VALIANT OTHELLO

IN 2007, RAY CHONG NEE VOWED THAT ONE DAY HE WOULD PLAY OTHELLO FOR BELL SHAKESPEARE. IN 2016, HE’S ABOUT TO DO PRECISELY THAT. WE TALKED TO HIM ABOUT THE JOURNEY SO FAR, AND THE ROAD AHEAD.

When did director Peter Evans first talk to you about playing Othello?
I can remember the exact moment when Peter floated the question last year. I was in Melbourne, the phone rang, and Peter said, “Would you be interested in playing Othello?” My heart leapt almost out of my mouth but I caught it, put it back down and said, “Yes”.

We talked about the context of what he wanted to do and how he saw it. And I revealed to him that in 2007 I was on the street in Sydney and I’d seen some banners hanging from lampposts advertising the Bell Shakespeare production of Othello with Wayne Blair. I distinctly remember looking at that banner and thinking: “One day, I’m going to do that play with that company”.

So when Peter called and asked me – that’s why my heart leapt up. I still can’t quite believe that it’s happening!

Rehearsals are not far away now. How are you feeling?
I’m very scared about it but I think that’s a good thing because it proves I care about the project. I’ve done a lot of preparation and I go through phases where I think I’m on track but, then again, I don’t want to get complacent.

Othello will tour nationally for six months. You were in the Bell Shakespeare Players in 2013, spending months performing in communities around the country. What did you learn from that experience that might help you this time around?
Being in The Players was quite physically demanding. We would do a maximum of three shows per day, and maybe a show in the evening too. Plus you had the car rides with your fellow cast mates. So in essence it would be nine or ten hours every day that you would have to be “switched on”.

We had to learn to look after our voices and look after ourselves physically. If there was an injury, we had to learn to perform particular actions differently. And we had to be very caring about each other. So what I learned in that tour was how to sustain myself over a long period of time.

What research have you done for Othello?
Preparing for any role usually involves familiarising myself with the script and the world of the play and I’m doing that. But with Othello, it’s been different too. It feels to me like my preparation has been everything in my life. I’ve been reflecting on how this boy from Samoa grew up to become a Samoan fellow in Australia 33 years later.

What excites you about this production?
This is not a European Othello. We’re talking about an Australasian Othello. So the culture I will bring into it is from the Pacific and the faces on the stage will be Australian.

A big part of me is very proud that I can represent my culture and the Pacific nations on the mainstage. The tour gives me the chance to reach places like Casula and to be able to invite my community and say, “Look my brown-skinned brothers and sisters: if you have a dream then you can do it. You can get educated. You can speak words from other tongues. You can do it”. In these cultures there is so much history and so many stories that are like Shakespeare’s but from a different place and a different time. For me, I’m excited about being a member of our community and being on stage sharing this story.

Othello is more than 400 years old. Why is it still relevant today?
Until the divide between black people and white people is non-existent, then this play still has relevance. And beyond the “race” word I would use the word “otherness”. We look at people differently whether they’re disabled, coloured, foreign, from a different socio-economic background etc. I also think there’s a lot to talk about regarding domestic violence in this play.

Othello is very much the flawed hero. The audience sympathises when he is the victim of racism and deceit, but later that turns to horror when he kills Desdemona.
We’re uncomfortable with what he does in the end, absolutely, but we can see how he gets there. He lives in a world of struggle, where he was born from royal blood, went into slavery and now his ambition has brought him to Venice. Ambition drives him but sometimes ambition can blind people too. And he is from a military background so there is the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder to consider.

As a man, I’m sickened by domestic violence and I don’t condone what he does in any way, shape or form. But I can understand the effects of racism. I can understand being with a white partner and that little jealousy that can happen. More often than not I’m surrounded by caucasian people and, I hate to say it, but sometimes I feel like the “token” or like something exotic. I can see where those little niggles can become seeds and how those seeds can grow.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks?
Something that I really cherish about tours like this is being able to see lots of Australia that many people never get to see. And I’m also going to be acting with a great cast. I’ve worked with James Lugton before and I’ve seen Elizabeth Nabben on stage. I know Michael Wahr from Melbourne. All the cast are very exciting actors. They’re all very versed in the text. So I’m really looking forward to working with them.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com.au

Interview by Andy McLean

Advertisements

DELIGHTING IN DESPAIR

FROM ROMEO AND JULIET TO OTHELLO, SHAKESPEARE’S TRAGEDIES ARE SEDUCTIVE DESPITE THEIR DARKNESS. OR PERHAPS, BECAUSE OF IT.

BY ANDY MCLEAN

Vendettas. Villainy. Violence. Broken hearts. And death. At first glance, Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t sound much like entertainment. Yet we flock to theatres around the world to witness the torment and devastation wreaked upon naïve lovers and noble warriors (not to mention less savoury characters).

We adore watching Romeo And Juliet, a tale of young lives cut short. Our eyes are helplessly glued to Othello as Iago betrays his friend. (No wonder that, during a 19th Century production starring William Macready, at the moment Othello seized Iago by the throat, a gentleman in the audience cried out, “Choke the devil! Choke him!”)

For this is what tragedy does. It makes you want to choke the devil; to intervene; to halt the turning of this miserable globe and to put everyone and everything back to rights.

And yet, at the same time, we delight in the drama. We can’t look away.

Try averting your eyes as Romeo and Juliet’s dreams turn to dust, or while Othello and Desdemona’s love is snuffed out. Our hearts break too when both sets of lovers die, lying side by side. Like the dead lovers, in Shakespearean tragedy hope and despair share the same bed.

THE FIRM HAND OF FATE
One thing is for sure: We can’t say we weren’t warned. The full title of the plays in the First Folio, published in 1623, were The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice. