Friday, December 30, 2011

Saying goodbye to 2011...and a couple of theatrical titans

Everyone compiles and/or reviews year-end lists at the end of December,  as we look back on the year that was and reflect on the impact those events might have later on.  I've done that and I suppose most people have as well.  But as I review the many arts-related events that have unfolded this past year, especially locally, there is no shortage of things to reflect upon.

The final designs of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and adjacent Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts would have to top this list around these parts.  The excitement builds, as does for some the anxiety of how we keep the proverbial bums in all those seats once it opens.  The folding of the St. Catharines & Area Arts Council in the spring has to be considered one of the low points in this area, as it probably could have - and should have - been avoided.  Plus, the start of Bradley Thachuk's tenure as new Music Director of the Niagara Symphony this season would have to be considered a newsworthy event in the arts as well.

There are others, of course.  Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects' first annual Busker Festival in August was an absolute hit with the public and will be a tough act to follow; and speaking of Lyndesfarne, their fall show at the Sullivan Courthouse Theatre, Willy Russell's "Educating Rita" was a very special show indeed.  Of course, we would certainly be remiss if we didn't mention the 50th Anniversary season for the acclaimed Shaw Festival, which brought in record crowds for some exceptional live theatre, highlighted by the huge hit production of Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady", never staged at Shaw before, oddly enough.

But two events I will remember for a long time involved Stratford Festival pioneers Peter Donaldson and John Neville, both of whom passed away this past year and both of whom I would like to remember here for a few moments.

Peter Donaldson was a consummate pro:  he excelled in drama, comedy and even musicals.  He was a mainstay at the Stratford Festival for many years and there is not a single performance I ever saw him give that was not exceptional in one way or another.  His dramatic acting was without equal; yet he know how to get the most of a comic turn with the best of them.  And one performance in particular a few seasons back in the Stratford 'family' show "The Scarlet Pimpernel" remains forever etched in my memory banks.  It was not his best performance, to be sure, but the aplomb he brought to the heroic character with dazzling fights and feats of daring onstage thrilled many that season, I know.  It was typical of Donaldson:  a role you might not think he was right for initially and after you see it, you can't help but imagine anyone else doing a better job with it.  Donaldson was just that good, over and over again.

Peter had been battling cancer for many years, finally succumbing to the disease in January of this year.  He was only 58 and had so many more years ahead of him as a great actor.  Sadly, lung cancer claimed him far too soon.

The second passing received surprisingly little press, I found.  The former Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, as it is now called, John Neville, passed away in November at the age of 86.  From his time at London's Old Vic in the 50s through to his memorable years when he came to Canada, first as Artistic Director of Edmonton's Citadel Theatre from 1973 to 1978, Halifax's Neptune Theatre from 1978 to 1983 and later as Artistic Director at Stratford from 1985 to 1989, Neville met many challenges head on and never flinched.  He made a lot of friends and theatrical fans along the way, too, including this reporter who unfortunately never had the honour to meet him, only know him through is exemplary work at Stratford.

When Neville came to Stratford first as an actor and ultimately as Artistic Director, he always exuded a calm demeanour and almost patrician air I found, in addition to perfect diction and a voice that was truly one of a kind.  My best memory of Neville was in the title role in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Festival Theatre.  I recall the production caused no small amount of controversy at the time, but it is one of those roles I will always remember him for.

He came to the helm of the Stratford Festival at a critical time:  in dire financial straits at the time with some pretty uninspiring theatre before he arrived, Neville turned the Festival's fortunes around in just three seasons with the savvy that comes from someone who has seen the best of times and the worst of times.  He was the first Artistic Director to stage a musical on the main stage, for example.  Now, you can't imagine going to Stratford without seeing one on the Festival Stage.  He also programmed Shakespeare's three late romances in one season; it proved to be a gamble that for the most part paid off handsomely.  I remember all three of those productions to this very day!  This past season I came across a poster for the final season during Neville's time as Artistic Director and it is amazing what good memories remain to this day of so many of them from that one season alone.   John Neville made the Festival a far better place in his time there, and they have never really looked back since.

In later years, Neville starred in the title role in Terry Gilliam's epic The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, and later still he became famous for his role as "The Well-Manicured Man" on the cult series "The X Files."  But for me, his time at Stratford holds the greatest memories for me.

Neville had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time, finally succumbing in Toronto in late November.

A lot of great theatrical notes this past year, and some tragic losses, too.  Peter Donaldson and John Neville remain for me, two of the most tragic as 2011 draws to a close.

Happy New Year!

December 30th, 2011

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