Shakespeare with a Newfoundland twist at Stratford Festival

Shakespeare's As You Like It will be getting a Newfoundland makeover this summer at the Stratford Festival.
Petrina Bromley and 'As You Like It' co-star Cyrus Lane. (Stratford Festival)

Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It, will be getting a Newfoundland makeover this summer at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

The play's director, Jillian Keiley, is from St. John's and has set the production in Newfoundland, featuring traditional music played by a live band.

For an added authentic feel, a number of people from the province —  including actor Petrina Bromley and musician Bob Hallett —  have been hired to take part.

"There is a distinct effort, I think, to bring the ambience of a Newfoundland celebration and the way Newfoundland entertainment can sort of blur the line between audience and entertainers and make that part of the evening here in Stratford," said Hallett.

Newfoundland twist

Hallett has been asked to recreate the music of Shakespeare's time to give it the feel of traditional Newfoundland tunes.

"The soundtrack of Newfoundland is based around the traditional music of Newfoundland, you know the accordion, the bodhrán, the fiddle ... the goal is to make the music fit the words and the actors," said Hallett.

"You can put a bunch of notes on a page and say, 'play this', but that's not how we would do it in Newfoundland," he said.

"A chord of the Newfoundland tradition is the chaos, the wildness, the inclusiveness, the fun that comes with it — even in the darkest of Newfoundland songs there's always a core of gold at the bottom of the coal."

Hallett said rehearsals have been going well, but it's a little bit harder to find a button accordion player in Ontario than they first thought. 

"We had about a dozen candidates when we started, but one by one they've fallen away for various reasons and we're literally down to the bitter end, but I'm pretty confident we're going to able to find the right individual," Hallett told CBC Radio's Weekend AM.

Well known musician Bob Hallett, has been brought in to ensure the music has an authentic Newfoundland feel. (CBC)

He added that playing at Stratford is very disciplined and quite different than playing in a bar.

The successful candidate needs to be able to follow the director as well as the production, said Hallett, and "it's not an easy gig."

'Quite an honour'

Bromley plays Rosalind, the main character in the play, who disguises herself as a man and flees after being banished from court.

She said Rosalind then meets and falls in love with young man named Orlando, who "runs around writing terrible, terrible poems and posting them on trees."

"It's quite an honour and I'm very excited, feeling really quite lucky to have the chance and the opportunity," said Bromley.

Cast members of As You Like It at the Stratford Festival. (Jason Clarke)

She said the cast also has three other Newfoundland actors — Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, Jamie Mac and Robin Hutton-Patterson.

"I think we're there for the authenticity and if you're landing the show in Newfoundland then you really need to have some, pardon the pun, 'touchstones,' for that sensibility, and the accent and the traditions and the culture," said Bromley.

She added that companies like Artistic Fraud, and shows like Republic of Doyle have given the province a lot of exposure. 

"We are everywhere. It's incredible, everywhere I go I meet someone who knows someone from Newfoundland, or has worked with someone from Newfoundland."

Audience participation

​The Shakespearean comedy opens at the festival in May.

Audience members are being asked to wear light-coloured clothing to take part and they'll be given props.

Classes are being offered prior to the performance for people to learn 'Running the Goat,' a traditional Newfoundland dance, so they can come up on stage to perform it during the show.

Bromley said that children will also be invited to write their own love poems and possibly have them read out during the show.

"They really want the audience to feel very much like they're a part of the show," Bromley said.

"The bottom line, I think here in Stratford as much as anywhere else, is they want to entertain people. They want people to walk out of that theatre having had a great time," said Hallett.

"Yes there are challenges — but they are doable."

Stratford may seem a world away from St. John's, but both Bromley and Hallett agree, it's the same job with different surroundings and you always want to do your best.

"As an actor it's one of those places that's kind of the mecca ... It makes you bring your best work to the table," said Bromley.

"Whether you're standing in a pub in front of 30 people or you're standing on the stage at Stratford, at the end of the day people have to walk out having been impressed, having been lost for a couple of hours and having enjoyed themselves — so every stage is the same for me," Hallett said.

With files from Heather Barrett