The premise to the Stratford Festival’s production of Taking Shakespeare had me worried. The “tutor teaches student to appreciate the Bard” synopsis made the play sound like an after-school special; as in “Wow, teach! William Shakespeare is super cool!”
While this may be a fundamentally accurate, if overly cynical summation of John Murrell’s play, luckily it doesn’t come off nearly as corny.
What we have in Taking Shakespeare is an attempt to bridge the gap between generations. The predominantly older audience I saw the show with was overwhelmingly smug, ready to scoff at the younger generation’s ignorance of that which they’ve had a lifetime to study. When a character admitting she has no familiarity with Facebook elicits such laughter, or when one audience member audibly cheers when a Beastie Boys song is abruptly cut short, you know you’re sitting amongst a particularly self-righteous crowd.
Murrell’s play is not nearly so snobbish, and appears to be genuinely trying to find some common ground amongst the baby boomers and the millennials. There’s a modicum of video game bashing, but more often than not Martha Henry’s teacher character, known only as Prof, uses her student’s love of the virtual world as a bridge to understanding (as all good teachers do.) Getting Murph, as played by Luke Humphrey, to explain his favourite game in detail, she then attempts to draw parallels between the themes of the game’s fictional world and that of Othello’s.
The best scenes in Taking Shakespeare are the ones where Prof and Murph dissect the play, analyzing the characters of Othello, Iago, and Emilia. Their discussions on motives, sadness, and being larger than life hold your interest in the same way an academic lecture by an engaging speaker can draw you in. Murph also calls to light issues that young people tend to notice firsthand when reading Shakespeare, such as racism.
Most of these moments occur in the second act. The first act drags somewhat in its attempt to add human drama to the subject matter. The instances where Murrell tries to mesh the bloody world of Othello with the boring private lives of Prof and Murph is when Taking Shakespeare feels most like that aforementioned after-school special. Once the mama’s boy and the curmudgeon get over being a mama’s boy and a curmudgeon, the real learning begins and the play comes into its own.
In many ways, Murph comes off as the more mature of the two during the first act. Despite his ignorance of Shakespeare, he at least seems willing, even excited, to learn more. The moody Prof, meanwhile, is either unnecessarily cold or childishly self-indulgent, heaping her crap on a poor kid who’s just trying to pull his grades up.
Those quibbles are largely text-related. Henry plays the caffeine-addicted grump for laughs, swearing like a champ and being thoroughly entertaining despite her occasional lapse into drama queendom.
Murph is likeable enough, although Humphrey’s classical training glaringly appears from time to time. He’ll often sound like a Shakespearean actor feigning to know nothing about Shakespeare, pronouncing “mother” as “MOTHA” instead of “muthr” like a typical North American slacker. The recorded vignettes between scenes, in which Murph and Prof read over the play together, seem to imply Murph’s academic problems run much deeper than simply grasping Shakespeare, and may include a lack of basic reading skills.
The set will have bibliophiles drooling. It depicts the reading room of an old home chock-full of books. Every available space is reserved for shelving, each shelf crammed with volumes and boxes, boxes which likely contain even more reading material. A luxurious lounge chair, an old desk, a coffee maker, and a few key pieces of furniture make up the rest. It's enough to make one want to steal onstage following the show to peruse the selection. Given such a nook to inhabit, one wonders how the Prof could ever find herself so unhappy.
If anything, the literary subject matter of Taking Shakespeare should pique your interest for this year’s production of Othello.