Shakespeare’s Sonnets jump off the page and onto the stage

In which Infinithéâtre and McGill’s English Department present Shakespeare’s sonnets presented like you’ve probably never seen them before.

Ellen David and Carmen Grant. Photo by Brian Morel

Is Shakespeare still relevant in 2018? Should theatre creators keep mounting his works year after year or do they have a responsibility to produce newer, fresher voices and contemporary narratives? Should we as audiences be more interested in names we don’t know and aren’t taught in high school?

These are all big questions with no definitive answers but they warrant examination; theatre is art and art is culture and culture helps us understand who we are. If we keep doing the same thing, what are we saying about ourselves?

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Transforming the Voices of Montreal inspired these thoughts and questions. Presented by Infinithéâtre in conjunction with the English Department at McGill University and directed by Guy Sprung, the show situates Shakespeare’s sonnets within vignettes set in present-day Montreal. Actors wearing masks represent contemporary Montrealers going about their days and just, like, existing in the world.

We see old people playing chess in the park; a homeless person panhandling for change; a woman getting catcalled by a group of disgusting bros; an awkward young woman playing an open mic to build confidence; a scientist giving a lecture on climate change; a couple talking to a classroom of students about abstinence; and so on.

Projections inform our perspective. One scene takes place in a McGill classroom, another in Park La Fontaine, and another at the top of Mont Royal looking down at the city. One character (the panhandler, I believe) speaks to us from in front of Notre-Dame. Later a couple of friends run into each other in what looks to be PMT.

“We are definitely not taking an academic approach to Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Sprung explains in a release. “We have rendered the language into authentic, human dialogue — easily understood, but without changing a word.”

In a short YouTube video Sprung doubles down on this idea and promises to make the sonnets “so crystal clear that you’re going to think they were actually written today.”

This is a strange thing to say out loud, I think. Yes, Shakespearean dialogue can be inaccessible, but the sonnets are pretty simple. You don’t need an MFA and a decoder ring to understand what Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) is about. Moreover, I’m not so sure “you’re going to think they were actually written today” is a good thing to say about any older text. It comes across as “even you dummies will get it.”

Given all this, I didn’t know what to expect from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and I wasn’t the only one. Last week, Holly Gauthier-Frankel told me that “part of the joy and thrill and weirdness of this piece is that we’re not sure what it is.”

This felt like a bad sign. As such, it is a relief to report that the show is interesting, entertaining and at times, very funny.

The performers are largely to thank for this. In inhabiting Montrealers and making them recognizable, they redeem the production’s lesser ideas. It is in their characterizations that the sonnets feel timeless. Gauthier-Frankel steps into the young woman at the open mic; we know her and we’ve cheered her on. Carmen Grant becomes the panhandler; we’ve seen her, outcast and at the fringes and we’ve wondered what she’s thinking.

This is likely the “authentic, human dialogue” Sprung refers to but I must disagree with him in regards to the other thing he said. The sonnets aren’t made crystal clear because they are contextualized in quotidian Montreality. They land because the actors are talented and the source material is universal.

The production’s flaws are pretty obvious. Mask work is undeniably important and the masks themselves are very interesting to look at, but making the actors wear them felt like an incongruent and unnecessary thing. Also, given that one sonnet was performed by a mask-less Manouchka Elinor, I’m not certain I understood the choice. Projecting images was also a mistake. In trying to lend the vignettes geographical heft, the projections — some of which were woefully undercooked — detracted from the performances. I don’t mean to slew-foot Sprung, but he might have taken a cue from the spartan stage the performances were happening upon. In an environment where less was more, more felt like far too much.

These missteps notwithstanding, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Transforming the Voices of Montreal mostly succeeds — perhaps in spite of itself. Though it seems more ambitious than it actually is, the talent of its performers stubbornly force what could have been a failing grade to something more worthy of being put on the fridge. ■

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Transforming the Voices of Montreal is a limited engagement and runs until Oct. 27. Ticketing is done through Eventbrite.