The Stratford Festival’s Richard Monette tries on a halo for the "Saints and Sinners" playbill.
Historic sports arenas and majestic banks are sometimes called temples or cathedrals but Richard Monette’s church is the theatre and this year the artistic director of the Stratford Festival is exploring the nature of good and evil through a playbill he calls “Saints and Sinners.”
Stratford, North America’s largest summer repertory theatre ranked by revenues, is presenting 14 plays in an eight-month season that runs through early November. Mr. Monette, who is in his 11th year as artistic director, noted in an interview that “I don’t program by theme. But because we do great plays, universal themes emerge.”
The saints include Joan of Arc in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Miranda in The Tempest. An equally rich crowd of sinners include Angelo in Measure for Measure and King Edward II in Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, both of whom are tempted by lust. The nature of rage and murder is explored in The Brothers Karamazov and Sticks and Stones: The Donnellys, the latter work about an astonishing massacre in 1880 in rural Ontario. Greed and lies, or “the odour of mendacity” as one character puts it, run through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.
Even two comedies reflect the season’s duality, with Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, about two friends forced to confront their relationship, sharing the bill with Wingfield’s Inferno by Dan Needles, a continuation of the story of Walt Wingfield, gentleman farmer. Continuing the Hades theme, Williams’ Orpheus Descending is marked by violence and characters who have lost their moral compass.
If he could pick a favorite saint from this year’s lineup, Mr. Monette said it would be Joan, the 15th-century farm girl who led France to victory over England but was tried and executed as a heretic. Why Joan? “Her accomplishments, given her time and the fact she was a woman. She was controversial but she was great in the results of her work,” he said. Ironically, saints are sometimes at odds with the established church of their time, he noted. “Like artists, they are ahead of their time. They’re those doves that Noah sent out from the ark to find land. They are seeking new ground. Thomas Aquinas places the artist in a separate moral universe from anyone else because he is sent out to bring insight,” said Mr. Monette.
When asked for his favorite sinner from this year’s plays, Mr. Monette was slow to come up with a name. “I like sinners who give us insight into life, because evil really is base, crass and unimaginative. Of course, in the theatre, the evil people often are the most interesting – look at Richard III,” he mused.
After a moment, he mentioned Angelo, the duke’s deputy in Measure for Measure who prides himself on his saintly self-control yet falls so completely for Isabella, who is studying to become a nun, that he tries to force her to submit to him. “His frailty comes from his humanity,” said Mr. Monette.
As if leading the Stratford Festival were not enough, Mr. Monette is directing three plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Edward II and The Tempest. “I gave myself a reward. I would rather direct 10 plays than spend one hour in the office. This job is like having 25 other jobs,” he said.
The Tempest opened the season and marks William Hutt’s farewell. The veteran actor, who is 85 and playing Prospero, was part of Stratford’s first season and has played many of Shakespeare’s great roles.
Shortly before rising to return to a Tempest rehearsal, Mr. Monette noted that Prospero, also, fascinates him because his character changes. “He doesn’t start out as a saint. He starts out to (avenge). But he finds that the greater action is in forgiveness, not revenge,” he said. At the end of the play, Prospero renounces his magic powers, an action that will echo Mr. Hutt’s decision to retire and holds meaning for Mr. Monette, too, who has announced he will step down at the end of 2007, after what will be 15 years in the job.
“When William Hutt breaks his staff and releases his art, it is truly moving. Yes, I think for me, too, there is a sense of release. I hope I’ll feel like Ariel – free,” he said.