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Theatre review: Elizabeth Rex is riveting

This season’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival is shaping up to be the year of the ladies as Colleen Wheeler gives the performance of a lifetime in Elizabeth Rex.

Following on Rachel Cairns sublime performance in the Festival’s main stage production of Twelfth Night, veteran Vancouver actor Colleen Wheeler takes the helm of Timothy Findlay’s 15th century drama of a Queen conflicted by duty and her love for a man that she would soon send to his death.

The setting is the royal barn of Elizabeth’s court on the eve of Robert Devereux’s, the 2nd Earl of Essex, beheading.  After a command performance of Much Ado About Nothing, the Virgin Queen makes a surprise visit to the barn seeking a continued distraction to the realities outside, from the actors and the Bard himself.

With uncustomary familiarity the actors look to convince Elizabeth that love can save Essex.  But as the actors soon realize that her mind will remain unchanged, Findlay moves to a series of “prize fights” between the Elizabeth and the young gay actor Ned Lowenscroft (Haig Sutherland) dying from syphilis, who strikes a deal to show his Queen how to grieve like a woman if she can show him how to die like a man.

Wheeler and Sutherland are equals here, both providing riveting performances.  As the acrimony in their character’s lives reach a fevered pitch, they both manage equal levels of dignity, intensity and unchecked emotions to their disparate roles.  As the final bells toll and the cannon fire signify Essex’s execution, Elizabeth’s lament is heartfelt and excruciating.  That Sutherland was able to perform at all after ending up in hospital with a back injury that very day is a testament to his skill and professionalism.

Colleen Wheeler as Queen Elizabeth I in the Bard on the Beach production of Elizabeth Rex. Photo by David Blue.

Colleen Wheeler as Queen Elizabeth I in the Bard on the Beach production of Elizabeth Rex. Photo by David Blue.

Disappointingly Findlay does relegate his supporting characters to the sidelines much of the time as simple observers of the sparing matches between Liz and Ned, but each brings wonderful nuances to their characters.  Lois Anderson gives a very funny performance as the near sightless seamstress and Andrew Wheeler is unapologetically Irish as the swaggering Jack.  Bernard Cuffling makes the most of his aging Percy and “exit, pursued by a bear” takes on new meaning as Benjamin Elliott is suited up in a surprisingly effective bear costume from Mara Gottler.

At first a bit tentative, David Marr quickly finds his place as an almost indifferent referee in his role as Shakespeare, delighting in one of Findlay’s clever sub-plots that see him mining  Elizabeth’s words for as he writes his grandest plays for a woman, Antony and Cleopatra.

Ironically the only Bard on the Beach show this year that is actually set in Elizabethan time, Elizabeth Rex will appeal to both Shakespeare fans and those that may find his works inaccessible as a fascinating re-imagining of a fascinating time in history.

The men can have Hamlet and their King Lear.  The women can now add Elizabeth Rex to their Cleopatra.  Just be warned though, Colleen Wheeler has set the bar very, very high.

Elizabeth Rex

By Timothy Findlay. Directed by Rachel Ditor. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage in repertory with Measure for Measure on the Studio Stage through September 11, 2013.  Visit http://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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