A bit of perspective on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

by Lynn on March 13, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

It was announced Saturday, March 10, that the new Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is Antoni Cimolino, who will take over when Des McAnuff leaves at the end of the 2012 season.

The media has been abuzz with gush about McAnuff’s contributions to Stratford and the ‘arts’. One scribbler even called his work ‘legendary’. Even the Globe and Mail’s Michael Posner—a respected otherwise thoughtful arts journalist—seems dazzled by the flamboyance of McAnuff’s “illustrious international career.” There is no doubt, writes Posner that McAnuff’s productions “…raised the Festival’s game and restored an international luster that had been lost under his predecessor, the late Richard Monette.”¹

I beg to differ. Sorry, neither assertion bears up under scrutiny.

Des McAnuff is a noted director in the United States, whose claim to fame is limited mainly to big, glitzy, musicals—Jesus Christ Superstar, Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy. But almost every time he tries to direct anything more substantial than superficial, he fails. His last two shows on Broadway—The Farnsworth Invention and Guys and Dolls–were flops.

His production of the opera Faust (first at the English National Opera in London and then the Metropolitan Opera in New York) was praised for the singers but criticism for McAnuff’s direction and concept. Ditto for his musical of Zhivago in Australia.

His Stratford forays into Shakespeare are a mess: overinflated concepts at the price of substance, badly staged, ill- conceived. There was no shortage of glittering effects, but the intellectual rigour that has characterized the Festival since its founding was absent. His recent Stratford production of Twelfth Night diminished the play to a rollicking Broadway type musical, ignoring all the complexity, angst, sadness and depth.

His productions haven’t raised the festival’s game and restored an international luster. Quite the opposite. If anything, his lack of depth as a director and his unimaginative programming and care-less attitude towards the place as an Artistic Director, have made Stratford irrelevant internationally. What does it say about a place that can afford to have an absentee Artistic Director? As I have said often, you can’t do Artistic Direction by Blackberry.

The late Richard Monette may not have had an “illustrious international career” but he did manage to have 14 seasons in the black. In his first season as part of a triumvirate McAnuff had a deficit of $2.5 million. In his second season on his own, the box office limped ahead by a none-too-shattering 3%. Doing theatre that makes a profit is tough no matter the economy. Monette had 14 seasons of profit. That’s an accomplishment McAnuff doesn’t come close to.

Monette also managed to steer classical productions from Stratford to New York, twice. In 1998 he took The Miser and Much Ado About Nothing to City Centre in New York. In 2004 Monette sent King Lear (with Christopher Plummer) to Lincoln Center Theater on Broadway.

McAnuff hasn’t managed to bring any of the classical work to his natural home—Broadway. The best he could do is to take his production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical that is a triumph of hype over substance to Broadway. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival sends a musical to Broadway. Something is wrong with this picture.

Richard Monette may not have had an illustrious international career, yet he managed to get the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a seat at the table when England’s Royal Shakespeare Company hosted the last International Shakespeare Festival. Monette. The Stratford Festival was invited; Monette had a project ready to go; Antoni Cimolino (then Managing Director) had the funding in place, but the project fell through.

What about this year? Another International Shakespeare Festival is planned in England from April to November, to coincide with Olympic celebrations. Companies from all over the world have been invited to present the whole Shakespeare canon, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Companies will be coming from Japan, Russia, the United States, India, Israel, to name a few.. The newest country in the world—South Sudan—is sending a company. And our own Stratford Shakespeare Company is no where to be seen. McAnuff doesn’t seem to know about the festival or care. (But then again, if asked, what could they take? That superficial, witless production of Twelfth Night?). Antoni Cimolino does care and when I told him about the festival he was upset and disappointed. But he didn’t know about it. How can you expect to raise Stratford’s international profile if you don’t even know who the players are or when such a significant festival is taking place?

With Antoni Cimolino as Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival they have a man whose commitment to that theatre and its company is not lip-service. The man has devoted half his life to the place working in all areas. He knows the Canadian talent available.

