chapter  5
14 Pages

Colm Feore: Kevin Ewert


The actor is the instrument for playing Shakespeare. That is a very intimate relationship; whatever else may be going on, ultimately the actor is the one who has to go on stage in front of everyone and speak, make sense of, and embody what Shakespeare wrote. But the actor’s relationship with Shakespeare is only one of many different, interdependent relationships in the collaborative enterprise of making theatre out of Shakespeare’s words. The actor’s relationship with Shakespeare is interwoven with his or her relationships with other actors, the director, the space, the concept, multiple designers, multiple design elements, the company, the audience. These relationships resonate and play off one another, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in a contrapuntal manner that results in a complex kind of harmony, and sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, in a way that creates dissonance. Trying to understand the actor’s Shakespeare necessitates some wrestling with and unraveling of the dual/dueling narratives of productions and performances. Colm Feore is a star in Canada, for his many years and leading roles at Stratford,

which most people know about, and for his screen work, which many more people have actually seen. He played the bon part in the highest-domestic-grossing Canadian film of all time, Bon Cop/Bad Cop, as well as the title role in a much-watched CBC mini-series – if Patrick Stewart is often better known as Jean-Luc Picard, Feore has to live with having been Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He’s amassed a truly heroic number of entries on IMDB, including roles in major films – Pearl Harbor, Changeling, Chicago – and popular tv shows – 24. He has never worried about moving back and forth from stage to screen. Working with good writing like Shakespeare’s only helps him when he has to breathe life into writing that is not so good, and his only aspiration for big screen success is to be the best guy to hire to make the plot make sense. He is a brilliant film actor when the material allows – his performance in the compellingly experimental, anti-music-bio-pic Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is a wonder both of impersonation and invention. As far as his other film work, anyone wishing to hold The Chronicles of Riddick against him should remember that Judi Dench is in it too. Feore likes to keep busy. That was his approach to his time at Stratford, both in

his earlier work when he’d play three, four, even five different roles in a season, and to his recent returns – added to the 2006 Coriolanus was Fagin in Oliver! and Moliere’s Don Juan, in both English and in French. It explains his belief in

“cross-pollination” of the roles he plays – Coriolanus, Fagin, Don Juan: all lonely men with high standards; Macbeth and Cyrano (his other 2009 role): both defiant, independent souls, just going in different directions. It describes what he’s up to in the dressing room before performances, still doing all the exercises he learned at theatre school that would seem in any way to apply. It’s the way he is at home, where he’ll stop in front of his bookshelf and pull out Hamlet because something suddenly dawned on him that he didn’t see when he played the role. And apparently it applies to trips to the grocery store:

I’m always using [Shakespeare] to be ready for something else. I use the first 40 minutes of Julius Caesar as my scales if you will, playing all the parts, and I just sort of wander the streets doing that. Not only does it amuse me, but you get a sense of trying to improve the facility, in the firm belief you will achieve another level of understanding if you keep practicing. (Interview with the author August 15, 2009; all quotes are taken from this

interview unless otherwise noted)

While he believes his theatre school training was an excellent foundation for his work in the classics, Feore maintains that whatever skills he has primarily come from playing these huge Shakespearean roles in repertory for lengthy runs over a great number of years. That accords with my critical recollections of his work: his 1984 Romeo showed an actor who looked right and was good if not great; his 1986 Leontes saw him really being stretched by the material and for the most part rising to the occasion; and by the time of his 1990 Cassius I knew I was watching a compelling actor the quality of whose performance I needn’t worry about. He played Cassius again, on Broadway in 2005 opposite Denzel Washington, and

here it was strikingly easy to see the tree from the forest, this actor’s work from the over-busy production and uneven ensemble around it. In the opening section of the play, where it can seem that Cassius rather than Brutus is the main character, Feore displayed a virtuosity with the text and a facility with the language that no one else came close to. This was partly vocal technique – speed, clarity, precision, variety of inflection – and partly verse-handling skills – making perfect sense of every word, phrase, image and intention that he spoke. For some of the other actors, the lack of facility with Shakespeare’s text meant that everything – words, sense, intention, psychology, emotion – became a muddled kind of Shakesgibberish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many reviews used Feore’s performance as a stick with which to beat the rest of the cast. Feore saw this as having absolutely nothing to do with “talent” but only with


[North American actors] don’t get a lot of practice at [performing Shakespeare], and so the trouble is when you finally do get a show on people say, ‘You know, they’re not very good.’ Well, why aren’t they very good? Well, because they do two Shakespeares in a lifetime instead of 75…We had some great guys in Caesar, they were all terrific, but they were all the guys who stay in New York. If you stay in Manhattan…it’s tough to get the experience you need to play [Shakespeare] at a level that is acceptable at $100 a ticket.