The late, great Sir Laurence Olivier once remarked of Shakespeare that he was the "nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God." Far from a throwaway statement, it is indicative of the fierce passion some actors (and also writers, directors, and general members of the theatre-going public) feel for the work of the Bard.
Why, then, is it not a common event to find a Shakespearean production in the amateur circles of Melbourne? For a city that is, arguably, the arts capital of Australia, we are sadly lacking in homage to William Shakespeare. This is not to discount the rich display of theatre on offer that frequents Victorian stages throughout the year. Many of the productions we stage are new and edgy and give up-and-coming writers and practitioners an invaluable chance to hone their craft. Many smash-hit musicals we receive from Broadway and the West End are a source of great excitement and speculation. How will certain shows 'translate' on our shores? Are audiences ready for the controversy and fierce debate ignited by the staging of new productions? What fresh view can a relatively inexperienced director give to a well-loved G&S? All compelling questions with even more eagerly awaited answers. In the meantime, a script by the godfather of Elizabethan theatre, ol' Bill himself, is a rare sight indeed amongst the pitches for new seasons.
I have been involved in a handful of Shakespearean productions and learnt a great deal from watching the more seasoned performers approach the text. In all cases, the budgets were limited and the casts smaller than, say, the ensemble of a large musical. The audiences were interested, but for most shows we struggled to fill all seats. Performing in a mix of comedies and tragedies has revealed to me that the genres don’t discriminate. We encountered the same problems regardless of which Shakespearean production we staged. When I get the itch to do another show, I always check audition notices for Shakespeare first, and am always disappointed by the minimal or, more often than not, nonexistent productions advertised.
As someone who likes to talk a great deal, I have asked around, curious to know the general opinion on this issue. After reassuring myself by trawling the interwebs for similar aficionados (see Sir Larry's quote, above) that I was not an oddity, I ventured into the depths of the amateur performer’s psyche. I was somewhat crushed by the response.
"Boring," was the general consensus. Reeling, I retreated back into my dark corner of iambic pentamenter and hugged my Norton Anthology to my chest protectively. Boring? Shakespeare? Okay, I was perhaps not overly enamoured by the droll monotone of a Year Ten English class forced to read Romeo and Juliet aloud, but was it possible to discount the entire works of this man, nay, this GENIUS, in a mere two syllables of withering judgement? Refusing to believe it, I pressed on. "But why?" I pleaded, desperate to understand.
"Can't follow it." (These replies were not all made in incomplete sentences; I am paraphrasing for dramatic effect).
Rightio-then. A fair argument. After all, the Bard isn't famous for his brevity. Unfazed, I continued.
"Why can't you follow it?"
This was harder to answer. Without wanting to insult their fellow performers, some small utterances were mumbled mentioning 'the language.'
Ah. Not so difficult to ignore, and perhaps the most daunting aspect of staging a Shakespearean work. Without even touching on the fact that Shakespeare can take thrice as long to make a point as say, Noel Coward or even Oscar Wilde, the actual make-up of words into phrases and sentences is somewhat of a headache to decipher for someone new to the Bard’s works.
Putting aside the obvious fact that dodgy actors are difficult to connect with in a plain old, contemporary, modern-day, English-speaking role, I know plenty of delightful, talented, and extremely competent actors who won’t touch Shakespeare. When asked why, one such person replied that he believed to perform Shakespeare correctly and to do it justice was one of the topmost difficult feats for an actor and he didn’t believe he was ready for it.
Should Cosette only be sung by Herald Sun Aria finalists? Should NIDA graduates be the only performers permitted to tackle Chekhov? Shakespeare is difficult, yes, but this shouldn’t be a reason to shy away from staging it. Rather, it should be grounds to produce more and more productions, to give people a chance to discover the finer nuances and points of the stories, to experience the ‘A-ha!’ moment that comes with learning the exact place to pause dramatically mid-soliloquy. And it gives audiences a chance to discover a love they probably didn’t realise they had inside them.
I’ll never forget watching Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet. I was mesmerised from the first scene. I have been to several Bell Shakespeare productions since and have not been disappointed. I was privileged enough to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Henry V in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. There was plenty of story and history I knew nothing about in Henry V, and I went into the theatre thinking maybe I would struggle to stay interested. But the passion, heart, and soul these performers threw into the stage was infectious. These professional companies use consummate actors who know their bodies and use them to tell the story as much as their voices. But this skill is not exclusive to performers of such calibre. They had to learn it somewhere and it’s never to late to start.
I am aware of the financial woes facing many companies today (RIP Whitehorse). I am also aware that staging something that struggles for audiences is a risky endeavour for such situations. However, Shakespeare can be performed with minimal costs. Elaborate sets were not used in Shakespeare’s day. You can do away with the cost of hiring orchestra. A cast of 16, large but not unheard of for Shakespeare, will surely generate more personal ticket sales than a cast of 6 for particular musicals. Friends, Victorians, theatre companies! Give the Bard a chance. He’s retained his popularity for nearly 400 years now. That has to count for something.