When reached in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, Chris Abraham isn’t in a mood to give away details about his company’s adaptation of a William Shakespeare play at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“We don’t actually announce the cast of the show until the night of the performance,” Abraham tells the Straight.
However, the artistic and general director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre is happy to explain why he commissioned Indigenous playwright, musician, and satirist Cliff Cardinal to develop his interpretation of As You Like It, which will be performed at the York Theatre.
In the past, Cardinal wrote and performed the critically acclaimed and searing one-man play Huff, about youths who abuse solvents. According to Abraham, Cardinal is a cultural critic and “an examiner of the habits and rituals that we have of theatregoing”.
“Cliff’s gift as a writer—and you’ll certainly see this in his adaptation—is really to step right into the middle of controversy,” Abraham says, “and to write incredibly personally and candidly about the world in which he’s living in.”
In As You Like It, Shakespeare’s character Rosalind and her cousin venture into the forest of Arden to find her true love, Orlando. Abraham, an old hand at directing Shakespeare plays, says that he’s never seen anyone adapt a Shakespeare play as confidently and brazenly as Cardinal has.
According to Abraham, this play offered Cardinal an opening to look at “the tradition of the wise fool”, as well as the relationship that people have to society versus nature.
“I think where there are some similarities between Cliff and Shakespeare is that Cliff is a subversive writer,” Abraham notes. “He is what he seems to be saying on the surface…but he’s often saying something hidden underneath it.”
Nowadays, Shakespeare is coming under criticism in some academic circles for his portrayal of women and minorities in his plays, which were written in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Just last year, for example, Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival commissioned a film, Done/Undone, which shone a light on this scholarship.
So why would Crow’s Theatre commission Cardinal to offer his interpretation of a Shakespeare play at this time?
“I would say Cliff Cardinal’s radical retelling of As You Like It is a really provocative answer to that question,” Abraham says.
Again, Abraham offers no details. “You have to come to see the show to find out.”
Abraham addresses Shakespeare's enduring appeal
Abraham was a Shakespeare consultant on the futuristic HBO miniseries Station Eleven, in which a travelling group of actors and musicians perform the bard's plays 20 years after a flu pandemic caused civilizational collapse.
"It struck a lot of people as a quite powerful argument for the enduring relevance of Shakespeare," Abraham says.
He describes Shakespeare as "an incredibly perceptive portrait artist of the human condition", not withstanding contemporary criticism levelled at him in some quarters.
Abraham cites some of the ideas that animate his plays—such as love transforms reality in the case of Midsummer Night’s Dream and love is more powerful than doubt or hate in the case of Othello—as speaking to "powerful redemptive universal forces in a way that I think is kind of unmatched".
"And so I think if we look past some of the sociopolitical or time-based, let’s say, excesses or violences that he enacts in his plays, of which there are many—and I totally get it—there are these incredibly potent arguments for the best of who we are that I think are part of the reason why we’re attracted to Shakespeare."