Among the charms of Vancouver that everyone knows about but that sometimes gets overlooked is Bard on the Beach, the summer Shakespeare festival.
For the last 23 years, the festival has been offering up nightly doses of live Shakespeare, right on the shores of False Creek in Vanier Park. In a city of Vancouver’s size, that kind of commitment to theatre – and the matching outpouring of support from theatre fans – is simply amazing.
This summer is no exception. Since May 31, Bard has been busy staging another round of Shakespeare’s classics: Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Merry Wives of Windsor and King John. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of taking in one of Shakespeare’s plays as the sun slowly sinks to English Bay, this may be the perfect time.
I checked out Bard over the weekend, for a Friday night performance of Macbeth – among the darkest and bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays (which, to be honest, I hadn’t read since high school).
The setting for the festival is idyllic. Bard Village – a collection of white tents trimmed in red – rises on the southwestern shore of False Creek, with the high-rises of downtown in the background. Inside the gates, a network of wooden walkways connects a cluster of stages, counters selling wine and snacks and a gift shop – all bustling pre-show with eager theatregoers.
Macbeth is performed in the Bard’s Mainstage Tent, which is itself a work of art. The tent, erected and struck every year, accommodates 742 people in stadium-style seating akin to what you’d find in a movie theatre. The area behind the stage is open-ended, so actors essentially perform against a backdrop of mountains, sky and sea.
For the dark and dreary Macbeth, a black cloth was actually pulled over the open side, casting the tent into shadows. The play opens on the barren heaths of Scotland, where Macbeth receives his famous prophesy from the three Weird Sisters. What ensues, of course, is a classic tale of ambition, greed, lust and – ultimately – madness, as Macbeth resorts to murder to fulfill the prophesy and assume the Scottish throne.
While the rhythm of Shakespeare’s English can be hard to keep up with at times, the acting brings through subtle shades of meaning. Lady Macbeth (Colleen Wheeler) steals the show – a horrifying vision of greed and goading who pushes her husband to terrible extremes in the name of power. Macbeth (Bob Frazer) is also ideally cast, with just the right mix of ambition and weakness.
Throw in some spooky rites by the Weird Sisters, a corpse risen from the grave and some swashbuckling swordplay and it’s one terrifyingly unforgettable show. By the time Birnam Wood finally comes to Dunsinane, you’re sure to be thoroughly entertained and dying for more.
Tickets for evening performances of Macbeth are $40. The play runs through Sept. 20.
Any other Bard on the Beach fans out there? What do you enjoy most about the festival?
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