Talking dictators and warfare with Midwinter Shakespeare Festival

Welcome back to the second half of the 2019-2020 theatre season in Edmonton!

This week’s interview features Benjamin Blyth, the artistic director of Malachite Theatre and founder of the Winter Shakespeare Festival. Scroll down to listen to the episode.

There was a bit of local theatre news over the break – Walterdale Theatre has appointed a new artistic director, Monica Roberts. She’s taking over the position from Gregory Caswell, who left the position due to “personal and professional reasons” as stated in the press release. I’m not sure what happened there; Caswell was not in the position for very long. Anyway, the press release says Monica has been a Walterdale member for a long time and will be announcing the 2020-2021 season soon and putting out call for interested directors.

On a personal note, I got a big ol’ textbook about theatre history for Christmas. I’ve been writing about theatre in Edmonton for quite some time now – over 12 years if you count my very first Fringe reviews, but definitely a solid seven-ish years of regular season coverage. I learned the basics of drama during my English degree, but I’ve always felt that I lack a deeper foundation in theatre and particularly theatre history. So one of my goals for 2020 is to make my way through that text in the hopes that it will enrich my theatre-watching experience – and hopefully help me provide more thoughtful analysis and critique of the shows I see.

And that text will certainly serve me well right away, as the other big news in local Edmonton theatre is that we have a new Shakespeare-themed theatre festival – the inaugural Winter Shakespeare Festival just kicked off at the start of January.

The cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Winter Shakespeare Festival. Photo supplied.

The Festival was founded by Benjamin Blyth, the artistic director of Malachite Theatre. Malachite has staged a Shakespeare play each January for the past three years and has now expanded to a duo of plays and a couple of staged readings. They are doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar repertory-style, just like our other local festival featuring the Bard’s work, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, which runs every summer in the amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park. So you’ll see the same cast performing different roles in each show.

Putting these two plays together is a bit unusual – they don’t seem to have much in common, at first glance. But there are actually some interesting comparisons and observations that can be made when you situate them side by side like this. 

The festival also features a couple of staged readings of Shakespeare-adjacent plays: a couple of texts that I think it’s fair to say will never be staged here for a long time, if ever – unless this triggers some kind of Elizabethan drama renaissance. Local artist John Richardson adapted The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton, which were written in the early 1600s. The Merrie Devil was actually attributed to Shakespeare at one point but that has since been disputed and dropped; we don’t know for sure who actually wrote it, so it’s part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. The Witch of Edmonton was written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford.

Now, if you’re wondering what’s up with these two plays, written in the early 1600s that reference Edmonton in their title – they are definitely not about Edmonton, Alberta. Rather, they are about Edmonton, England, which used to be a separate township just north of London and has since been absorbed into the greater London area. The Edmonton in England is our city’s namesake, however, and I actually wrote a story about this last year. I came across reference to these two plays when I was researching that story, and apparently the area considered pretty spooky with lots of tales of devils and witches and other supernatural happenings. Maybe these plays are the source of that, or maybe they are based on older local legends? Either way, I’m definitely going to check out these readings and maybe find out!


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