refers to as "all that I might have been." In solemn acts of friendship and commiseration, the Queen promises not to execute the imprisoned love of Shakespeare's life, and she tells Ned, "I will not forget you," as she places her strand of pearls around the neck of his tamed and wounded bear.
The Stratford Festival's original production of Elizabeth Rex is part history lesson and part theatrical insight, as well as a complex tour de force for three compelling performers; and Findlay's new play is exceptional Shakespeare-like literature with poignant reflections on grief, love, the nature of friendship, and the power of art. As combined beneath the deft and sensitive hand of director Martha Henry, the brilliant result is moving, passionate, and expertly crafted human drama.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.19, No.2, Spring 2001.