Colleen Wheeler, Haig Sutherland, Bernard Cuffling

Bard on the Beach’s fourth offering this season is Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, billed as “a poignant study of a sovereign in love”. More than that though, it challenges gender roles.

Queen Elizabeth I (Colleen Wheeler, who I’ll discuss further along in this article) has a moral dilemma on her hands. Her possible lover, the Earl of Essex, is awaiting execution by treason and is set to die the following morning by her orders. The Queen is torn between her (male) obligation to England and her (female) feelings for the Earl.

David Marr, Colleen Wheeler, Sereana Malani
[David Marr, Colleen Wheeler, Sereana Malani]

Meanwhile, she’s in dire need of distraction. Enter Will Shakespeare and a group of actors (stars of Much Ado About Nothing, a play they’re performing in as Rex opens) who specialize in playing women’s roles. Back in the day, women were banned from acting in the theatre.

As the night wears on, the Queen seeks comfort in the company of men dressed in gowns and wearing heavy makeup. The castle barn serves as the backdrop in this tale. Shakespeare and his crew spend the night in the barn while Queen Elizabeth musters strength and tries to remain at peace with herself.

“If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man.”

Susinn McFarlen, Colleen Wheeler
[Susinn McFarlen, Colleen Wheeler]

One of the female actors, Edward ‘Ned’ Lowenscroft (a fantastic performance by Haig Sutherland), challenges the Queen with banter that antagonizes her very character. She takes a liking to his spirit. The two have something in common: as she’s about to lose a former love, he already has (a soldier who he’d had an affair with, who subsequently left for Ireland to fight in battle, but not before giving him syphilis).

Colleen Wheeler, Haig Sutherland, David Marr
[Colleen Wheeler, Haig Sutherland, David Marr]

Weak of body yet sharp of wit, Ned engages the Queen in a battle of dialogue, aiming to make her act more the woman, with Shakespeare looking on and taking notes (he’s currently drafting Antony and Cleopatra). Ned’s got the goods: he’s acted female roles throughout his career while forced to conceal his homosexuality.

Coleen Wheeler, Andrew Wheeler
[Coleen Wheeler, Andrew Wheeler]

With a nightly curfew in place, the entire story takes place in the barn, set with rustic props, an ale tap to the side of the stage, a guitar, and simple lighting.

A lot of great quotes are rattled off during the course of the evening; one we particularly enjoyed was by Shakespeare: “We play so many roles before we die…and then we die.”

Lois Anderson, Colleen Wheeler
[Lois Anderson, Colleen Wheeler]

Lois Anderson has done a 180 from her Mistress Overdone ‘lady of the night’ racy gear in Measure For Measure. In Elizabeth Rex, she plays half-blind but good-hearted Kate ‘Tardy’ Tardwell, dressed in neutral shades and wearing a white maiden’s bonnet. There’s a hilarious moment when the Queen and Tardy meet for the first time on stage.

“England is my hero – there is no other.”

Colleen Wheeler shines in her role with such conviction that at times sent chills down our spine. Wheeler completely immerses herself in this role, right down to her having shaved her head bald in order to properly wear the bald cap with her costume, an elaborate masterpiece in white and gold.

As she and Ned continue to exchange in lively conversation, Shakespeare ponders the outcome: Will she dread the Earl’s death or her own weakness that she can’t kill without remorse? The Queen: “Life kills. That’s it’s purpose.” We couldn’t imagine anyone more suitable for the role of the Queen than Wheeler.

You’ll also come across many Bard favourites in this production, including Henry ‘Harry’ Pearle (Anton Lipovetsky), Matt Welles (Luc Roderique), Jonathon ‘Jack’ Edmund (Andrew Wheeler), Tom Travis (Dustin Freeland), Percy Gower (Bernard Cuffling), Luddy Beddoes (Chris Cochrane), Lady Stanley (Sereana Malani) and a brown bear named Harry (Benjamin Elliott).

To get that enormous bear to move naturally on stage was the work of Fight Choreographer Nicholas Harrison, who worked together with Elliott in achieving a life-like furry beast and friend to Ned (who’d rescued him from a pack of dogs).

David Marr, Sereana Malani, Colleen Wheeler
[David Marr, Sereana Malani, Colleen Wheeler]

Mara Gottler has aged materials to create Renaissance costumes true to the early 17th century intimate stage setting, and does so with colourful, detail-rich robes, gowns, and accessories.

Playwright Timothy Findley premiered Elizabeth Rex at the Stratford Festival in 2000. Its American premiere came in 2002, at Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Performance Network. It was also later mounted on stages in Japan, Australia, and South Korea. A TV version was created in 2004, starring Diane D’Aquila and Brent Carver in the leads with Peter Hutt, Scott Wentworth, and Bernard Hopkins.

And as Shakespeare opens the play, so does he close it: “He lived an uneventful life, or so it will be said”.

Elizabeth Rex continues at the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage, Tuesdays to Sundays through September 11.

All photos by David Blue.


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