Cimolino’s biggest challenge will not be filling the slippers of Des McAnuff. It will be to work to repair the damage done during McAnuff’s tenure. He will have to work to return the Festival to its reputation as a solid, respected classical theatre company. He will have to work to lift the morale of a dispirited acting company. To that end it would behoove him to show respect to his senior actors and finding plays worthy of their stature. (The fact that McAnuff didn’t program any play worthy of Martha Henry’s talent in the 60th anniversary season, is a disgrace.) Cimolino will have to work to raise the Festival’s international profile by learning who the true international theatre players are and forging relationships with them. He will have to work to show his commitment to the businesses of the town of Stratford because under McAnuff’s regime business has been hurting. After all the Festival was created in 1952 because the town was dying economically and it was hoped that the Festival would bring in tourists which it did. Cimolino will have to work very hard at fence mending, to win back the gifted artists whose solid work gave Stratford its pedigree.

Good luck to him in his new job. He will need it.

¹ 2 February 2012 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/theatre/antoni-cimolino-has-inside-track-at-stratford-insiders-say/article2323087/

Leave a Comment

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Des McAnuff March 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Lynn, to borrow from John Neville, as long as you’re around I can never be called my own worst enemy. But no hard feelings: after all, by begging to differ from your more laudatory colleagues, you draw all the more attention to their remarkable unanimity – rather like the one dancer in the chorus line who insists that everyone is out of step but her. Besides, your dissenting opinion restores my faith (badly eroded by all those consistently positive endorsements of my tenure so far) in the natural antipathy of artists and critics. Thank you for reassuring me that lions are not about to start lying down with lambs any time soon.
Des McAnuff


2 Lynn Slotkin March 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm

“Mr. McAnuff: fear not, I will always be number two on your own worst enemy list. I loved your analogy of the one dancer in the chorus line who insists that every one is out of step but her. Why on earth would she be there at all–did you hire her? I know it’s hard for you to believe that among all that praise of my more laudatory colleagues I appear to be the one dissenting voice. I prefer to put another perspective on the situation. The one about that vain, arrogant Emperor and his new suit of clothes in which his supplicants were afraid to comment until one little kid said ‘the emperor has no clothes on.’

No body remembers the fawning supplicants. They do remember that kid.

All good wishes.

Lynn Slotkin


3 Kent James March 15, 2012 at 4:03 am

Ms. Slotkin:

They remember the kid who told the emperor he had no clothes because he told a simple truth simply, and above all without anger.

If the kid had been an angry, self-indulgent bore, the crowd and king might have ignored him and the king might still be wearing nothing.

All good wishes.



4 Ms. Chambers March 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Ms Slotkin,

Though I have disagreed with one or two of your reviews (as we all should with reviews , it is after all a game of taste) I must laud you for the ethical strength of your articles..you are consistent in your belief that all theatre is fair game and should be held to high standards (albeit that is a subjective factor too) and that as a reviewer/critic your job is a serious one that must be pursued with vigor. I believe Your recent courage and honesty in writing about Mr Ouzounian’s cross dressed role as reviewer, playwright and director and the role of The Star in allowing the conflict of interests (as well as your courageous calling out of other critics for not reviewing Mr Ouzounian’s theatre work) to go unchecked is laudable (and your points well made.) Your comments on Mr MacENOUGH here are not only refreshing, but I believe accurate and well worth sharing (as I will do.) Des MacENOUGH’s treatment of artists at Stratford, from so many accounts, has been rife with problems. The actors who work in his shows (particularly his Shakespeare productions) are consistently unhappy and stifled by his approach to the text and his over directing of flashy and empty concept. He talks the Langham talk but walks the ministry of silly walks. I live in Stratford, but do not work in the theatre, and his mismanagement of his schedule last season truly p’dd off local merchants from a business POV. When he was appointed some years ago, a friend in California sent me an interesting newspaper article that was very similar to yours in an analysis of his work at La Jolla Playhouse, including the deficits. This article was never quoted once by critics here during his tenure. Why? I too hope the hard working and passionate Mr. Cimillino can undo the many issues that I believe will be hung over from his predecessor’s term..not the least of which is a frayed flashy front to an edifice that has leaky plumbing and cracking floors within.


