Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre

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Wahsonti-io Kirby, Tara Sky and Kathleen MacLean Credit: David Hou
Sarah Dodd and Mike Shara Credit: David Hou
John Wamsley and members of the company Credit: David Hou

Antoni Cimolino’s duration of seasons at Stratford Festival in Ontario is always a wonder. His careful work is exemplified by the commissioning of 1939 by Jani Lauzon (who also directs) and Kaitlyn Riordan.

Not only does the play draw directly from one of the 2022 season’s Shakespeare productions, All’s Well That Ends Well, which will be reviewed very soon, but it also speaks to Death and the King’s Horseman.

As with a number of other playwrights, such as William Shakespeare and Timberlake Wertenbaker, the duo has chosen to create a play within a play to comment on the ills of society.

The action is set in a Residential School in northern Ontario as war clouds gather and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit Canada.

This is no ordinary school, since the pupils come from what are now be known as First Nations groups or are, as described in the vernacular of the time, “Indians”, though even this oversimplifies, since they hail from different tribes.

The young people (all played by Indigenous actors) have effectively been kidnapped from reservations to receive a good old colonial education with the intention of making them forget their roots and become worthwhile Canadian citizens who in echoes of Death and the King’s Horseman, “have to forget all of that nonsense”.

Responsibility for achieving this lies with Mike Shara’s Father Williams, dull in every sense of the word, and well-meaning, Welsh-Canadian schoolteacher Sian Ap Dafydd played by Sarah Dodd.

They have their work cut out trying to teach a mismatched group of youngsters, all bar one deeply resentful of their lots and desperate to escape virtual enslavement.

After the announcement that the Regal couple will visit the school, it is decided that they will be entertained by a production of All’s Well That Ends Well, performed by the youngsters supplemented by the priest.

What develops through a two-hour running time is not only the depiction of a rehearsal period, followed by a fast-forward silent version of Shakespeare, but also an opportunity to debate the rights and wrongs of cultural appropriation and the desire of indigenous peoples to maintain long-held traditions.

The youngsters, who progress from comically bad actors to movingly good ones, each come from a different viewpoint, often asserted through private thoughts expressed on Brechtian blackboards.

Beth portrayed by Tara Sky is keen to assimilate and become a schoolteacher, while Richard Comeau as her brother Joseph simply wants to return to his own people.

John Walmsley’s Jean is a half-breed, suffering internal confusion, Susan played by Kathleen MacLean is a victim of bullying and abuse, while the star of both shows (Display and Shakespeare’s) is Wahsonti-io Kirby taking the role of Evelyne Rice.

She is the person keenest to uphold the family and tribal traditions, the inheritor of her medicine man grandfather’s singular skills and a mine of useful knowledge about Mohawk lore.

What ensues is primarily a comedy, although that covers the tragedy as we witness the ways in which those who run both the school and the country consistently attempt to diminish the young people, even as they grow both as actors and as people thanks to the wonders of Shakespeare.

Yet again, Stratford Festival has created a deeply moving and thought-provoking play that not only compliments All’s Well That Ends Well but is a fine achievement in its own right.

1939 is available via the StratFest@Home web site as part of the Festival’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Subscriptions cost $10 a month and allow access to a wide back catalogue as well as six productions from the recent season, appearing gradually through the early part of 2023.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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