Park your Bard
Aside from fearless squirrels who won’t hesitate to steal your popcorn, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival pairs two vastly different plays together and draws out the commonalities between them.
Last year was the summer of love (Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost). The year before featured the summer of exiles (Coriolanus and As You Like It). This year, the festival has moved away from its comedy/tragedy dichotomy and instead brings us two plays that both break from Shakespearean convention: The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“They’re both really quirky,” says festival director Marianne Copithorne. “I would say that Romeo and Juliet has got a super straightforward arc. And I look at Hamlet that way too, and even Othello. But these ones are just tricky, quirky, bizarre little plays.”
Famous for its dramatic “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue and its morally ambiguous ending, The Merchant of Venice combines the light-hearted courtship of Portia and Bassanio with the racial conflict between wealthy merchant Antonio and Jewish moneylender Shylock.
“It’s a really strange comedy,” Copithorne says. “It’s not really a comedy—and it’s not really a romance—because of the whole Shylock story.”
In order to make that weight even more resonant to contemporary audiences, Copithorne chose to set the production in a more modern time period where anti-Semitism was on the rise—1939, just before Italy was torn apart by the Second World War.
“Mussolini’s fascist regime was very strong, but the local Jewish population was pretty safe until he started to chum up with Hitler,” Copithorne says. “All of a sudden it felt like he had to lay down some strong sanctions.”
The Merchant of Venice is controversial because it’s unclear whether it’s supporting anti-Semitism or disputing it.
“I want to make it really clear that the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, and myself, totally believe that this is not an anti-Semitic play, but that it’s a play that deals with anti-Semitism,” Copithorne says.
Aside from its focus on racism, Copithorne’s production also explores the dangers of marrying for money instead of love—a theme that’s equally present in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
A more straightforward farce, Merry Wives follows the foibles of the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, who tries to woo two married women away from their husbands. Its director, Ashley Wright, chose to set his play in the 1970’s disco era.
“It’s one of Shakespeare’s only plays that deals with the emerging middle class,” Wright says. “John Falstaff is a Sir, and he’s knighted. But there’s not that same sort of hierarchy as in pretty much all of his other plays.”
Originally set in the suburbs of London, Merry Wives is unique in its focus on bored housewives rather than princes or noblemen—something that reminded Wright of his childhood in the 1970s.
“I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, and everyone had a rec room. Everyone had all the disco records, and a fun thing to do on a Friday or a Saturday night was all the adults would get together and drink way too much and do disco dancing until all hours of the morning … It was an interesting release just before Reaganomics and all that stuff in the ‘80s came along.”
Both directors are positioning their plays right on the verge of big historical shifts. As for the Freewill Shakespeare Festival itself, it’s not planning on changing any time soon—despite the recent debate about whether Alberta Education should remove Shakespeare from English classes.
“There’s a little bit of a controversy this year about ‘Oh should schools continue to have Shakespeare in the curriculum?’ Well of course they will,” Copithorne says. “They will until the end of time, because why would it stop 400 years later? There are some people that find it boring and awful and they couldn’t care less, but there’s a huge population in this world who continue to be fascinated by it. And they still keep coming.”
Tue., June 20 – Sun., July 16
Freewill Shakespeare Festival
$30, $50 festival pass (two shows)