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From left, Richard Comeau as Joseph Summers, Tara Sky as Beth Summers, and Wahsonti:io Kirby as Evelyne Rice in 1939.David Hou/Stratford Festival

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  • Title: 1939
  • Written by: Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan
  • Director: Jani Lauzon
  • Actors: Richard Comeau, Sarah Dodd, Wahsonti:io Kirby, Tara Sky
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 29, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Reduced-capacity performances available

William Shakespeare’s continued pre-eminence in this culture (and so many others around the world) can’t be divorced from colonialism. But can his plays be used as tools of decolonization?

It’s a question explored both by a new play called 1939, co-written by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan and now on at the Stratford Festival, and by the play within that play, a fictional production of All’s Well that Ends Well performed at a residential school in Northern Ontario in the year of the title.

The opening scene sees five students gathered together for mysterious reasons by their English teacher Sian Ap Dafydd (Sarah Dodd).

King George VI is coming to Canada – and Ap Dafydd, an avid assimilationist, has come up with a plan to entertain the visiting monarch that will show off the “good little Canadians” she is cultivating by having them performing Shakespeare.

Beth (Tara Sky), the keener of the group who escapes the repressive surroundings by reading the Bard, is excited about this idea and hopes to be cast as the resourceful heroine Helena. Joseph (Richard Comeau), on the other hand, sees this as one more punishment that he must endure before he can be freed and make an overdue return to his family.

Though Af Dafydd does not realize it, Beth and Joseph are siblings. The two have been included together in rehearsals only because of institutional oversight – as the cruel logic of the residential system requires not only that children be taken from their parents and communities, but that brothers and sisters be kept apart. (Separated siblings keeping their identities secret are, of course, a big part of many of Shakespeare’s plays – but this is far from a comic situation.)

In the first act of 1939, we see Shakespeare primarily being wielded as a tool of oppression in scenes that have a light but melancholy tone undergirded by the ever-present threat of violence (not really all that out of keeping with All’s Well itself).

In one very funny moment, Ap Dafydd pulls out a record of the Victorian stage legend Ellen Terry performing Shakespeare – and lip-synchs along. This is the way the students are to speak the lines according to the Welsh-Canadian immigrant (brought to brilliant life by Dodd): in proper, English accents.

But when a student named Evelyne Rice (a terrific Wahsonti:io Kirby) connects with All’s Well on a personal level – describing the similarity between her Mohawk grandfather, a healer, and Helena, who helps the sick King of France with medical knowledge passed down from her father – she is punished for even mentioning the culture the school is designed to kill in her.

Meanwhile, Métis student Jean Delorme (John Wamsley) struggles to speak iambic pentameter when it is suggested to him he gallop like a horse along with it – but, away from his teacher, he finds the rhythm of the language comes to him while circle dancing. This is a gorgeous scene – brutally undercut by Joseph asking him if he has a “death wish,” engaging in this forbidden performance. (Designer Joanna Yu’s neat set, mostly made up of blackboards and brushes, helps keep the erasure that is going on visible at all times.)

In order for Shakespeare to be allowed to become a tool to liberate the Indigenous students in the historical period of the play, to connect them to their cultures, rather than increase their estrangement from them, the playwrights have to devise an outside intervention in the form of a journalist from the Ottawa Citizen named Madge Macbeth (Jaclyn Francis).

Macbeth misrepresents what is being rehearsed in her column as a progressive “Indian Shakespeare” production, much to the shock of Af Daffyd. But the article increases ticket sales – much to the delight of Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara), who is hoping to replace the school’s leaking roof.

And so, in the second act of 1939, All’s Well rehearsals move in a new direction in which the students are allowed to become the teachers – culminating in a Shakespearean production that is at times hilarious, at others heartwarming, and leaves you with a lump in your throat.

1939 is a deft look at a number of contemporary ideas surrounding Shakespeare (and theatre) – like why bringing yourself to a performance matters as much as pretending to be someone else. There’s also cheeky metatheatrical engagement with the issue of cultural appropriation in the costumes designed for the play-within-the-play by Asa Benally, a Stratford Festival costume designer who is a citizen of the Navajo and Cherokee Nations.

But how effectively does 1939 dramatize the experiences of residential-school survivors, and is it an effective vehicle to do so at a time when reconciliation has pivoted toward reckoning and attention is being primarily paid to the location of unmarked graves?

The most horrific aspects of the system are implied rather than shown – as in a disturbing moment where Susan Blackbird (Kathleen MacLean), taken away from her family when she was 4, recoils from an unexpected touch.

The characters in positions of authority, meanwhile, are presented in nuanced ways, either as wrong-headed (Ap Dafydd has learned incorrect lessons from her father’s failed fight against assimilation in Wales) or farcical (Father Williams is hockey obsessed, and flatulent).

If this feels generous, it’s worth noting that the play’s five-year development process has been, as the program says, “guided by Indigenous Elders, Survivors and ceremony.”

And here’s what co-playwright and director Lauzon, who has played central roles in so many significant Indigenous-inclusive and -led productions of Shakespeare’s plays over the past two decades, has to says about that playwright’s role on the readings list of certain residential schools, in a program note. “No doubt the relationship with Shakespeare for Indigenous peoples can be a complicated one. But my thought is: Blame the system not the artist.”

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