5 Lynn March 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Ms Chambers,

Thanks for taking the time to write and express your thoughts. Yes I’ve heard of those problems in the rehearsal hall. But of course couldn’t comment. The facts are damning enough. No women over 58 years old in the company. Women in the Birmingham Conservatory are hired to understudy in the season but the men get roles. Some good actors hired for the company–Tom Rooney, Ben Carlson, Deb Hay, Mike Shara. But too many good actors/actresses not offered good roles to strengthen the company. Not offering Martha Henry anything in this 60th anniversary season is, as I said, a disgrace. Lucy Peacock is offered little better than walk-on roles. A mess. I do hope it gets better under Cimolino. I agree with your comments about him–hard working, committed. But he has to look at the wider world and see what the opportunities are. And Flashy-Broadway is not the route. Unless it’s with Lincoln Center Theater or Roundabout. Interesting times. Yes it is good to agree, and disagree. Thanks again.

All good wishes,

Lynn Slotkin


6 Jennifer Neil June 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Although I was never an annual visitor to the Festival, I eagerly looked forward to the brochure every year, to see what plays I could convince my husband we HAD to see (sometimes I won, sometimes I lost). In the past three years, I have been uninspired to fight for the chance to make the trip from Kincardine to catch ANY of the productions. Disappointed, I have instead focused my play-going on the Fringe Festival circuit. While the Fringe is an excellent opportunity to see a wide range of plays, I have to admit there are few meaty, time- and labour-intensive shows. I have missed going to Stratford, but not enough to sit through yet another rendition of 42nd Street or a mucked-up version of The Tempest. I hope Mr. Cimolino will select plays with care (and not pander to the obvious).


7 Mr. Munds June 20, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Hello Lynn,

Thank you for a brilliant article. I and my company totally agree. McAnuff’s tenure with Stratford has been a terrible blight on the premiere classical theatre company in Canada. I recall seeing his As You Like It a few seasons ago and all I can recall is the terrifying opening of the show. The setting of this comedy in a Nazi like setting. Folks then wondered why, when the story reached the Forest of Arden, the audience was cool. Well obviously it is because he terrified them in the first few moments, In fact some 40% left after the first act. He made a brutally uninformed choice and took away from the text. Shakespeare needs little accentuation just knowledge of the text, which McAnuff seems not to possess. He is disrespectful to his artists, disrespectful to his patrons and most importantly disrespectful to his source material. The fact is in canada that common critic doesn’t know there ass from a whole in the ground, and as long as you pay them off with ass kissing soirees and other fine rewards for nothing you have them in the palm of your own hand. I and my friends in the art community greatly look forward to his absence.

Thanks again!

Mr. Munds


8 Kate June 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

I’m late to this game, only having been alerted to Ms. Slotkin’s blog here given the recent coverage about the revocation and subsequent restitution of her press pass from the Stratford Festival.

While I am not necessarily Des McAnuff’s biggest fan, this is a poorly written and superficially analyzed take on his tenure.

One of McAnuff’s greatest accomplishments at Stratford is to point out that theatre can be revitalized by bringing in a wide variety of directors and actors rather than having an artistic director micro-manage everything. Brian Dennehy in Krapp’s Last Tape and The Homecoming, for instance, was a brilliant move by the theatre. Not only did they sell a healthy amount of tickets and alert the American theatre-going audience that there are interesting things happening at Stratford (you fail to comment on the very real reality that American audiences have been gradually losing interest in Stratford since Monette’s tenure) but they were insightful, beautiful and smart productions. McAnuff didn’t direct them but he was nevertheless responsible for getting Dennehy and Kate Tarver here.

You appear to strongly dislike Twelfth Night–so much so that you’ve made a disproportionately large amount of references to it–but for all your touting of a classical theatre and Shakespeare canon, you seem to fail to recognize that Shakespeare was an irreverent director himself. There is a lot of subtlety and complexity in Shakespeare, of course, but Shakespeare mostly liked gender-bending, anachronisms and drunken fun at his plays. Among his peers, Shakespeare was not considered high-brow and much of Shakespeare was panned by authors in the 17th and 18th centuries, for instance. This notion that Shakespeare is somehow an intellectual mastermind is, relatively speaking, a very modern phenomenon.

