Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star Theatre Critic
STRATFORD—Christopher Plummer’s life is an open book. Literally.
It isn’t enough that he’s given hundreds of interviews over the past few years, or written a very revealing autobiography (titled In Spite of Myself), but he’s now, letting it all hang out — from a literary point of view — on stage.
On Aug. 2, he opened A Word or Two at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a one-man show in which his lifelong love with literature serves as a framework for him to tell still more about his 82 years on earth.
“An intellectual biography?” Plummer hoots over that description of the show. “Intellectual is a rather frightening word, one I choose to stay away from. But it is, very definitely, an autobiography.”
Slowly unwinding after a sold-out matinee preview which ended with a thunderous standing ovation, Plummer in repose still retains that saturnine elegance that’s been his professional calling card for decades.
And while he remains the warmly co-operative interview subject he’s always been, he doesn’t want to reveal too many specifics about this project.
“Like a lover, this show has its secrets and if you give them all away too soon, then where’s the mystery? Where’s the attraction?
“I will tell you this: it begins and ends with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is a perfect framing device. All the characters can speak to you and through you and it lets you know this is a world where anything can happen.”
The particular rabbit hole that Plummer fell through at a very early age was the elegant home just outside of Montreal where he spent his youth.
“My family had this old-fashioned, rather Victorian custom of gathering together and reading out loud after dinner. It was actually very attractive.
“We would sit around and take turns reading all these great works of literature, of course, with a family like mine, you didn’t just read them, you performed them.”
Plummer laughs, recalling these formative moments that spurred him on, indirectly, to a career when he has frequently been hailed as the finest living actor of his generation and he earned the distinction earlier this year of becoming the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award.
“’Words, words, words,’” says Plummer, quoting Hamlet. “This play is all about the first time a young person was influenced by words and how it changed his life. You could say that I grew up every decade of my life with literature. In fact, literature made me grow up.”
And while Plummer’s family were responsible for his initial love of reading and what it meant, it was a little later that he grew familiar with the particular author who would truly bend his destiny.
“I had an English teacher at school who made us get up and do all the parts of the Shakespeare play we were studying, which immediately made us love the play instead of hating the author. You were acting it, you were a part of it.”
Plummer acknowledges that there will be some Shakespeare in A Word or Two (“It would be a criminal offence if I didn’t!”), but he’s rationing out the amount.
“They’re so saturated with Shakespeare here I wanted to avoid too much of it. Give him a chance but not let him run wild.”
Instead, there is a wide variety of authors represented. Not just those Plummer has performed on stage (like Edmond Rostand and his Cyrano de Bergerac), but poets he admires (W.H. Auden) and novelists he reveres (Vladimir Nabokov).
“I was reminded again how much I love Nabokov and I started to wish I’d done a little bit more of him, but then I’d want to do a little bit more of everybody and the show would run five hours. Oh my God, no! I have a horror of things running too long. This comes in just under 90 minutes, which is a fine length for both me and the audience.”
Obviously an actor like Plummer just doesn’t wake up one morning and say “Oh, let me compile a one-man show of my favourite authors,” so where did this piece come from?
He smiles slyly. “I actually did this first in the 1980s for a library near where I live in Connecticut that was trying to raise some money. They wanted to build an addition for classical volumes, so they asked me if I would give a lecture.”
That trumpet call of a voice rings out in mocking laughter. “A lecture? Me? I said to them, ‘Not a lecture, God forbid! But I would love to talk about words and how much they mean to me.’”
This initial version was less than a half hour, but the overall effect pleased Plummer so much he filed it away in his memory.
Over the next few decades, he did more experiments with verbal presentations, including his wildly successful package of speeches from Henry V that he does with symphony orchestras around North America, matching it to William Walton’s score from the Laurence Olivier film version.
But he makes it clear A Word or Two has nothing like that happening.
“No, no, no, once you release that glorious torrent of music, you have to perform at a totally different level and that’s a level which doesn’t suit a lot of the delicacy of this material.
“There is music in the show, but very little and very subtle. I love performing with a symphony orchestra, though. It brings me closer to what I really wanted to be, which is a concert pianist.”
It was a little more than a year ago that Stratford’s departing artistic director, Des McAnuff, asked Plummer if he had any kind of intimate project that he wanted to do and that’s when he recalled his presentation at the Connecticut library.
“Des asked me to do it for him simply, sitting around his kitchen table, so that’s just what I did. He liked it and so here we are.”
The Plummer/McAnuff partnership has yielded rich rewards for Stratford, with productions such as Caesar and Cleopatra and The Tempest filling houses during the theatre season and then providing the basis of films that have garnered wide acclaim elsewhere.
“I think Des is a terrific director,” Plummer enthuses. “He takes risks and I like to take risks as well, so we’re well suited to each other. Sometimes he goes a little overboard and I say ‘Whoa!’ or vice versa.”
But Plummer feels that McAnuff’s major contribution has been in putting a truly human face on these potentially literary pieces.
“Des kept pushing me saying I had to be more personal, but I didn’t want to make it sound personal in a conceited way. I wanted it to be self-deprecating. But he kept pushing me to reveal the truth. And now, I really feel like I’m talking directly to the audience.”
When asked if he discovered anything about himself working on this piece, Plummer simply shakes his head.
“I’d already discovered myself a long time ago. But I was able to draw on myself and I was grateful, for once, that I was old. I didn’t have to imagine experiences. I’d had them all!
“Youth, love, middle age, then death. Right from love to middle age? Well, sometimes it feels like that’s how it happened.
“And death? I’ve done it so often on stage and screen that when the real thing finally does come, I think I’ll know how to behave.”
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ARCHIBALD MAC LEISH
I grew very close to him when we worked on J.B. and I admire the complex simplicity of his work to this day.
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