Luke Humphrey as Murph and Martha Henry as Prof in Taking Shakespeare. Photo by V. Tony Hauser.
Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of 5)
John Murrell’s Taking Shakespeare may not be a perfect play but it is the perfect play for the Stratford Festival. It is playing to packed houses at the Studio Theatre and garnering standing ovations for Martha Henry and Luke Humphrey.
It is a play about learning and loving Shakespeare’s work. It is a play about what the Stratford Festival, which used to be called the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, wants to achieve: inculcate a love of Shakespeare in all of us. It is about what every English teacher and every English department wants (or should want) to accomplish.
Martha Henry plays the Prof of literature at an unnamed college. The professor is getting on in age, she has few students and has published very little for some ten years. She is independent, idiosyncratic and quite cranky, in fact.
Murph (Luke Humphrey) is a 24-year old who is a great disappointment to his parents. His mother happens to be the Dean of Humanities at the university and she sends him to the Prof to brush up his Shakespeare or learn something so he can get a decent mark.
Murrell has set the scene for some comedy and an opportunity for learning something about Shakespeare with an expert Shakespearean like Martha Henry. This expert is not just knowledgeable about the plays and the poetry; she can demonstrate the power and musicality of the poetry.
Murph prefers video games and does not like Shakespeare because the titles of his plays are simply too long.
Reluctantly, the Prof agrees to teach Othello to Murph. As they go through the plot, Murph starts learning something about the play and an unlikely friendship begins to develop between the disparate characters. The Prof teaches him about the poetry of the play and he begins to appreciate the complexity of the characters and the personality of his instructor.
We get some humorous exchanges between the two, reading of lines from Othello by both of them, some analysis of the play and the growth of Murph from a video game enthusiast to a lover of Shakespeare.
That journey is intended as much for the audience as it is for Murph, of course, and we are glad to be there for the ride. It is a lecture wrapped in a pleasant comedy with marvelous illustrations of the genius of Shakespeare and Othello.
Diana Leblanc directs this wonderful production with all its humour and, in the end, pathos as the lessons and the Prof’s career come to an end. Why? Lack of interest in Shakespeare!
The set designed by Michael Gianfrancesco consists of bookcases overflowing with books and old furniture. It is the apartment of a scholar who borrowed some rugs thirty-five years ago and never returned them.
Don’t be surprised if, when you go home after seeing the play, you reach for your copy of Othello and start re-reading it._______
Taking Shakespeare by John Murrell opened on July 30 and will run in repertory until September 22, 2013 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George St. Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600