Shakespeare’s 400th

Today, on Shakespeare’s 400th, his majestic lines I heard so long ago flood out of my memory and make me want to pay a tribute to my parents, for they founded Canada’s first Shakespeare Festival.

Earle Grey and Mary Godwin (her stage name by which she preferred to be called even off stage) were members of London’s Old Vic, playing principal Shakespearean parts at the time of Tyrone Guthrie, Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud. The Old Vic was on tour in Canada with my parents during the early days of the Second World War and they decided to stay in Toronto.

While strolling one summer in the beautiful Gothic quadrangle of Trinity College (part of the University of Toronto) the idea struck them that an open air performance of Twelfth Night there would be a charming equivalent of the famous Shakespeare productions at Regents Park in London. So they assembled local actors, built a set composed of canvass flats and hired costumes and props. The production, in which my mother played Olivia and my father Malvolio, was a grand success and led to a full-fledged festival, bringing the Bard to Canadians whose only experience of him in the 1950’s was in the classroom, taught by teachers who had never seen a play.

The Earle Grey Shakespeare Festival raised the consciousness of the Canadian people to the sonic wonders of the playwright whose lines they had only read and set the atmosphere that allowed for the later, much larger and more commercially successful Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival, the premier enterprise of its kind in North America.

As a youngster and later acting in the plays I became fascinated by the Bard’s use of history and faraway places to create dramatic situations. That has stayed with me all my life, and drives my interest in the books I write. My latest, #thetortoiseinasia smacks of that. Also, I have smuggled a little colour of Shakespeare’s characters into that book in places.