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William Hutt: Canada's secret weapon.

The Stratford Festival invades New York with a double dose of great acting

At the end of the Stratford Festival of Canada's production of Moliere's The Miser, Harpagon, the miserable penny-pincher of the title, is finally reunited with his most prized possession: a casket filled with gold coins. Alone on stage, he lets out a strangled, other-worldly howl, drops to his knees, caresses the box like a long-lost lover and says, "Oh my own! My treasure! My precious! Are you all there?"

It is an oddly grim moment, particularly when placed beside the broad, vaudevillian shenanigans that have preceded it in this controversial production that the main critic for Toronto's Globe and Mail called a "massacre" of Moliere. Still, slapstick aside, it is Harpagon's final howl - the guttural, suffocated sound of a wounded animal - that haunts the viewer. It's an indelible melding of bravura technique, emotional intensity and ironic distance. In other words, it's a William Hutt moment.

This month, Americans will experience Hutt in action when the Stratford Festival brings The Miser, along with the company's witty Much Ado About Nothing, to New York's City Center Theater for a three-week engagement. It will be a rare opportunity for Americans to see Hutt as both Harpagon and Leonato in Much Ado - the actor was last seen in New York 30 years ago in Lincoln Center Theater's production of St. Joan.

If Canada has a secret theatrical weapon, it's William Hutt. And, if there's a living symbol of the Stratford Festival, it's Hutt as well. The 78-year-old actor with the imposing presence (he is over six feet), the white hair and goatee, and the unique vocal tonality - which has been described as reflecting "the unclouded summer, sweet autumn and crisp winter of the Canadian voice" - has a resume filled with the kind of roles that would turn American performers green with envy. He's played Lear four times, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night four times, Tartuffe three times and many other parts over the past 50 years, most of them at the festival, a stone's throw from his home near the Avon River. Of course, there have been occasional tours to Russia and Australia, co-starring roles opposite the likes of John Geilgud, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy and Peter Ustinov, and the intermittent film or CBC television role. But for the most part, Hutt has been happy to hang out in his proverbial backyard.

"There's no one reason for anything that anyone does in the world, I suppose," the actor replies when asked about his decision to stay in Canada and not seek fame and fortune across the border like ex-Stratfordites Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. "First of all, I never wanted a motion picture career. I like making movies, but it was not something I wanted to do from the get-go. So, consequently, the Hollywood scene was never part of my agenda.

"As far as going down to the United States for stage work," he continues, "I don't believe in starving picturesquely in a garret for my art. I think that's soul-destroying. And one thing I was determined not to do was not to move to New York and sit in a cold-water flat waiting for the phone to ring."

Actors are often an impetuous lot, and Hutt's uncharacteristically mature attitude may stem from the fact that he came into the profession at a relatively late age, first performing on stage when he was pushing 30 and had already served in World War II. He joined the Stratford company in 1953 during its inaugural season under artistic director Tyrone Guthrie, who was succeeded three years later by Michael Langham. During that time, Hutt joined a select group of artists who would eventually come to define North American Shakespearean performance.

Under the tutelage of Guthrie and Langham, and then working with the next crop of artistic directors (French-Canadian director Jean Gascon and British director Robin Phillips), Hutt, along with other long-time Stratford actors Martha Henry, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid and current artistic director Richard Monette, created an approach to acting - particularly classical acting - that was unparalleled. For Hutt, that meant playing everything from Brutus in Julius Caesar to the title role in Richard II; from Trigorin in The Seagull to Lady Bracknell (of all things) in The Importance of Being Earnest. And that doesn't include the roles that Hutt played in the late '50s and early '60s as a member of the Canadian Players, a group that toured both the U.S. and Canada during the long Northern winter when Stratford was dark. The Players was where Hutt first performed King Lear, and the 1962 production had a Canadian spin: This Lear was an Inuit. "I think it was called Lear in a Parka," Hutt laughs. Today, he is unimpressed by that early performance. "I was far too young for it," he says in a dismissive tone. "I'm not ashamed of it, but it was inchoate."

Meanwhile, back at Stratford, the key to the company's success was its uniquely Canadian approach, a delicate balance between American Method-style realism (theatre and film from the U.S. had already invaded the Canadian consciousness) and the more traditional, artificial, one might say theatrical, British approach.

That meshing of styles is evident in the company's current production of Much Ado About Nothing. Richard Monette's directoral decision to set the play in 1920s Sicily gives the production a light, contemporary resonance without drawing undo attention to itself. Brian Bedford and Martha Henry find a perfect balance between the classical and the modern in their portrayal of Benedick and Beatrice's cynical September romance.

And then there's Hutt as Leonato. At first, Hutt's performance is a study in moderation. As the benevolent, aging sire, he is content with his lot, at times even a little doddery. But as his daughter Hero's plight comes to light, he becomes an angry, almost vengeful figure. (There's a sly resonance to Hutt's line, "Time has not dried this blood of mine.") The character's metamorphosis is graceful in its subtleties, completely textually justifiable, and demonstrates why Hutt's technique is considered one of his strongest aspects.

"I don't object to being called a technical actor, but there are other elements. For instance, the martini scene changes almost nightly," he says, referring to a hilarious scene in which the actor is literally falling-down drunk. "If an audience is willing to dance, I will dance with them. And there are nights when I can hardly go on, because they're laughing so hard. So all I can do is take another drink, which makes them laugh even more. So, there's a certain amount of intuition involved - not just technique."

Hutt downplays the importance of the company's New York trip. "I don't think it can possibly be detrimental," he says in an offhand way, "unless, of course, both productions get absolutely totally clobbered by the critics. Then we may leave New York with our tails slightly between our legs."

Nevertheless, the New York run is coming at a crucial moment in Stratford's history. After Phillips' departure in 1980, the company was thrown into an identity crisis that it has never completely recovered from. Over the next 20 years, the company went through an adventurous but deficit-ridden period under John Hirsch; an eclectic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink period under John Neville (who added Broadway-style musicals to the Stratford mix); and a more cerebral, academic stretch under David William.

Audiences were alienated, and so were a number of artists, including Hutt, who left the company for a number of years in the '80s, moonlighting at Canada's other major festival, the Shaw Festival. For Hutt, the appointment in 1994 of Monette as artistic director meant a new lease on life for the company. But not everyone agrees. In an article in the Globe and Mail last July, theatre critic Kate Taylor wrote a 10-point manifesto "to save a great classical theatre from banality and irrelevance." She called on the company's board of directors not to renew Monette's contract when it expires in 2000. "Monette has added Broadway fare such as Amadeus and church-basement favorites such as The Miracle Worker. These shows are indistinguishable from commercial theatre mounted by profit-making producers. Monette has proved himself an eager populizer, ready to pad the playbill with fluff."

Hutt brushes off such criticism. "The thing about Richard," he says, "is that he was the first bona-fide guy that came up from the ranks to become the artistic director. He was an actor in the company for a number of years. Then he got an opportunity to direct a couple of productions. Now he heads the joint. I think he's a very exuberant man. And populist? Yes, but I don't think that's a fault. We needed a populist."

While these arguments continue, Hutt and the Stratford Festival - both venerable Canadian institutions - play on. "Obviously at 78, I can't do the things that I used to be able to do 10 or 15 years ago," he admits, "but I'm happy to report that my energy level seems to be quite high." He's still happily smoking and drinking, and when asked about retirement, he's elusive.

"Time is going to make the decision for me," he says. "Next year, by agreement, I'm only going to do one play, which suits me fine. I'm not thinking beyond that. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in the year 2000 - I just hope that I'm around."
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Title Annotation:actor
Author:Nunns, Stephen
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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