Hitting it on the proverbial nose

Stratford’s star delivers a crowd-stirring performance, just when it was needed most

Hitting it on the proverbial noseTwelve hours after leaving the stage as Cyrano de Bergerac, and three hours before he will return to it as Macbeth, Colm Feore—on his wife’s birthday, no less—is still doing his duty by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Feore is the star presence in a season that was in deep financial trouble—advance ticket sales were down 25 per cent in December—before an infusion of government tourism dollars rescued the day. More than $3.5 million from Ottawa and Queen’s Park allowed targeted marketing drives, in Ontario and in the U.S., home to more than a third of most years’ audiences. The campaigns worked, and the festival was able to reinstate more than 20 performances it had put on hold. Now success was up to the performers, above all to Feore.

Far from looking tired, the 50-year-old actor is thrumming with as much energy as any nasally deformed Gascon swashbuckler or blood-drenched Scottish king. With the move from one role to two—last evening’s performance was opening night for Cyrano de Bergerac—Feore is willing to admit the pace is “a little exhausting,” not that he hasn’t performed three or even four roles in past festival seasons. “The moment the play stops and the nose comes off, I’m thinking about lines in Macbeth and then there’s the after- party and people wanting to talk to me. I didn’t get a glass of water until 1 a.m. Not that it was water I wanted.”

Feore eventually got his glass of red wine and, presumably, some sleep. Now he’s happy to talk about photography: he’s a serious camera buff, with a shot printed in American Photo magazine and a stash of discontinued Polaroid film in a vegetable freezer on a friend’s farm. And to talk too about the festival, his craft, and the particular importance Cyrano holds for him. Stratford, where Feore first acted in 1981 and where two of his three children still attend school, remains home to a Canadian actor more peripatetic than most. So opening night meant not just critics in the audience, but friends too, some of whom had lines tailored for them. “That farmer with my Polaroids? He was there. He’s a big bird lover, so when I said the lines about ‘this has nothing to do with eagles,’ I added, ‘It has nothing to do with ornithology—stupid birds.’ I was looking right at him.”

And the director is his wife, Donna Feore, who was, to boot, owed a birthday present: “I was terrified last night,” Feore says seriously. “There was so much I wanted to do in the part now that I saw it through Donna’s eyes, so much for her, for her birthday.” They have been married since 1994, the last time Colm performed as Cyrano, in a highly praised production, after which he left Stratford for a decade to make his mark in film and TV. (The bilingual Feore has appeared in Québécois films, as Pierre Trudeau in an acclaimed CBC miniseries and as the U.S. president’s kidnapped husband in a season of 24, and is now in The Listener, all roles that have made him a familiar face to millions.)

The director, Feore adds dryly, was much more influential this time around. A female director meant more emphasis on the view of Roxanne, Cyrano’s beloved, and on the hero’s own emotional life. Then there’s this year’s particular strand of “cross-pollination,” as the actor likes to call it, sparked by playing more than one role at a time. Cyrano and Macbeth create “a perfect balance” in his opinion, not so much cancelling each other out as each informing the other’s portrayal. Feore says he told Dion Johnstone, who plays Macduff, the avenging angel who finally kills Macbeth: “You think you’re a hero, but my job is to show you’re just a man like me, another childless killer-for-hire, to say ‘Welcome to my world. F–k you.’ ” Cyrano too has “a defiant, independent soul,” but strives to be “the best a human being can be.” Nonetheless Feore, who is amassing a knife collection to rival his 40-plus cameras, slyly notes the two characters have their common points, “each are good with steel, and each know both edges of their blades.” (Why the knives? “I get these ideas when I’m preparing for a role,” he laughs, “and I just go with them. I read a lot of philosophy for Cyrano—Spinoza, Descartes—and I started collecting knives.”)

Whatever alchemy Feore has brought to his Cyrano—middle-aged realism, wifely influence, or the channelled spirit of Macbeth—it worked opening-night wonders on both critics and audience. Warm applause for the players became a standing ovation when Feore came back out, a tonic for the festival every bit as bracing as a government grant.

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