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Caution: Extreme Shakespeare in Halifax

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Issue: 4 Section: Arts Geography: Canada, Atlantic Nova Scotia, Halifax Topics: performance art

July 26, 2003

Caution: Extreme Shakespeare in Halifax

by Sylvia Nickerson

Generally I am not a person who plans elaborate activities of merriment on calendar holidays. But, once and a while, an opportunity to celebrate gives me that tingling feeling and I am compelled to go out and join the party. It was that kind of crazed motivation that got me out of bed at 3:15 a.m. on July 1 to watch A Midsummer Night's Dream on the wharf of Casino Nova Scotia in Halifax.

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A sellout crowd braved the Halifax harbourfront at 4 am to see a Canada Day performance of Midsummer Night's Dream. photo: Sylvia Nickerson
How romantic, I thought, and what a great way to begin Canada Day. Other folks must have agreed, for tickets had been long sold out. A fair-sized crowd of couples, families and theatre fans of all ages gathered in the early hour clutching travel mugs full of coffee, that great stuff Canadians couldn't live without. If June had made them so giddy as to forget that Halifax is under snow six months of the year, being ocean-side at night was a brisk reminder. A place to bare skin by day, the casino's "Seawalk Stage" was covered in a blanket of cold, clammy fog. Seated in lawn chairs on the concrete, audience members huddled together under coats and wool blankets. As a backdrop to the event, the harbour lights of Dartmouth were dimly visible, and large ships loomed in the indefinite moonlight. Under the influence of this stunning scene, I felt more like I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, than Nova Scotia.

The play began well, as the actors exuded the energy befitting the first performance of a season. Their antics and melodrama were appreciated with enthusiastic smiles and laughs from the audience. Occasionally, the faint clinking of slot machines (from inside the casino) could be heard over the lines delivered on stage. The players freely adjusted their lines, as well as their costumes and props, for humorous effect.

After a wholly entertaining first act, the length and difficulty of the play began to show, as the actors increasingly needed assistance to remember their lines (it was a one time "unrehearsed" performance). Former New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough held the script and assumed the role of prompter. As the play drew to a close, the timing and energy lagged. The humour culminated in a slap-sticky ending which involved the exposure of much nubile young skin, some radical cross dressing, and men impersonating squeaky female character-types. The play A Midsummer Night's Dream is itself an absurd story of hopelessly frustrated lovers, the vehicle for much biting satire and sexual innuendo. The performance was long -- about three hours long, actually. But, at 7 a.m. on Canada-Day morning, no one had anywhere else to go anyway. The giddiness brought on by the early hour seemed to allow for this long and mischievous ending.

So why did a sold out crowd come to a casino at 4 a.m. on a cold July night to watch actors proclaim sixteenth-century English? It is truly baffling behaviour. In the spirit of recent television entertainment, I would have to qualify this particular experience as "extreme" Shakespeare. The perilous trials observed by all involved in order to organize this event constitute another testament to the enduring appeal of the bard. In the morning, at night, before dinner, in the fog: any time is a good time for Shakespeare. Even when performed ad-hoc to a sleep-deprived crowd, the wisdom, humour and irrepressible spirit of what it is to be human reliably shines through. No one can capture the ironies, foibles and superficialities of love and loss like this playwright.

Shakespeare by the Sea continues performances through July and August in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia. For more information call (902) 422-0295 or check out the web site at www.shakespearebythesea.ca.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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