Shakespeare in Smithers

🕔Jan 31, 2011

“Wives may be merry, and yet honest too,” chortles Mrs. Page to Mrs. Ford as the two women disguise their unwelcome gentleman caller in women’s clothing. Unfortunately for the hapless Sir John Falstaff, the costume which was meant to help him sneak out past the suspicious Mr. Ford has disguised him as the even more unwelcome Aunt of Brainford, and Mr. Ford chases him from the house in a rage.

So concludes Act IV, Scene ii of William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor that students in Smithers Secondary’s theatre program will perform at the end of March.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Merry Wives is no less uproarious than its better-known counterparts. Like those, its plot involves innocent maidens, jealous husbands, cunning disguises and practical jokes. Yet The Merry Wives stands apart from other Shakespeare plays in its attention to the rich details of village life in Elizabethan England. As Technical Director Hans Saefkow explains, “It was seen as a sort of sitcom of the times. There’s a basic storyline that everyone can appreciate, but it’s very rich in puns and referential to current events and public figures.”

Legend has it that The Merry Wives was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth who, according to Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 account, “was so well pleas’d with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to show him in Love.” And so The Merry Wives brings us the jovial old London knight, Falstaff, perhaps love-struck but certainly conniving as he sets about trying to woo a pair of wealthy and vivacious wives.

“He’s egotistical, jolly and full of vices,” says Kristan Saefkow, who plays Falstaff. “He arrives in Windsor and, since he has no money, decides to trick others out of theirs. But he has no idea how to do it.”

The short and the long of it
Though Shakespeare presents some of theatre’s most challenging terrain, students at Smithers Secondary have shown no qualms about tackling his plays. For the past eight years the school’s annual production has alternated between Shakespeare and musical productions, and the trend looks set to continue. The Merry Wives is the school’s fourth Shakespeare performance, following Romeo and Juliet, Scotch on the Rocks (a comedic 1952 take on Macbeth by Alfred Shaughnessy and John Eldridge) and The Taming of the Shrew.

With some 34 remaining Shakespeare plays there’s no need to worry about running out of material anytime soon. Future plays could also include any of the countless Shakespeare spin-offs that playwrights have produced over the years (Scotch on the Rocks and Tom Stoppard’s well-known Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are prime examples). Yet despite the popularity of these Shakespeare-inspired plays with audiences and actors alike (Errol Durbach’s play Falstaff, for instance, inspired students to select The Merry Wives of Windsor), Smithers Secondary students are clearly more enthusiastic about the real thing.

“The kids really enjoy straight-up Shakespeare,” says Heather Lytle, drama teacher at Smithers Secondary, emphasizing the role that students play in selecting the piece for the annual production. “They really want to do plays that are meaningful to them.”

This commitment to the Bard is a gift to northern audiences who have few local opportunities to see live Shakespeare performances.

“There’s not a lot of Shakespeare being performed because actors need to reach a certain level before they understand it,” she says. “They need to get to a point where they realize how powerful theatre is before they’ll get excited about Shakespeare. We’re really lucky to be at that point.”

That students at Smithers Secondary ‘get’ Shakespeare is no accident. Several field trips over the past several years to Bard on the Beach, an annual summer Festival in Vancouver, and the Good Will Shakespeare Festival in Summerland have had a profound influence on students’ appreciation of the Bard. During the festivals, students receive intensive professional instruction in acting, vocals, costume and set design. These opportunities to attend live performances have introduced students to the power apparent in Shakespeare’s words when his works are performed rather than read.

“Seeing live Shakespeare has made a huge difference,” says Heather. “There’s an ‘Aha!’ moment when students suddenly understand the language. Then they start speaking like that.”

Once students understand the latent emotions on the page, the plays and their characters become compelling. According to Hans, it’s natural for young people to become fascinated with Shakespearean characters.

“When I was a kid, you got to the Shakespeare section of English class and it was the most boring part,” he says, adding that it doesn’t make sense that impassioned plays by the world’s pre-eminent dramatist should be viewed as dry and obscure.

“If anyone is as passionate as Shakespearean characters, it’s teenagers. They totally understand the emotions. Yet for so many years we’ve made these characters inaccessible to them.”

All the world’s mine oyster
“Boring” and “Shakespeare” are two words that don’t often occur in the same sentence at Smithers Secondary these days. With opening night fast approaching, students, instructors and parents are hard at work polishing costumes, sets and performances. During the three months leading up to the performance, students can expect daily rehearsals—many of which stretch into the night or require students to come to the school on weekends.

Heather and Hans guide this rigorous rehearsal schedule, but don’t impose it. Instead, they say, it’s not uncommon to walk into the theatre at lunch or after school only to interrupt an impromptu rehearsal that students have organized themselves. “The program has a life of its own,” says Heather. “The kids are really invested in it.”

“All of us in the play are really dedicated to the theatre program,” says Kristan. “It’s a great group of people, and the cohesion in the group is really strong. You need that for a good play.”

Long hours of rehearsals are only part of the students’ time commitment that begins with researching the play, its historical and cultural context and their characters. With so much information on Shakespeare available on the Internet, Heather explains, students often spend hours delving into the finer details of plays and characters.

“It’s so much easier to find information these days,” she explains. “the resources are almost limitless. It’s much more alive and accessible than it used to be, and the kids do their own research.”

The research also involves exploring human psychology, emotions and behaviour, since the very passion and complexity that make Shakespearean characters so compelling also make them tough roles to interpret. Key roles demand a high level of emotional maturity and a willingness to plumb the depths of intense joy, heartbreak, anguish and camaraderie that characterize the human condition.

“It’s an emotional and psychological investment, not just a pastime,” says Heather. “It’s a huge journey for these kids, but their commitment is certainly there.”

Hans agrees, and explains how the power of theatre lies in its ability to bring people into the same room with challenging and stimulating situations and emotions.

“Live theatre has a profound effect on people,” he says, “when you take universal themes—love, jealousy, anger—and present them in a live context, people are blown away. That’s why theatre exists.”

The Merry Wives of Windsor opens at the Della Herman Theatre in Smithers on Thursday, March 31 and runs until Saturday, April 2. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at Mountain Eagle Books and Interior Stationery in Smithers.