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ELIZABETH REX – REVIEW OF FILM BASED ON TIMOTHY FINDLEY’S PLAY

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We have been on lockdown for a year and are looking for a return to direct civilization instead of streaming. The Stratford Festival wants to bring back a semblance of civilization within the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. They are planning to construct two open air canopies, one by the Festival Theatre and another one by the Tom Patterson Theatre. They hope to mount about a dozen productions between late June and September with titles and dates to be announced. There will be restrictions of course and only time will tell how much can be achieved. But almost anything is a step in the right direction. Stay tuned as they say.

In the meantime, there are still many productions and other features that are available online. Check out their website.

One of the gems available is the film Elizabeth Rex. 

In 2000 the Festival produced Elizabeth Rex, a moving, stimulating, complex and simply marvellous play by Timothy Findley about the famous queen after whom a great era was named. The play was adapted by Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles and made into a movie in 2003. The stage production was directed by Martha Henry but the film was directed by Sweete using the same cast.

Findley has crafted a brilliant plot. The story takes place in a barn from the evening of Shrove Tuesday into the morning of Ash Wednesday in 1601. A very distressed Queen Elizabeth I has attended a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. There is a curfew after the performance and some of the actors who have not made the curfew are sequestered in a barn. The reason: the Earl of Essex, the queen’s lover and rebellious lord, will be executed in the morning and the curfew is imposed for fear of riots in the streets in support of the Earl.

The Queen, looking for diversion from her turmoil, joins the actors in the barn.

Queen Elizabeth I was a woman in a man’s world, and she had to display toughness and fortitude to survive. She was also a woman who had a love affair with Essex who led a rebellion against her and was condemned to death. Should she show compassion and let love conquer by pardoning Essex or should she show manly toughness and let him be executed? Elizabeth tells us that she killed the woman in her heart for England, yet Essex gave her life as a woman. That is a terrible quandary for anyone but far more so for the ruler of a nation facing a traitor.

The actors of the Chamberlain’s Men who are in the barn with her have similar identity problems. Some of them take the roles of women exclusively. The central character, Ned, is gay, the best actor for female roles, and dying from syphilis that he contracted from a lover.

Elizabeth and Ned strike a friendship of sorts and she asks him to teach her how to be a man and she promises to teach him how to be a woman. It is a marvellous irony, and the play is replete with such paradoxes.

Diane D’Aquila is a superb queen. She is in turn commanding, intelligent, deeply troubled and a woman who must choose between love and statehood, forgiveness and legal obligation, between being a woman and being a man. She puts on the dress worn by the sharp-tongued and independent Beatrice in Much Ado when she (Beatrice) is mourning for the death of her friend Hero. As it turns out Hero is not dead at all. The queen mourns for England, a country under siege, which is nevertheless thriving.  She quotes Beatrice’s line from Much Ado: “I cannot be a man with wishing therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” That gives one aspect of her personal divide. She wants to be both.

Brent Carver gives a bravura performance as the deeply troubled Ned. He is gay, dying of syphilis, plays only women’s roles and yet is a man. He is very much like the queen and the scenes with her are extraordinary. One of his problems is that he is not sure when he is an actor and when he is himself – if there is a demarcation line at all.

Following all the action and making notes is William Shakespeare played well by Peter Hutt. Shakespeare is writing Antony and Cleopatra, a play about a strong queen betrayed by her lover. All too close to the events in England and a play that cannot be produced without serious risks to the players.

Scott Wentworth plays the arrogant and self-assured Jack (Benedick in Much Ado) and turns in a fine performance. The cast is excellent as is the film.

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Elizabeth Rex,  a film based on Timothy Findley’s play and directed by Barbara Willis Sweete can be streamed from the Stratford Festival of Canada here: https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome