(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/4; Photo: Divine … Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II. Photograph: David Hou.)

A disco king hits the dancefloor, Beatrice and Benedick’s romcom gets a feminist framing and Lear faces dystopia as the revered rep company returns in full force

Drive west of Toronto for over an hour, beyond a hamlet called Punkeydoodles Corners, and you reach the village of Shakespeare, with a pie shop and truck centre bearing the Bard’s name. Up the road lies Stratford, an affable town where Romeo Street leads you to the banks of the river Avon (pronounced, unlike its English cousin, with a short A).

Here, 70 years ago this month, the inaugural Stratford Shakespearean festival took place beneath a leaky canvas tent roof, with Alec Guinness holding court in Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well, both directed by Tyrone Guthrie over a six-week season. It almost didn’t happen: a black hole in the finances meant an emergency meeting was held the day before Guinness set sail to determine whether he should bother making the journey.

The festival’s success gave Stratford, which was settled in 1832, a theatrical reputation to match its British namesake – an improbable achievement for this former railroad town, which is surrounded by farmland. Canada’s largest theatre festival, it now runs for more than half the year, with 13 productions staged in four different buildings in 2023, including the striking new Tom Patterson theatre, named after the journalist who founded the festival. Visitors who remember the early tent years are still returning, prompted – as is tradition here – to take their seats by a fanfare played live outside the Festival theatre. The musicians – with four herald trumpets and a parade snare drum – assemble to announce each performance there, as popular a local custom as the annual release of swans into the Avon.

Maev Beaty as Beatrice and Graham Abbey as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford festival. Photograph: David Hou

You could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting those shows to be something akin to ye olde heritage Shakespeare, preserved in aspic for tourists fitting a matinee around trips to the city’s smart eateries. But there are no mothballs in this season. Actor turned artistic director Antoni Cimolino, whose Stratford roles have included Romeo and Laertes, tells me they resist the idea of a “house” approach to productions. “If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs.”

Take the opening of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Chris Abraham and bookended by new scenes written by Erin Shields, known for previous feminist takes on King Lear and Paradise Lost. Staged on Julie Fox’s lush garden set, with succulents including outrageously phallic cacti, this comedy does not open with the usual back-slapping, macho banter about the “feats of a lion” in war. Instead, Maev Beaty’s Beatrice rises amid the audience, as Allison Edwards-Crewe’s Hero appears upstage before a mirror that resembles both a huge moon and a band of gold.

In a wry, softly saucy prologue, Beatrice invites us to consider the expectations faced by Hero specifically and by all women then and now. As well as providing ample satire – “it is exhausting to be innocent,” says Beatrice, with a witty rhyme about Hero needing to mute the strumming of her “private lute” – this is a canny way of ensuring we focus from the start on the inner life of a character whose reticence is all the more marked by the quicksilver exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice.

‘If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs’ … the Stratford Festival theatre. Photograph: Stratford Shakespeare festival/Richard Bain

Shields’s prologue is true to Beatrice’s wit and the spirit of Much Ado as, with the gentlest waft around her groin, she reminds us that “nothing” was once slang for vagina. The play unfolds with a lighting level that allows the audience to see each other, essential for some deft crowd work at the edges of the Festival theatre’s beloved thrust stage, with its pioneering design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The venue fits an audience of 1,800 but no one here is further than 65ft from the stage.

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