Saturday, October 10, 2009

Remembering a Stratford legend...

Here we are, on Thanksgiving weekend, and there is lots to be thankful for in this country, to be sure. In the area of the arts, we have so many gifted individuals who have given freely of their time and talents to make the country a more culturally diverse place in which to live. Sadly, this week, word came of the loss of one of those pioneers in Canadian theatre.

Douglas Campbell, the Scottish-born Canadian theatrical legend, passed away this past Tuesday in a Montreal hospital at the age of 87. Most will remember him from his many years at the Stratford Festival, which he helped to found that first summer in 1953. The brief season under the temporary tent featured Campbell in All's Well That Ends Well as well as a production of Richard III. He continued to perform off and on at the Festival until the last season I saw him, in 2001. His credits at the festival have included so many roles both on the stage and as director, it is hard to know where to begin.

As for me, I vividly remember his one-man show Blake, based on William Blake, in 1983, and his Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 1988. More recently, a splendid portrayal of Lear comes to mind on the Festival Stage, and his final peformances at Stratford I can recall, Campbell played Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV opposite Graham Abbey. His portrayal, I recall, was vintage Campbell, with that huge voice of his rumbling around the stage, as he mastered the role that almost seemed written for him. It was a fitting culmination to a career at Stratford that saw many highs and very few lows.

There is one off-stage event I also recall, from about 1984, I believe. There was a press conference at a downtown Toronto hotel overlooking the lake one spring day, to introduced the newly-formed Young Company, a group of young classically-trained actors who would cut their teeth, as it were, alongside several Stratford veterans on a production at the then-named Third Stage. In the Young Company group that year was a very young Lucy Peacock, who of course has gone on to great things at the Festival over the years. But also in attendance that day was Douglas Campbell, large as life, just a few feet away from us, and it was magical watching him interact with everyone. I couldn't help but think at the time, why would he take the time to come all the way to Toronto to show off these youngsters at his age? The answer, of course, was simple. Campbell was always a builder, a doer, from his days as the founder of the spin-off company from the Stratford Festival, the Canadian Players in 1954 to so many other projects. He relished the challenge of starting something new, and that fact was proven yet again on that spring day in the early 80s.

There will be others who will remember, as I vaguely do, his CBC television series from the mid-70s called The Great Detective. I remember watching a few episodes back then, but sadly, they are likely all lost to the CBC archives now. Let's not also forget his son, Benedict Campbell, who himself played for many seasons on the Stratford stage before moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake a few seasons back along with his wife, Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell. Benedict keeps the family tradition alive to this very day with some fine performances of his own in Niagara.

But it is the voice, of course, most of us will remember most about Douglas Campbell: that huge sound thundering out to the audience along with impeccable timing. The voice is now silenced, and Douglas is with us no more. He will, surely, be missed by many generations of theatre-goers who admired his many gifts, both on the stage and off it.

Hail and farewell, old friend!

October 10th, 2009.

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