Time for a new Shakespeare
Festival in Montreal
People young and old could give us their take on the words that have changed the world and inspired many
By Irwin Rapoport
March 17, 2022
Every summer, Montrealers enjoy performances of a William Shakespeare play via Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park in many parks throughout the city. These plays are greatly appreciated by the public who can watch solid performances of The Bard‘s works in lovely outdoor settings, often under the stars.
I, and others, look forward to this summer’s performances. I usually attend a play at Westmount Park. It is very easy to cycle there and meet up with friends. Sometimes we gather beforehand for a picnic and catch up, which is always pleasant.
I believe it is time to start a new Shakespeare tradition in Montreal, which can take place in the spring, summer and fall via outdoor stages, and during the winter in theatres, community centres or church and synagogue halls. I was fortunate, many years ago, to watch a performance of Sir Ian McKellan’s Acting Shakespeare on Broadway, where he recited several “Shakespearean monologues interspersed with theatrical anecdotes.” The audience not only heard a brilliant actor recite the words of Shakespeare, but were provided with a well-thought analysis of the plays and characters.
For instance, before becoming the heroic, courageous, and extremely intelligent King Henry V, he was Prince Hal, a rebellious teenager who hung out with Sir John Falstaff and others, getting into trouble and wreaking havoc. Henry IV was not amused by his son’s activities and those of his friends, but this was his eldest son and heir and he had to put up with his antics, hoping that Hal would mature and become the great king that he eventually became. Had Henry V not died prematurely, who knows to what extent he would have solidified England’s hold on France.
McKellan’s one-man play gave me a greater appreciation of Shakespeare and the power of his words and insights. Move forward to either 2016 or 2017 when I attended a cèilidh on a frozen winter night (it was around -40 C) with my cousin Rhonda at the Kensington Presbyterian Church in NDG. The music was great and people were invited to come up on stage and sing a song or tell a few jokes. I went up and recited the opening soliloquy of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent…” I was not very good, but the words were timely as we were experiencing a frozen hell and a few beers provided me with some Dutch courage.
Since then, I have become a much better and more effective public speaker and I no longer rely on written speeches. I still have much to learn, but I have secured the basics and know how to read a crowd. Marcus Tullius Cicero, through his speeches and dialogues on oratory, has taught me a great deal about how to become an effective public speaker. My attempt to recite Shakespeare that evening gave me the idea for the new Shakespeare festival I am suggesting in this article.
So here is the idea. How about a festival based on a stage with some lighting where an individual, or two or three people, can take the stage and recite some Shakespearean verse. It could be a soliloquy, a segment of a scene or a sonnet. The lines could be memorized or read aloud via handheld scripts. What is important is that people perform and make the attempt. The performances could be awesome, decent, mediocre or disastrous, but what is important is that an attempt is made and I have no doubt that audiences would be very understanding and appreciative of each effort.
For some people, public speaking and acting are fairly easy but for others, it is very difficult and nerve-wracking. I still recall how nervous I was reciting a soliloquy from Macbeth in a high school English class. We all performed and the exercise not only gave life to Shakespeare’s words but introduced each of us to public speaking and helped with our ability to remember lines. Our teacher knew what he was doing and his mission was many-fold: instil a lifelong passion for reading and literature, teach Shakespeare in a way that piqued our curiosity and did not scare us away, and have us appreciate the power and importance of the written word.
The key point is that my proposal can easily give people an opportunity to perform, learn more about Shakespeare, and participate in public festivals and attend them.
Should this proposal for a new Shakespeare festival become a reality, we could have people, young and old, perform and give us their take on the words that have literally changed the world and have inspired many, whether they have become actors, teachers, university professors, academics, writers and playwrights, philosophers or just better people.
Shakespeare explored many universal themes, covering just about every experience and feeling that humans can feel and be affected by. He was a genius. The late Professor Harold Bloom, whom we lost in 2019, thought the world of Shakespeare and expressed his amazement via several books, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Here is a video on YouTube of Bloom discussing Shakespeare on Charlie Rose:
I envision a typical show being about 2.5 hours, with up to 20 performances. Some people may prepare in advance and others may just want to give it a try, being inspired by those on stage. The key point is that my proposal can easily give people an opportunity to perform, learn more about Shakespeare, and participate in public festivals and attend them. In spring, summer and fall, such performances can be held in local parks. In winter, at various venues, and as noted, all that is required is a stage, lighting, and microphones.
If this proposal is the success I envision, it could easily be expanded to cover poetry readings of original and published poems, performances of scenes from other playwrights, readings from novels, and scenes from plays that individuals have written. The sky is the limit on what we could do if this proposal reaches its full potential.
When I visited London in 1987, I checked out Hyde Park and saw some people speak at Speakers’ Corner. I was tempted to take the rostrum, but my nerves got the better of me and I just watched as several accomplished orators addressed the issues of the day. It was incredible to see a century’s old tradition continue to be played out. London without a Speakers’ Corner would not be London.
‘… should we secure a fair-sized volunteer base bringing together academics, municipal officials, school boards, people with theatre experience, and those interested in promoting the arts, we would have all the ingredients necessary to succeed and add a new layer to Montreal’s cultural scene.’
It would be brilliant if municipalities such as Westmount, Hampstead, Montreal West, Pointe-Claire, Kirkland, Dorval, Montreal, and Hudson could experiment with having a monthly Speakers’ Corner at a park. I believe that many people would love the idea and attend either as speakers or simply to hear what was being said.
Homer’s Iliad was meant to be heard and until it was put down on parchment, the poem was passed on to each new generation by sheer memory. That it survived for so long without a written backup is a miracle in itself. It’s hard to imagine a world without The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I believe we can create a new Shakespeare festival and should we secure a fair-sized volunteer base bringing together academics, municipal officials, school boards, people with theatre experience, and those interested in promoting the arts, we would have all the ingredients necessary to succeed and add a new layer to Montreal’s cultural scene.
I say “let’s do it.” Who is on board?
You may reach me at 514 489-7064 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature image: Shakespeare’s Plays, John Gilbert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Read also: other articles by Irwin Rapoport
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist.