By Timothy Findley. Directed by Rachel Ditor. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage on Sunday, July 14. Continues in rep until September 11
Despite its awkwardness and obviousness, Elizabeth Rex manages to provide a setting for some moving scenes and performances.
In Timothy Findley’s script, which premiered in 2000, Elizabeth I shows up in a barn where William Shakespeare and his actors are spending the night after performing Much Ado About Nothing for her. Elizabeth demands that they divert her as she waits for the morning executions of the earls of Essex and Southampton, which she has ordered. According to the script, Essex was once Elizabeth’s lover, and betrayed her when he joined Southampton in a treasonous plot.
Although Shakespeare and members of his company urge the queen to pardon the popular Essex, Elizabeth is determined to stifle her emotions—like a man, supposedly: hence the title Elizabeth Rex as opposed to Elizabeth Regina. But Ned, a syphilitic, gay actor who specializes in female roles, challenges the queen to be more of a woman. The monarch, in turn, dares Ned to be more of a man, and to face his impending death with courage.
Compared to Shakespeare’s nuanced take on gender and its ambiguities, which is on display in the Bard on the Beach production of Twelfth Night, Findley’s approach looks simplistic. But that’s just the beginning of the script’s problems.
The Shakespeare character, who introduces the evening, presents the story as a memory, but the world he conjures isn’t credible. It makes sense that Ned, who is dying, would take advantage of that freedom to challenge the queen, but it feels insanely presumptuous when Shakespeare urges Elizabeth to pardon her lover—framing it in those terms. And in real life, it would have been foolhardy for the Bard to tell the queen, as he does here, that he is basing his character Cleopatra on her.
More damagingly, Findley presents arch conventions rather than believable exchanges. At one point, Ned sets three military jackets on chairs and declares that Elizabeth, Shakespeare, and he will all tell the stories of their great loves for military men (Elizabeth for Essex, Shakespeare for Southampton, and Ned for the army captain who poxed him). And in the play’s climactic passage, Ned conducts a tidy psychodrama session in which he guides the queen through her grief. Like a team of trained therapists, actors in the company step forward to role-play, and the queen abreacts on cue.
Still, Findley clearly has deep feelings about sorrow, duty, and courage, and in this production he has two extraordinary actors to embody them. Colleen Wheeler, who plays Elizabeth, grounds the production as soon as she enters. In her deep voice, she makes sense of everything she says. And with her commanding stillness and monumental depth of feeling, she makes the queen’s anguish agonizingly concrete. Wheeler’s Elizabeth is a huge artistic achievement. As Ned, Haig Sutherland provides the perfect foil. Sutherland’s enactment of Ned’s sorrow over his dead captain is nakedly honest and deeply touching.
There are strengths elsewhere, too. In the strong ensemble, Bernard Cuffling is charming as an old actor who can’t stop reliving his glory days, and Andrew Wheeler smoulders effectively as the leading man of Shakespeare’s company. Mara Gottler provides the handsome costumes, including a stunning teal dress with an orange insert for Elizabeth’s lady in waiting.
But the most striking thing is that, despite its clumsiness, the play packs a punch—especially with the likes of Wheeler and Sutherland in the lead roles.