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"This Famous Duke of Milan of Whom So Often I Have Heard Renown": William Hutt at the Stratford and New Burbage Festivals

From: Canadian Theatre Review
Issue 141, January 2010
pp. 10-15 | 10.1353/ctr.0.0002

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In the third season of the television series Slings and Arrows, director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) tells "legendary Canadian actor" Charles Kingman (William Hutt) that seeing Kingman's Falstaff is the reason he joined the theatre. Kingman, suffering from terminal cancer, replies, "I am the personification of that particular cliché and, like the theatre, I am boldly fighting a slow, undignified death" ("That Way Madness Lies"). Playing the lead in Tennant's King Lear at the "New Burbage Festival," where Slings is set, the exchange adds resonance to the actor's impending demise. Kingman's swansong mirrors Lear's tragic death while recalling Hutt's own voluntary retirement from the Stratford Festival (the real-life model for New Burbage) in 2005. The association of Kingman's mortality with the death of the theatre also emphasizes Slings' elegiac depiction of classical theatre surrendering to commercialization. Neglected by administrators more concerned with merchandising and musicals than the Bard, the Kingman character draws on and solidifies Hutt's reputation as the nation's foremost Anglophone classical actor by making him the emblem of deliverance from American commercialism and celebrity culture.

Unlike Kingman, Hutt was a Stratford fixture who, Prospero-like, controlled his fate at the Festival. In 2004, he casually informed Stratford's Artistic Director Richard Monette that he would end his career as the exiled magician in Monette's upcoming Tempest (Ouzounian). The connection between Prospero and Hutt's persona as Canada's leading classical actor featured prominently in the Festival's promotion of The Tempest. As Globe and Mail theatre critic Kamal Al-Solaylee commented, "The festival . . . plastered his image [as Prospero] on all the season's brochures and promotional material, making Hutt, at 85, the oldest poster-boy in the business." English professor Alan Somerset's essay in The Tempest program similarly framed Hutt's departure, quoting Prospero's epilogue, "As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free" (5). Somerset notes that the couplet will "mark the end of the last major role of Mr. Hutt's distinguished, magnificent career at the Stratford Festival, a career that spans 128 roles as an actor or director over 40 seasons, including turns as four of its six Prosperos" (5). He subsequently invokes the well-known tradition that "Shakespeare contrives, through Prospero, his farewell to the stage" (9). Eliding Hutt's, Prospero's, and Shakespeare's farewells to their careers, while emphasizing Hutt's long-standing centrality to the Festival, Somerset implies that the actor's last performance will mark the conclusion of another Shakespearean tradition.

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The Tempest, 2005. William Hutt as Prospero.

Photo by David Hou. Courtesy Stratford Shakespeare Festival Archives

In helping to define the production's public identity outside the theatre's walls, many reviewers followed the Festival's lead, interpreting the audiences' exuberant response as confirmation of Hutt's quasi-celebrity status: theatregoers "erupted in prolonged applause at the first sight of Prospero entering centre stage" (Duke) and at the end, "his waves to the audience were warmly returned amidst thunderous applause" (Vrbanac) as he "stood basked in respectful adoration" (Smith). But for Al-Solaylee, these celebratory comments elevated Hutt at the play's expense: "When actor and character become that intertwined, and when the story of the performance eclipses the story in the play, it's inevitable that our focus is on one and not on the other . . . ."

Al-Solaylee's apprehension evokes theatre scholar Michael Quinn's argument that acknowledging the "personal, expressive function of acting"—i.e., that which resists a performer's transformation into a fictitious character—allows us to recognize celebrity as "a tendency of acting rather than a higher order of performance" (155). Quinn's definition of celebrity is particularly helpful for thinking about Hutt's Prospero; his singularity as an actor is not a form of celebrity associated "with the rise of modernity and mass communication and with the politics of large-scale industrial cultures" (Hodgdon 47). Stratford's sophisticated promotional machine may have made Hutt "the oldest poster-boy in the business," but such ubiquity is nothing like the media exposure that Hollywood or even Broadway celebrities experience...