This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
‘Re-Making Shakespeare’, Northern Stage, Newcastle, Saturday 14 July 2012.
By Monika Smialkowska, University of Northumbria
‘Re-making Shakespeare’, co-organised by Northern Stage, the School of English at Newcastle University, and the RSC, was billed as ‘an all-day event for theatre-makers, theatre spectators and theatre educators’. As an academic, one could be forgiven for expecting a conference. However, it proved to be much more than that – as Peter Reynolds, Professor of Theatre at Newcastle University, summed up, it was ‘One of those whole days at a theatre’. True, it included academic presentations by Ralph Cohen, Director of the New Blackfriars Theatre in Virginia and Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford. However, it also incorporated a discussion with Lotfi Achour and Anissa Daoud, the director and one of the leading actors of Macbeth; Leïla and Ben, running at the time at Northern Stage, and it culminated with a live (and lively!) performance of Tim Crouch’s one-man play, I, Malvolio. We were at a theatre, experiencing it first-hand, not just talking about it.
This was particularly appropriate to the day’s focus on re-making – as opposed to passive consumption or reverential worship – of Shakespeare. All contributors had their own story of ‘re-making Shakespeare’ to tell, from a staggering variety of angles. Jacqui O’Hanlon, RSC’s Director of Education, gave us an insider’s view of the mammoth venture that is the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. Tim Crouch reflected on ‘exploring and reclaiming’ Shakespeare’s minor characters in his creative retellings of the plays for young audiences. Erica Whyman, Chief Executive of Northern Stage, provided an insight into Newcastle’s dynamic relationship with Shakespeare. Roxana Silbert, RSC and Director Designate of the Birmingham Rep Theatre, shared her unique experiences of directing Shakespeare’s plays. Ralph Cohen made us all feel like setting off immediately to see Shakespeare performed at the New Blackfriars Theatre in Virginia – a working replica of an early modern indoors theatre. Michael Dobson gave a lively account of amateur productions of Shakespeare in contexts ranging from aristocratic coteries to WWII prisoners of war. And Lotfi Achour and Anissa Daoud provided a fresh perspective on Shakespeare by telling us how they adapted Macbeth to address contemporary Tunisian politics.
What these accounts had in common was an understanding that ‘Shakespeare’ is not a static and ever-fixed entity, but rather a dynamic phenomenon, which gets constantly reworked and adapted to fit diverse historical and cultural contexts. Accordingly, the key questions underpinning the day’s discussions were: ‘Who (if anybody) owns Shakespeare?’ and ‘What makes Shakespeare a unique platform for constructing and debating cultural identities?’ We didn’t find easy and conclusive answers. While we felt that Shakespeare is a global phenomenon (as witnessed by the wide range of countries involved in the World Shakespeare Festival), it was less clear whether this is due to his ‘essential’ qualities or to his sustained promotion by governmental, educational, and official cultural institutions. Jacqui O’Hanlon brought up an interesting statistic: for at least 50% of schoolchildren all over the world, Shakespeare is a compulsory part of their education. Does this mean that he has become part of the establishment? Is it still possible to engage with him in radical or subversive ways? Of course, Shakespeare scholars have debated these issues at least since the ‘theory wars’ of the 1970/80s (and we are no nearer resolving them now than we were then), but perhaps this constant dialogue is more important than finding definitive answers.
And ‘Re-Making Shakespeare’ provided just that – a space for dialogue. Moreover, this dialogue was open not only to academics, but also to teachers and theatre practitioners from different cultural backgrounds. As a result, one of the most important insights of the day was that Shakespeare should be understood not primarily through disembodied intellectual contemplation, but rather through active participation: ‘doing’ or ‘re-making’ Shakespeare as one’s own. Much discussion centred around the involvement of the audiences in producing meanings. To paraphrase Hamlet, it became clear that ‘the audience is the thing’. Fittingly, then, the last event of the day – Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, was an interactive performance, which questioned our ideas of what Shakespeare is – or should be – in physical terms. While the audience was told to sit up straight and berated with the words: ‘You big bullies’, ‘Is that the kind of thing you find funny?’, it was impossible not to question our reverence for the classics such as Twelfth Night and our attitudes to theatrical experience on the whole. And when hapless individuals were called out on stage to kick Malvolio’s backside or help him with his planned suicide, that experience – while funny – was also uncomfortable and challenging. It may sound strange that a bit of backside-kicking should provide an insightful conclusion to a day of ‘global conversation about Shakespeare’, but somehow it did. Well, that’s ‘re-making Shakespeare’ for you!
What do you think about this approach to Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!
To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.