— Colleen Wheeler (Queen Elizabeth). Photo by David Cooper
Like Robertson Davies, another great Canadian novelist, Timothy Findley was an actor and a man of the theatre before he ever wrote fiction. A member of the Stratford Festival’s very first acting company in 1953, Findley wrote nine plays along with his well-known novels, two of which (The Wars and Not Wanted on the Voyage) have also been adapted for the stage.
His metatheatrical Elizabeth Rex premiered at Stratford in 2001, won a Governor General’s Award, and is usually considered his best play. I’m not convinced. I prefer his earlier Can You See Me Yet? (1977). And neither production of Elizabeth Rex that I’ve seen has made me a convert, though this one had me until the second act.
Rachel Ditor’s intelligent staging boasts a sure-thing Jessie-worthy performance from magnificent Colleen Wheeler, heroic work from Haig Sutherland, whose back problems had him hospitalized the day of opening, very good supporting acting, and terrific costumes from Mara Gottler. Findley explores the idea of gender-as-performance in clever ways. But emotionally, the play never delivers, substituting histrionic set pieces for what ought to be a powerful cathartic conclusion.
Findley, who died a year after the play’s premiere, clearly had death on his mind. His Will Shakespeare narrates from the grave, telling us “the only truth I know: we play so many roles before we die, and then … we die.” The shadow of death hangs over Elizabeth Rex from two different directions.
Findley’s Shakespeare (David Marr) takes us back to a night in 1601 when his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed Much Ado About Nothing at Queen Elizabeth’s country palace. Elizabeth (Wheeler) visits the company after the show and spends the night with them as she awaits with dread the execution of her lover, the Earl of Essex, the next morning. Essex has been convicted of treason along with the Earl of Southampton, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s patron and possibly the object of Shakespeare’s love sonnets.
The other imminent death is that of Ned Lowenscroft (Sutherland), the company’s lead female actor who has just played Beatrice in Much Ado. Ned is dying of “the pox” (syphilis, but it might as well be AIDS) that he contracted from a tryst with a captain in Elizabeth’s army. With nothing to lose he speaks truths to the imperious Elizabeth.
The first act introduces us to Shakespeare’s company, including nostalgic old comedian Percy Gower (charming Bernard Cuffling), who can still fart on cue; lothario leading man Jack Edmund (Andrew Wheeler); boy actor Harry Pearle (Anton Lipovetsky), who cares for Ned; and near-sighted company seamstress Kate Tardwell (adorable Lois Anderson). There’s also a wonderful tame bear (Benjamin Elliott) that Ned has saved from the pit, although the Elizabethans would not likely have used a giant brown bear or grizzly, as this appears to be, in their bear-baiting.
Elizabeth enters in a sensational gown and whiteface makeup, penciled eyebrows halfway up her forehead, and Marge Simpsonesque hair piled a foot high. The details might suggest a grotesque, but embodied in Colleen Wheeler—who towers over most of the men on stage, including obsequious courtier Robert Cecil (David Mackay), whom she calls “pygmy”—this Elizabeth is the definition of regal. She’s one tough monarch, although her heart is breaking. “Damn all men!” she thunders. She spars with Shakespeare, who is modeling his Antony and Cleopatra on Essex and Elizabeth, and with Edmund, an Irishman hostile to her on political grounds. But these are just warm-ups for the battle royale between her and Ned.
Elizabeth anguishes that Essex is being executed on her orders, and she can stop it, but she won’t: “I killed the woman in my heart that England might survive.” Ned baits her; as a man who acts women, he says he makes a better woman than the manly queen. Elizabeth, in return, baits gay Ned for lacking manliness. “If you will teach me how to be a woman,” she challenges him, “I will teach you how to be a man.” This sets us up for what turns out to be a disappointing second act.
Ned and Elizabeth go at each other like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but without the stakes or depth of a warring couple who have lived together for a lifetime. Ned demonstrates to Elizabeth how to be a woman grieving for her lover by performing Cleopatra’s speech over the dead Antony, but it’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s immensely superior scene where the Player performs a grieving Hecuba before Hamlet.
Soon the stage clears for now symbolically naked Elizabeth, wigless and bald (Wheeler has shaved her gorgeous thick red curls for these few moments), to express her grief. And Wheeler gives it her substantial all. When the bell tolls for Essex’s death, she sends out a primal scream that freezes your heart. But it felt to me that she was acting in a vacuum in these scenes. Findley has set up a Capital C Climax that has little genuine emotional connection to the relationships on stage.
See this show for the great acting, for its take on a moment in English history and its entertaining introduction to Shakespeare’s acting company. Just don’t expect A-list Shakespearean playwriting.