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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Martha does Meta in Taking Shakespeare

Taking Shakespeare, by John Murrell
Directed by Diana LeBlanc, designed by Michael Gianfrancesco

Martha Henry as Prof and Luke Humphrey as Murph.
Photo by V. Tony Hauser.
The story: College student Murph is not making the expectations of his mother, the Dean of Humanities of the university. She sends him to a professor that she had and liked, in hopes that she will help him discover some direction - and they connect over Prof's favourite play, Othello. But little do either realize that this forced bond is also Prof's last chance to find direction - and by play's end one of them will have a direction imposed on them that they did not expect.

Taking Shakespeare is an ok play. It is not Shakespeare, and what it has to say about Shakespeare and Othello and Othello's characters has been said before. Like any story* about a student finding his way by connecting to an inspiring teacher, this play is tender, but thankfully in this case not saccharine. It is witty - though conversely through Murph's dim-wittedness and Prof's exasperation - but not brilliant. It follows a familiar pattern in that the characters connect, form an unlikely bond, learn from each other and then, as in any good story, the inspiring teacher or mentor is forced to leave so the mentee can find his or her own way.

Therefore what makes this production really worth seeing are the performances by its two actors.
Martha Henry as Prof. Photo by V. Tony Hauser.
Prof is none other than Martha Henry, and Othello is "her play". This is a bit of meta-theatre, Ms. Henry having portrayed Othello's Desdemona to great acclaim one of the previous six Festival productions (as well as every other major female role in Shakespeare). Added to the fact she is an instructor in the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, it is no wonder then, that her lines ring with truth whether she is speaking from Taking Shakespeare or from Othello, whether the line drips with irony, bubbles with humour or aches with hurt. 

Also delightfully meta in an art-imitating-life kind of way, is the fact that Luke Humphrey, playing Murph, was Ms. Henry's student in the Conservatory. Thankfully it appears Mr. Humphrey does not share Murph's inability to grasp his work - he is a very natural actor, quite charismatic in drawing both laughs and empathy from an audience, and he and his former teacher show a respect for each other as they play shadows of themselves. Even though the role of Prof was written with Ms. Henry in mind, it must be a wonderfully surreal challenge for these actors to successfully perform this play without any hint of self-consciousness, but they do. 

Luke Humphrey as Murph. Photo by V. Tony Hauser.
Taking Shakespeare and Mary Stuart are proof for the Stratford Festival that a mandate of Shakespeare and historical drama is serving them well - both plays have been extended to meet the demand for tickets, however Taking Shakespeare ends its run on September 27th, and the Studio Theatre only has 260 seats, so get them now.


*Mona Lisa Smile, Dead Poet's Society, To Sir With Love, Good-bye Mr. Chips... insert favourite cinematic teacher-inspires student film here.

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