Ironically it is a play about Shakespeare that is a surprising respite from Shakespeare, as Bard on the Beach presents Bill Cain’s smart and surprisingly funny Equivocation.
Forgoing the iambic parameter, fairies and stories of twins that usually take up residence under the iconic red and white tents each year at Vanier Park, Cain has created a thriller that casts Shakespeare and his band of Globe Theatre actors in an intelligent “what if” story that would rival anything from the equally fertile mind of Michael Hirst.
That isn’t to say that Shakespeare’s plays don’t make an appearance; they do. Still, Cain adds so many layers to his story that it will satisfy the biggest Bard fan and open up that sometimes inaccessible world to an entirely new audience. Sure there are the in-jokes aplenty that only a true enthusiast might understand (“use twins, that always works”) and just as much humour at Shakespeare’s expense (“you’ve killed more kings than any man alive”). Still, there is enough to engage even those with a passing knowledge of his work.
A play-within-a-play, Equivocation at its surface, is the story of a play that Shagspeare (as Shakespeare is referred to here) has been ordered to write about the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt by a group of disaffected Catholics to blow up King James I and his parliament in 1605. Commissioned by Sir Robert Cecil, in a brilliantly twisted performance by Anousha Alamian on behalf of the King, the play is intended to be more propaganda than any attempt at fact.
Realizing he is left with little choice but to obey the order, Shagspeare explores ways to equivocate the difference between the official version and its many inconsistencies. Walking a fine line between treason and pleasing the Scottish King, Shagspeare eventually finds a way with the help of an unlikely ally and with what turns out to be, in another delightful twist, one of his most famous tragedies.
In one of the most powerful performances of the night, Gerry Mackay is riveting as that unlikely ally, accused Gunpowder Plot conspirator Father Henry Garnet and as Richard, one of Shagspeare’s contemporaries. Mackay moves effortlessly between his two characters, one where morality remains a virtue against the political odds, and the other an actor simply looking to get home each night and pay his mortgage.
Beyond this main story, playwright Cain adds additional layers, including a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings and the development of Shagspeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre and his relationship with his daughter, Judith (Rachel Cairns). While the father-daughter plotline is perhaps the least developed of Cain’s subplots, it does work in its attempt to humanize the Bard.
Helping to keep it crystal clear is director Michael Shamata, who manages to weave the worlds of life, theatre and the play-within-a-play with a finesse that is sometimes dazzling. In some of Equivocation’s most successful scenes, including a heart-wrenching prison scene between Shagspeare (Bob Frazer) and Thomas Wintour (Anton Lipovetsky), Cain’s worlds are blurred, pulled apart and brought back together again with seamless fluidity.
Bard on the Beach veteran Shawn Macdonald brings nuance to his multiple characters, and Lipovetsky plays double-duty as a slightly bent and cunningly funny King James.
In his notes, playwright Cain indicates that Equivocation can be done in either period or modern dress, but with a preference for the traditional; it was good to see Shamata take that advice with some wonderful Jacobean attire from designer Nancy Bryant. Interestingly, the costumes are set against Kevin McAllister’s more modern wood and metal-scaffolding set.
Perhaps equally as ironic as undertaking a play that is not among the canon of the man whose name appears on the festival’s marquee is Equivocation’s boundary-pushing length. Yet, even by Shagspeare’s standard, at nearly three hours with intermission, it is a testament to the skill on stage that sitting in a hot tent on banquet chairs was only a minor inconvenience.
Now three-for-three so far in a solid 25th season, Equivocation is a welcome addition to this year’s line-up. It may also be the catalyst to bring new fans to the Bard on the Beach tents.
Equivocation by Bill Cain. Directed by Michael Shamata. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival and Belfry Theatre co-production. Playing in repertory with Cymbeline on the Howard Family Stage through September 19. Visit https://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.