Shakespeare’s plays, for all their celebration in high schools and amateur drama societies across the nation, have sometimes been seen by modern audiences as somewhat archaic. For Julie Baz, co-founder and director of The Actors Factory and creator of Glebe’s only functioning theatre, the Roxbury Hotel, this was disappointing. So, together with David Jeffrey, her co-founder of the Roxbury, she founded the annual Sydney Shakespeare Festival, with the aim of making Shakespeare accessible to a wide audience. Held on the spectacular harbour foreshore in Glebe, the festival chooses two plays every year, usually a comedy and a tragedy, with the same cast performing both shows on alternate nights.

“We are committed to presenting Shakespeare in a fashion that is in its original form, but in a timeless and accessible way – sometimes cut down for practicality,” she explains. “But we do not add modern references as we believe the audience do not need Shakespeare to be dumbed down to be relatable.” As director of the plays and artistic director of the festival, Baz says she trusts in the original material.  “The plays are timeless and universal and we trust in that.”

She says that she is particularly interested in making the true intentions of the author clear to the audience in the performances. “We endeavour to stage all of our productions with clarity and accessibility,” she explains. “We aim to lay out the political, psychological and emotional dimensions of the work as fully as possible, and make the language comprehensible to the widest audience.”

This intention has led to one of the central tenets of the festival: that entry is free for children aged under thirteen, people with disabilities and those aged over 65. This has led to a family atmosphere and an appeal which spans generations. Baz explains, “We consider both the ‘experts’ who have seen the plays many times, as well as those people experiencing the play, Shakespeare or even live theatre for the first time.”

However, while staying true to the original material, the festival also aims to breathe new life into Shakespeare, by making surprising casting choices and allowing the cast to develop their own interpretations of the characters, rather than allowing past performances to influence their own. “We treated each play as if it was the first time it had been performed,” Baz says. “This allowed the cast develop their own interpretations, rather than focus on preconceived notions of how certain characters and scenes should be played out.”

She feels that this has led to some unusual interpretations: “The audience may be surprised by some of our casting choices and interpretations of characters – we do not look for what has been done before, but for what suits our cast and what we think our audience will engage with.”

This year’s two plays, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, do not follow the usual choice of a comedy and tragedy, but Baz says the contrast is still clear. “This year we decided to deviate from those extremes,” she says. “We selected Much Ado About Nothing as it contains both drama and comedy and As You Like It as a romantic, whimsical adventure.”

Much Ado About Nothing is the first play to be repeated, having been performed in the first year of the festival, in 2008. “We love it,” Baz says. As You Like It, she adds, was chosen for its romantic themes, which remain relevant today. “It has beautifully written dialogue about the many forms and feelings concerning love."

John Michael Burdon, who plays Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and Touchstone and Adam in As You Like It, also feels that these interpretations may show something audiences have not seen before. “I believe the relationship and interpretation of Touchstone and Audrey is something that may not have been seen in the past,” he says. “It has provided a lot of people with a jumping off point for discussion… It is about remaining true to the text and using that to unlock the characters’ relationships.”

The decision to use the same cast for both plays is consistent in every year of the festival. Baz describes it as, “A challenge, but besides practical reasons, it gives the actors the unique and rewarding experience of performing in repertory and allows them to stretch their acting muscles by playing multiple roles.

Burdon, who has performed in the festival for four years, says, “Touchstone is a joy to play because I have an immense freedom with him. There is little structure to the character and little is actually said about him as opposed to Benedick so the opportunity to really create a character from scratch and explore where I could take him and where the boundaries lie with Touchstone has been the most fun and challenging.” Benedick, on the other hand, was a more defined character, but one that Burdon had always wanted to play. “Benedick has always been a favourite character of mine as I believe he is one of the most truly amusing and wittiest characters Shakespeare created. I title him Petruchio’s more intelligent counterpart. I love his monologues and his character journey and it is a character who people can relate to.

The decision to stage the festival outside was intentional, Baz says, to ensure a connection with the history behind Shakespeare’s plays. “Outdoor theatre is the most magical, accessible and historical performance style and particularly suits Shakespeare,” she says. However, she adds that the setting is not without its challenges, and lists them: “Random dogs – and sometimes their owners! –  wandering through, as well as wind, rain and technical limitations. However, these challenges all form part of the experience, so we try and embrace them.”

Burdon adds that the setting informs his interpretation of his characters. “In outdoor theatre there is no room to be internal, everything has to be on the surface for the audience to relate to and it has to be large enough that it doesn’t become minimised in the outdoor setting,” he explains. “The challenge for me has always been being able to bring a nuanced performance in a large externalised performance. The key, he adds, is to find “The right balance between being large but being truthful… I always consciously choose to never ignore my surroundings but to include them.”

Baz hopes that the plays will renew the audience’s excitement about Shakespeare. “Hopefully, the audience will be pleasantly surprised that they can fully understand and relate to Shakespeare’s words,” she says.

The Sydney Shakespeare Festival run until SUnday 24th February. Visit TheatrePeople's WhatsOn page for venue and ticket information.

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