Canada’s Largest Shakespeare Festival: Bard on the Beach

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Bard on the Beach

For more than 20 years, Vancouver’s waterfront has played host to Canada’s largest Shakespeare Festival, Bard on the Beach. The festival offers performances of Shakespeare’s major and minor works on two stages several times a week, and runs from June through September. This post will offer a preview of the shows expected to run in 2013, as well as an overview of the festival.

Bard on the Beach is a festival that has been delighting Shakespeare patrons since 1990, when Christopher Gaze, now the artistic director, performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Vanier Park as part of the Equity Co-op. From these small beginnings, the festival has grown to large crowds, with 86,000 people catching performances in the 2012 season. The festival incorporates four plays, as well as workshops for kids and lectures for those curious to learn more about the Bard.

Overlooking English Bay and Downtown Vancouver, Vanier Park is located in Kitsilano, in Vancouver’s West Side. Festivalgoers have rave reviews about the theatre itself — the open back of the Main Stage, which brings the dramatic natural background into the play, is certainly unique. Open-air performances, while unusual for modern audiences, were the norm in Shakespeare’s time. Most of Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed on open-air stages in the afternoons to make sure there was plenty of light to see the players.

If you’re planning a vacation between June 12 and September 13 this year, you can check out Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. This season, they’ll be performing three classic Shakespeare plays and one contemporary Canadian play set in Shakespearian times.

Twelfth Night. Believed to have been written as entertainment for the end of the Christmas season, “Twelfth Night” is a comedy set along the Adriatic and is full of mistaken identities, pranks among friends and, of course, some young couples who fall in love. “Twelfth Night” made famous the line, “If music is the food of love, play on.”

Hamlet. One of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, “Hamlet” is a tale of revenge, treachery and moral decay. This tragedy has been interpreted differently by critics from every era since it was first performed 400 years ago. While Sigmund Freud analyzed Hamlet’s behavior in one way, feminist critics in the 20th century concentrated on the character of Ophelia. Whatever the current interpretations, however, it’s sure to be loved by audiences. The co-founder of the Electric Company Theatre, Kim Collier, will direct Bard on the Beach’s production of “Hamlet” this year. Famous lines are “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” and “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Measure for Measure. Written by Shakespeare in the early 1600s, “Measure for Measure” is a comedy in which the characters examine the issues of mercy, justice and truth. Both a twisty love story and a legal drama, “Measure for Measure” is sometimes called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it illustrates through its storyline a contemporary social problem. Some famous lines are “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,” and “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

Elizabeth Rex. This play was not written by Shakespeare, but instead is about Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In it, Canadian playwright Timothy Findlay has created a meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and a Shakespearian stage actor who specializes in performing women’s roles. The play examines the pressures of gender expectations — the queen must play a traditionally male role as the leader of England, while the gay actor yearns to express his interior femininity. “Elizabeth Rex” was first performed in 2000 at the Stratford Festival of Canada. A famous line from the play is “If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man.”

Tickets to Bard on the Beach vary in price depending on which stage you’ll be watching and show times, with evening performances costing more than matinees. Tickets will go on sale a month or so before the performances.

Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons

About the Author: Jacqueline Michaels is a theatre critic and book reviewer who resides in Victoria.  

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