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.
Talking to the Audience
By Bethany Prottey
For an English undergraduate, my earliest experiences of Shakespeare were surprisingly uninspired. At the age of fourteen I was just one bored teenager in a class of thirty bemoaning our teacher’s decision to impose Shakespeare upon us. It was irrelevant. The language was difficult. And why did we have to read literature that was centuries old anyway?
Thankfully as I grew older I began to enjoy Shakespeare’s works more. Through GCSE and A Level texts I was excited to notice connections such as recurrent themes, symbolism and imagery. But undoubtedly the real turning point was seeing Shakespeare in performance. Seeing the texts in performance brought the stage directions to life and stimulated discussion amongst my classmates that took surprisingly diverse directions. The texts were no longer abstract works, firmly rooted in the past. They were real, relevant and applicable to modern life. For me, the key to understanding Shakespeare lay not in what academics or historians decided the text ‘meant’, but on the exciting revelation that Shakespeare could and does mean different things to different people at the same time.
So this has been one of my main motivations for joining the Year of Shakespeare project as an undergraduate researcher. In my role as part of a University of Birmingham research scholarship, I have had the opportunity to interview audience members and gather a variety of responses through online media such as Twitter and blog responses. This has allowed me, if you’ll excuse the well worn cliché, to explore other audience member’s Shakespearean journey, how they came to be watching that particular performance and what unique angles they brought to their analysis. Whether they chose to look at the performance from that of a student or a seasoned Shakespeare aficionado, a feminist of a friend of an actor, each audience interview has consequently influenced the way I personally have viewed the performance and most definitely changed the way I think about Shakespeare’s oeuvre in the twenty-first century.
Over the past five weeks I have been privileged enough to see eight plays, and have enjoyed each and every one in a different way. One production in particular that stood out for me by changing my perception of Shakespeare’s relevance in the twenty-first century was Maria Aberg’s King John. This was my first experience of a history play and also my first, and probably only, experience of seeing the infamous Dirty Dancing lift incorporated into an Elizabethan drama. Despite my reservations prior to entering the theatre over my inner purist’s desire to ‘see the play how it was meant to be performed’, I am pleased to say that King John silenced all concerns I had held. The frivolity of the wedding scene with its use of oversized balloons and masses of tickertape contrasted brilliantly with the tragic second half to create, as one audience member aptly described, the ‘ultimate hangover’. In my eyes, this performance confirmed the universality of Shakespeare’s stories, whether performed in garish pink suits or chainmail.
A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs was the performance that I found particularly illuminating following discussion with audience members. The numerous viewpoints presented by each audience member, drawing connections and noting allusions to a wide variety of Shakespearean plays from King Lear to Henry V, made me fully realise the far-reaching extent of ‘Shakespeare’s afterlives’ – not just in the United Kingdom but globally. The ability of this play to incorporate elements of Shakespearean subject matter, characters and themes whilst allowing for the inclusion of early Mexican culture and history is testament to the universality of Shakespeare’s works.
But crucially, Shakespeare’s literary legacy only remains relevant in the twenty-first century as long as a variety of audience responses are valued for their own individuality. As Helen Freshwater notes in her book Theatre and Audience, the responses of theatre audiences are ‘rarely unified or stable’ and should be celebrated for being so. This opportunity to engage with audience members as part of the Year of Shakespeare project has been invaluable in emphasising that fact. Each audience member has indeed brought their own ‘unique cultural reference points’ to their post-production analysis, with open style interviewing allowing for discussion to explore production aspects ranging from postcolonialism to feminism, tragedy to characterisation, and stagecraft to comparisons with previous productions. The diverse nature of audience responses collected in just one season of performances for the World Shakespeare Festival has confirmed that not only is Shakespeare still relevant in the twenty-first century, but is accessible to everyone.
The interviews Bethany has conducted appear on the review pages for several RSC productions. You can find a full archive of our RSC and Globe interviews at https://soundcloud.com/shakespeare-institute.
To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.