One of the aspects of attending the Stratford Festival I enjoy most is the opportunity to see new, or at least unfamiliar, plays. It’s great to see classics and well established modern plays but the chance to see something new, done well, is not to be missed. For this year’s visit that was John Murrell’s Taking Shakespeare.
American-born Canadian playwright John Murrell has written a dozen plays and translated or adapted a dozen more. I confess I was unfamiliar with his work but he is impossible to miss for theater-goers in Ontario this year. Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto will mount a production of his 1982 play Farther West in October. The Shaw Festival’s playbill this summer includes the world premier of his play, Peace In Our Time, an adaptation of G.B.Shaw’s Geneva. And the Stratford Festival is producing his play Taking Shakespeare.
Taking Shakespeare is the story of two people. Murph, a 24-year-old university student, the son of the school’s Dean of Humanities, is struggling in his introductory Shakespeare class. Dean Mom arranges for him to be tutored by an aging Professor who has a passion for Shakespeare and, it appears, time on her hands. Prof, the professor, struggles to help Murph while confronting some transitions of her own. Murph is ably portrayed by Luke Humphrey in his third season at the festival. Prof is played by Martha Henry who, in her 39th season, continues to be a force of nature on stage.
“The teacher who changed my life” is not exactly un-tilled ground in drama. Think Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Corn Is Green, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Sir With Love, Dead Poets Society; the list goes on. The fact that the field has seen the plow before, however, does not mean it isn’t still fertile ground. I think this play proves that. I choose my words carefully here. I think it does. I am honestly not sure.
These two are interesting characters that I’d like to know better; always a good place to start in a drama. I feel there are opportunities for insight into the character of Murph. The opportunities for insight into Prof are more subtle; possibly too subtle for me.
The play is not yet available in print. I wish I could read it. I think, were I to read it, I might have an ‘a-ha’ moment that I missed in the theater. In that case I think I’d like this play very much. Absent that, I’m afraid I didn’t understand Prof well enough to see this as new. I find that I continue to think about it, however. That’s usually a good sign.