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Shakespeare finally returns to its Ruins

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Who says you can't go home again?

After a 10-year odyssey around Winnipeg looking for a home stage, Shakespeare in the Ruins announced yesterday that its itinerant days are over and it would return to its birthplace for its May 28-June 23 run of Henry V.

"We are thrilled to be back and I can't use enough exclamation points," said SIR general manager Matt Moreau yesterday. "We're called Shakespeare in the Ruins and we belong there. We feel like part of the landscape, literally."

The 10-foot high chain link fence that surrounded the brick and Tyndall-stone remains of the Trappist Monastery in St. Norbert for four years came down Thursday in time for yesterday's media call. The fence was originally erected out of safety concerns but also to protect the site from vandals and in recent years to allow for the $1 million facelift.

SIR vacated St. Norbert in 2003 due to continuing rancor with neighbors at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, which operates out of the nearby Guest House.

"We weren't going to stay away this long," said SIR co-chair Michelle Boulet. "We were going to be away for three years I think and come back. Then the ruins became unsafe so we never investigated coming back earlier."

In 2009 SIR officials put a call into the provincial government -- which declared the monastery a provincial heritage park in 2002 -- and got the green light to return last November but only inked an agreement earlier this month.

To many SIR ticket-holders returning to the ruins, it will look like nothing has changed other than the entry road has been paved and the view of the nearby Southwood Golf and Country Club. Much of the stone re-pointing and brick restoration is meant to look its been untouched since the 1983 fire that gutted Our Lady of the Prairies church.

But patrons will praise the drainage upgrades the first time the audience is subjected to a torrential downpour. Electrical plugs have been installed around the site to accommodate lighting and sound equipment. Inconspicuous ground level night lighting has also been added for security as well as an improved ambiance.

"It's a happy day," said SNAC executive director Louise May of the fence removal. "We have been living in a construction zone for three years."

It appears part of the renovations included repairing the relationship between SIR and SNAC, which hosts weekly art exhibitions as well as concerts through the summer months.

"I'll be happy to have them back," says May. "There definitely was some conflict over how the site was set up and how we could use the site but that's not the case any more. There was competition for the space and how to manage the space. As both organizations were growing quite rapidly it became difficult to co-manage."

So SIR hit the road playing Romeo + Juliet atop a six-storey parkade on Portage Avenue, before two rainy springs in Lagimodiére-Gaboury Historic Park in St. Boniface and then five years in Assiniboine Park, including three amidst the flora in the Conservatory. Last spring, it pitched its tent in a parking lot.

"Assiniboine Park were great hosts but we never fit ideally into any of the places where we performed," Moreau said.

The ruins have enjoyed an almost a mythical, nostalgic aura with long-time SIR patrons. Through the company's wanderings no venue matched the enduring memories of torch-lit scenes in the ruins or Titania's watery entrance on a barge going down the La Salle River in A Midsummer's Night Dream or the sound of a solitary bagpiper on the smoke-filled heath after the battle scene in Macbeth.

The place was also good for business. The last production there was Hamlet, which played to 3,000 spectators over 32 public performers. No show since has surpassed that turnout since. Last year's production of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, drew 1,350 patrons to 25 public performances.

"From the time we moved away our shows have cost us more," said Boulet, who is directing Henry V. "Each time we moved we lost some audience.

"We have been away as long as we were there in the first place. There's lots of our audience who have never been to the ruins. It will be exciting for us to re-learn the space and re-introduce it to our audience."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 G3

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