Romancing the Bard: Stratford at Fifty


304 pages
Contains Photos, Index
ISBN 1-55002-363-2
DDC 792'.09713'23





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


Theatre director, playwright, and CBC radio producer Martin Hunter
describes Romancing the Bard—one among many books commemorating the
50th anniversary of the Stratford Festival—as a personal take on the
Festival’s “development and achievements,” rather than a
“detailed chronological history.”

Supplemented with a foreword by Dan Needles, 115 black-and-white
archival photographs, and two indexes (theatrical works and proper
names), the book is divided into 21 chapters that highlight some 30
productions—from Richard III to (1953) to Twelfth Night (2001)—and
cover such topics as directing, acting, design, music, touring (a mixed
success, in the author’s view), professional training, critics (from
Nathan Cohen to Kate Taylor), and financial health. Certain themes
recur: the tension between artistry and commercial success, the periodic
“absence of star power” and continuing need for “the stimulus of
outside influence,” the inflexibility of an organization with a
$30-million budget and some 800 employees, and the shift from
“full-out programming”—a hallmark of the Robin Phillips years—to
“the ‘rinse cycle’ pattern of rotating the popular [Shakespeare]
comedies and tragedies.”

Hunter discusses at some length the artistic vision,
directorial/management style, and personalities of the Festival’s
artistic directors, from Tyrone Guthrie to Richard Monette; for a book
that’s billed as a “celebration,” his assessments are surprisingly
candid: Michael Langham (“something of a martinet”), John Hirsh
(“demonstrative, combative, declamatory, and suspicious to the point
of paranoia”), John Neville (“a committed socialist … but … also
an autocrat”). Especially illuminating is the chapter detailing the
problems (ranging from difficulties with casting and production rights
to “the shocking events of September 11”) that confronted Monette as
he planned for the 2002 season.

The book is not without flaws. In addition to the considerable
repetition across chapters, there are inconsistent spellings of proper
names (e.g., “Cimolino” [Antoni] is sometimes spelled
“Cimilino”) and periodic outbreaks of overwrought prose (e.g., “To
paraphrase Celine Dion as her plangent soprano becomes the iconic voice
of Canada throbbing around the globe, ‘The dream will go on’”).
Given the book’s nonchronological and at times disorienting
organization, newcomers to the Stratford story may wish to initiate
their acquaintance with a more conventional history.


Hunter, Martin., “Romancing the Bard: Stratford at Fifty,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,