All of this is to say that you’ve structured this entire criticism of McAnuff on what seems to be a clear dislike of one play in particular, a preference for Monette’s more traditional style, veteran actors and what seems to be a personal offense to Michael Posner’s reference to McAnuff’s “illustrious and international career”–a true statement, by the way, that does not preclude the fact that McAnuff has, of course, had failures as well.

McAnuff’s commercial success here is worth lauding, as well as his commitment to Canadian plays. It wasn’t a perfect tenure and it was not without some poor plays and poor judgements but this entire blog reeks of a desperation to hang onto the past. Is your biggest criticism seriously that it seems unnatural that Stratford should send a musical to Broadway? If anything, I think McAnuff has shown the Festival something it desperately lacked under Monette: there are other ways of doing things.

I think one of your comments here which address gender equality is a serious discussion worth having, but something you don’t go into much detail here. You seem to snidely assume that actors are unhappy working for Des when, in fact, most actors seem to publicly state how exciting it has been to work for Des. For every unhappy actor, there is surely a happy one — this is show business.

And finally, your insistence that McAnuff has failed because Martha Henry and Lucy Peacock don’t have plum roles every year: this is absolutely ridiculous. I have loved not having to see Cynthia Dale, for instance, in every single play since McAnuff has been here. She is talented but I hate this notion that veteran actors should automatically get starring roles every year. I take your point about Henry and Peacock but would also like to point out that versatility is important. I don’t want to see the same repertory every single year. Again, the gendered dynamic here is something that would be worth going into detail but that is perhaps the only genuinely informed piece of criticism you demonstrate here in this piece.

For the record, I quite like Cimolini. Grapes of Wrath last year was well staged and Cymbeline this year is absolutely brilliant. While there is no doubting his commitment to Shakespeare, I do sincerely hope he’ll avoid the “closed door” mentality that Monette absolutely did have (and, to be fair, there is no reason to think that he will be anything like Monette in spite of their long Stratford careers).


9 Lynn June 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm

I have noted your comments. Dialogue is always important. I just wish you had not misread, misunderstood, and misinterpreted my blog post. And your facts are faulty. To correct only two of your many errors; the impetus to bring Brian Dennehy to Stratford was not Mr. McAnuff’s doing; and the name is Jennifer Tarver, not Kate.


10 David Stein April 22, 2014 at 6:57 am

While I agree with the appraisal of McAnuff, most of this article is total bollocks. Former “intellectual rigour”, my actor’s ass!!!!

The Festival started its precipitous slide in the late 60s, with the political appointment of Montreal boulevard farceur, Jean Gascon, , master of show-and-tell, a besotted baboon, who once had his ineffably hideous head stepped on by an apprentice, while crawling about the floor of the Avon Theatre’s lounge. He was as comfortable with Shakespeare’s English as I would have been with one of his chain-smoked cigarillos up my aforementioned … .

Phillips “intellectual inconsistency” (Gina Malett) brought it back to dependency on foreign hams, like Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov. Hirsch was a nasty, nasty little man, with a mouth incalculably bigger than his talent. John Neville was more than a little dim, and WHO THE HELL WAS DAVID WILLIAMS???? What did he do but bestow stardom on the late simp, Susan Wright, Canada’s tenth-rate knockoff of the third-rate Judy Dench.

AND RICHARD MONETTE WAS A CONSUMMATE MEDIOCRITY OF A FOP!!!!!!!!! He almost destroyed the Festival, artistically. Did you SEE Gross’s Hamlet????

By the way, Ms. Slotkin, it may be trendy to avoid commas, but, omitted when they are necessary, looks as pretentious as the rest of your work.


11 David Stein April 23, 2014 at 1:20 am

…although, I see, I, in my complacent omniscience, have doubled a comma before one phrase, and omitted a question mark in another. Maybe this comes of 40 years in Toronto, EH.


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