Driftwood Theatre’s Love Letter to Shakespeare

Poster for 'Living with Shakespeare".
Animation of a man looking shocked and staring at Shakespeare who is sunken into a chair, drinking soda, and reading. There is garbage and a mess all around him. 
Text reads: "Living with Shakespeare

In Living With Shakespeare, Jeremy Smith takes a personal approach to a playwright who has loomed over his career for the past thirty-odd years. Beginning as “a shy kid from Nowhere, Ontario” and eventually becoming the artistic director of Driftwood Theatre, Smith recounts the rain storms, lullabies, motorcycle rides, and missed family gatherings that have shaped his Bard-imbued life. 

The script, written by Smith and director Steven Gallagher, incorporates beloved Shakespeare passages deftly into the storytelling, and the show feels almost like a jukebox musical, but with Shakespeare quotes. There’s actual music, too—Smith’s monologue is accompanied by the piano stylings of Tom Lillington, who joins him in singing songs from Twelfth Night and Love’s Labour’s Lost. 

The set, designed by Carlyn Rahusaar-Routledge, is busy and delightful, featuring a large armchair on a preposterously enormous Complete Works of Shakespeare. Lighting design by Connor Price-Kelleher interacts magically with the natural light of the early evening, and I could swear the team paid off the wind to blow gently at just the right moments to give the audience goosebumps. In between anecdotes, Smith’s gaze rises just above the audience and he addresses Shakespeare as “You”, asking him questions as one would God. The effect is, well, Shakespearean.

As is often the case with Shakespeare, the show contains a good mix of silliness and seriousness. A bit about school kids throwing pennies at an actor playing Hamlet had me cackling, and the story of Smith finding out that his wife was pregnant with their first child nearly brought me to tears. In the show’s most poignant moments, Smith explores how he found himself drifting away from his role as a husband and father, and how he is finding his way back to family.

In Living with Shakespeare, Smith catalogues his career thoroughly, to the point where it sometimes feels over-indulgent, but the playful directing and polished performance keep the show rolling smoothly. In a series of detailed vignettes, one moment feels a little different from the rest. Smith describes 2018 as a difficult but important summer—a particularly stressful production of As You Like It forced him to sit down with his cast and crew and take some serious criticism for the first time in his career. My first thought upon hearing this was…really? For the first time after how many years in a leadership role? 

But that’s how it is, isn’t it? The people who run the show are often the hardest ones to speak up to. Working in the arts involves plenty of ego-stroking and delicate handling of people’s feelings (and I say this as someone with the word “criticism” in my job description). Arts organizations are not known for offering steady jobs, stable environments, or transparent communication. For all the unorthodox ways we relate to each other in the arts compared to other workplaces, it takes a concerted effort to disrupt the effects of hierarchy. And when the people at the top won’t shake things up power-wise, it’s hard for anyone else to do anything about it.

I don’t love the way Smith dances around this conversation about leadership—it feels a little too calculated and doesn’t have the energy that he brings to other topics. I understand that this is the Ontario theatre scene and that everyone is up in each other’s business all the time, so there are risks to airing past drama onstage. Still, there’s an unsettling vagueness in Smith’s discussion of this period and of the lessons he learned from it. Where other parts of the show go much deeper—Smith’s reflections on fatherhood, for example, are profound and moving—this one feels strangely shallow. It seems like Smith is taking a small step into reckoning with his power without being ready to leap in. For such an all-in show, this moment feels too timid. 

But I can live with it. 

Driftwood Theatre’s ‘Living With Shakespeare’ is playing at the Kick & Push Festival in Market Square on August 5th and 6th, 2023.  The show will be on tour in Ontario until August 27th, 2023. More information can be found here

This article was edited on December 1st, 2023 to update formatting.