3 min

Shakespeare’s gay wink

Homo content in Bard interpretation of Much Ado

Credit: Xtra West files

Comedy comes from pain. We know this instinctively, sure as we know that walking into a glass door-that! That’s funny! We also dissolve in giggles when the boss says something politically incorrect, or inappropriate. Laughter is the escape hatch for our social mores.

For this reason, Shakespeare can be damn funny and The Family Circus (that vapid bubble of comic where nothing bad ever happens) cannot. Actor James Fagen Tait, now in his fourth year with Bard on the Beach, speaks eloquently on the matter over Michael Stipe eyewear and a rhythmic passage of cigarette smoke.

This season at Bard, Tait finds himself playing the headborough Verges in Much Ado About Nothing, opposite the Bard’s artistic director, Christopher Gaze as the pompous but loveable Constable Dogberry. “Christopher would turn to me,” says Tait, “and go: ‘I think they must be lovers.'”

There is a strong case for the queer reading, made utterly fascinating by director Michael Sharnata’s decision to set the scene in 1945 Vancouver. Soldiers return from war to wives who do not recognize them, to homes they get lost in. After the passionate circumstances of war, masculinity and the strength of male-male relationships are called seriously into question. The homoerotics of Much Ado, then, resonate in this performance with Elizabethan times as well as our more recent past.

“The first thing these men do is hug,” notes Tait of the ambiguous pairing. Dogberry, in fact, hugs anyone he can get a hold of. Most often, to endear himself to more powerful figures. “The humour is in their inappropriateness.” In Sharnata’s 1945 invention, this taboo is pulled taut against post-war conservatism. One also might wonder why Verges and Dogberry refer to each other always as “neighbour” and “partner,” or why they are constantly together, or why they are designed to be so complimentary. And why-oh why?-are they kept at home? Why are these men outside of society?

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies have queer elements (gender play may be the most common). But they do have an annoying habit of concluding with ill-conceived heterosexual couplings. And Tait notes that Bard on the Beach “is one of the most gay-friendly theatres I’ve ever worked in.” Gay-friendly theatre? Cold ice anyone?

Tait wisely prefers to leave the question of whether his character is a flamer to the audience. Respecting the audience’s intelligence and powers of interpretation appears to be par for the course with Sharnata’s work. While Bard performances have developed a reputation for extreme ham, this one aims for a subtler vibe. “It’s a sophisticated comedy,” says Tait. “The writing is mature. We’ve discussed this play as being a kind of tragedy, in fact.”

Tait recently performed in the Playhouse’s phenomenal production of Equus (alongside Christopher Gaze) where he was able to try on a decidedly mature role. “I’m interested in more than comedy,” he assures me, after I make the mistake of calling him a comic. “Things just turned out this way,” he shrugs, waving a hand at the majority of comic roles he’s been cast in, like so many forgotten dates.

But an interest in a broad spectrum of roles does not dilute Tait’s creative intelligence. Speaking with equal grace on Mozart or clown college, Tait imbues each subject with a charming intimacy. Like all the best actors, Tait’s mind appears to be a multi-faceted machine-capable of turning on a dime, and always accommodating of fresh strategy.

And how does Mr Tait relax before a performance?

“I scream.” he says, taking a final sip of coffee. “Or I meditate. It depends.” Without further explanation, he tells me to call him Jimmy and picks up the latest Xtra West, flipping to my latest column to prove he’s done his research.

“Oh don’t read that.” I breathe it all out in a quick gasp. “I got in loads of trouble for that one. It’s more of a dirty thing.”

Jimmy looks up from the paper and coughs. “Oh,” he demurs, launching a crimson scarf around him, “dirty can be good.” A many-faceted mind indeed.

* Coming soon: Jimmy directs The Complete Works of William Shakespeare at the Arts Club.


Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park.

To Sep 26.

Tix: 604-739-0559.