Much ado about something

By Amanda Farrell Low, July/August 2012

Two Shakespearean comedies set in the 1920s and ’30s are staged in a Garry Oak meadow.

In some ways, it feels like the Victoria Shakespeare Society is coming full circle. Not only does this year’s Shakespeare in the Summer festival denote a decade of the current incarnation of the VSS putting on shows, but it also marks artistic director Michael Glover’s return to a role reminiscent of the one he took when first acting with the VSS in 2004. Back then, he played Don Adriano de Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost; this year, he’ll be performing as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.

“I got to play the fool and I get to play the fool again this year,” he quips. “It’s full circle for the fools.”

All fooling aside, the society has had to weather a few storms in order to survive for 10 years—and we’re not just talking about Victoria’s unpredictable summer weather. Glover says there have been some bumps along the way, such as trying to find their feet on the college grounds, being at the mercy of the weather, or, like many cultural groups, losing its provincial gaming funding (which, they’re happy to report, was reinstated last year). 

But audience numbers have been growing steadily since 2003, particularly since moving up to Camosun College in 2005, with last year’s double bill of Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors seeing over 3,700 people attending over the run.

“I think last year we started to push the boundaries of our audience capacity,” he says—always a good problem to have. “I’ve always been like, ‘Well, we don’t have an audience capacity—it’s a field.’ There are no fire rules on that, so pack ’em, rack ’em and stack ’em.’ But we had 300 people in the audience on our last show of the Comedy of Errors, and that was pushing it.”

This year, the two plays on offer have a lot of commonalities. Not only are they both comedies—Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It—but their directors have chosen to set the productions in 20th-century Canada. David McPherson is setting As You Like It at a travelling sideshow during the ’30s dustbowl, while Ian Case has placed Much Ado in the post-World War I era. 

“The play begs for it to be situated in a time of strife, of civil war. It’s the re-establishment of order out of a time of chaos,” Case says of his choice. “Also, there are the underpinnings, with the Don John/Don Pedro relationship, of there being the remaining elements of strife, and that’s reflected again in the volcanic relationships between all of the characters.”

In the case of As You Like It, McPherson admits that he wasn’t very familiar with the play when he was tapped to direct it (“I was asked to direct about two days before the auditions,” he says). In addition to being a time period he was familiar with due to working on the Sin City Improvised Soap Opera for several months, the 1930s seemed an appropriate era for dealing with the play’s “urban versus rural” themes.

“The play itself is traditionally done as urban life versus rural life and, even though it makes fun of it, it kind of celebrates the rural life,” he says. “I kind of saw the idea of people who were forced to accept this more rural, less materialistic life because of it being set in the Depression.” The setting also allowed him to find a place for some of the script’s more oddball moments. “There’s the strangeness about the wrestler, there’s the lion attack in it, so there were a few things in it where I went, ‘How do I make that logic work for me?’”

Case says that setting both the comedies in similar time periods wasn’t intentional; originally, he thought about putting Much Ado in the British Empire period.

“That was purely because of the visual sensibility of the time. I think that’s a beautiful look on stage and I thought it would be really dynamic at the festival. But then we took a look at the budget constraints,” says Case. “The reality of making that many empire gowns and finding the men’s costuming would be very difficult, whereas I knew that Langham Court’s costume loft had bins filled with World War I clothing that I could make do with.”

But the similarities between the two plays goes beyond their setting and genre, says McPherson.

“There’s also the overtones of the serious issues about relationships and social behaviour compared to personal behaviour…That time worked so well when we both finally decided on what eras we were going to set it in,” he says. “With him setting his in the post-World War I era and me later in the ’30s, the whole thing feels like a complete package this year.”

In addition to the double comedy offering, there’s a couple of other differences with this year’s festival. Patrons can now pre-order a basket of goodies to munch on while they enjoy the performance, and the run has been compressed to five weeks with only one dark night per week.

“We’re being optimistic about a future where we can start looking towards being a paid company, so we’re getting ready to do that,” Glover says of shortening the run (currently, the festival’s performers are all volunteers). “Who knows how quickly that would happen, but we want to prepare.”

Things do seem to be headed in the right direction for the Victoria Shakespeare Society; they were able to hire a producer for the festival this year, and early bird ticket sales have been very strong. Really, there’s not much to dislike about an evening with the Bard and a Garry Oak meadow as the backdrop.

 

The Shakespeare in the Summer Festival runs from July 16-August 18, with performances of As You Like It happening on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Much Ado About Nothing being performed Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. All performances are at 7pm at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus and tickets are $22 ($32 for both shows) for adults, or $16 ($26 for both shows) for students and seniors. Children 12 and under are free. Visit www.vicshakespeare.com for more details.