Tourists will flock to Stratford by the tens of thousands this summer to see Macbeth, or Midsummer Night’s Dream, or West Side Story (purists disapprove, but there’s one big musical every year), or The Importance of Being Earnest, which Lucy and I will see on Tuesday. Stratford is home to the continent’s biggest Shakespeare Festival for which I’m profoundly grateful, because it means that Shakespeare, for me, has never been dead words upon the page but always performance—good, bad or indifferent, but always live. And yet, there’s something profoundly odd about the Festival’s presence here, and about the way town and gown (or better, town and doublet?) co-exist.
Consider this: Stratford is also home to the Ontario Pork Congress, which meets here in October. Back in the old days, when I lived in town, the OPC was held at the fairgrounds, simultaneously with a good old-fashioned traveling fair with a ferris wheel and the terrifying Zipper and barkers selling coke bottles that had been heated and stretched to outrageous lengths and filled with coloured liquid. Nowadays there’s a spiffy new agriplex on the edge of town, with a convention hall and two ice-skating rinks (it is Canada, after all, and we take our hockey far more seriously than our Shakespeare). I’m not sure whether they still have a beauty pageant and elect an Ontario Pork Princess during the Congress, but I really hope they do.
In case you’re wondering, Ontario pork is spectacularly good. I’ve never eaten anything comparable in France, the U.S. or Australia. In fact, I’m doing a pork-roast with prunes for dinner tomorrow night.
So what is a Shakespeare Festival doing in the middle of pig country anyway? Such incongruities don’t happen naturally; in fact, I have a theory that when you find a situation as peculiar as this, you’ll almost always find one man’s obsession behind it, and that turns out to be the case here. The town was named Stratford in the mid-nineteenth century; homesick Brits even named the river that runs through it the Avon (although we pronounce that initial a long, “Aaah-von” , not with the short a as they do in England). But that was it for the Shakespearean connection until the 1940s. Stratford was having trouble recovering from the depression in more ways than one: it had been a railway hub, and railways were losing ground to highways. It had also had a brief flirtation with Russian-style Socialism; there were strikes by girls who worked in the egg-candling factory and young men who made furniture, and the town was called Red Town for a while which left it with a bit of a local reputation. What could be more obvious than theatre as a solution to such problems?
Somehow, it was obvious to a man named Tom Patterson, a little round man who was a local journalist with a passion for Shakespeare. I have never understood how, but he managed to convince Kenneth Tynan to come to this little agricultural town in the middle of nowhere, also known as Southern Ontario, to direct a production of Richard III starring Alec Guiness. In a tent.
More than fifty years later, there are four stages of varying sizes and varying shapes, and it’s no longer just Shakespeare. Brian Dennehey did Krapp’s Last Tape last year, and the year before that there was a production of Walcott’s Omeros. The Bard remains the big draw however, and big names come to act here (Maggie Smith, Christopher Plummer, even Peter Ustinov, years ago, in a production of Lear that stands out in my memory for all the wrong reasons). The outskirts of town are like those of any town of the same size; there’s a MacDonalds and a K-Mart and some light industry (Samsonite, FAG… they make ball bearings—really!) and comfortable but bland subdivisions. The city centre, in contrast, has spiffed up all its Victorian buildings and boasts an unreasonable number of fancy restaurants, bookstores and cafés, the lake is beautifully landscaped, there’s a public garden planted with herbs mentioned in the plays: “Here’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”
And (did I mention this?) there is always a faint smell of pig on the air, not just because pig farms are all around, but because the long-haul transporters will insist on driving their eighteen wheelers full of swine right through town rather than taking the long way round, as all the signs beg them to do. If you think about it, though, old Will himself was a country boy, and from pig country, in fact. So I doubt he’d mind too much.