Randall King takes over as theatre reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press. (Photo: Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press)
The first time I was asked to review a play was sometime in the mid-’80s
It was an assignment for a class in Shakespeare I was taking at York University. (Alas, no money changed hands.) On a chilly winter night, the coursework took me to an experimental production of Macbeth in a tiny venue somewhere in downtown Toronto.
The premise of the production was that most of Shakespeare’s text was jettisoned and that actors would interpret the tragedy mostly through movement.
I still recall the actress playing Lady Macbeth. In a pivotal moment — probably about the time she would have told Macbeth to “screw your courage to the sticking-place” — she arched her back and practically hissed, like a feral cat in heat.
It was unorthodox as hell, but I do recall giving it a favourable review.
What can I say? It made an impression.
As I take over from Kevin Prokosh, who retires Friday after more than 35 years at the Free Press — 25 of which were spent writing about and reviewing theatre — I invoke this little blast from the past in an attempt to assure readers that, while I have been covering the movie beat in Winnipeg for the better part of a quarter-century, I move into my new role with a great deal of enthusiasm and love for the stage.
There is a reason I have always happily volunteered to sub for Kevin as a theatre reviewer whenever he was on vacation or double-booked.
I first started going to plays in Winnipeg coincident with the stage career of my brother, David King, an actor and playwright who got his start at Actors’ Showcase before moving to the West Coast, where he now resides.
Between my brothers and myself, we have five kids actively involved in theatre, including my own daughter, who will study at Studio 58 in Vancouver this winter.
It’s safe to say I’m invested.
While I will not entirely give up coverage of movies, theatre will be my primary focus, and I enter that realm wholeheartedly.
That said, I must confess my first exposure to the notion of a theatre critic was via Addison DeWitt, the elegant, viperish New York writer played by George Sanders who gives Bette Davis such a hard time in All About Eve (1950). For a summation of DeWitt’s character, witness his exchange with Anne Baxter’s villainous actress Eve Harrington: “You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.”
Treatment of theatre critics in movies is invariably unflattering. For further reference, check out the cruel scribes in Theatre of Blood, a 1973 horror-comedy in which unhinged Shakespearean ham actor Vincent Price avenges himself on all his harsh critics by staging their murders in homage to the Bard. (Movie director Chris Columbus has always threatened to do a remake, and given the 17 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes of his last film, Pixels, I’m thinking it may yet become a reality.)
Suffice it to say I won’t be using Addison as a model, not while I can always invoke the dignified, sympathetic and invariably classy approach Kevin Prokosh brought to pages of the Free Press.
On the subject of transitioning from movies to theatre, I would give the last word to another character in All About Eve, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), a respected theatre director enticed to work in Hollywood.
“What book of rules says the theatre exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna?... Want to know what the theatre is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band — all theatre.”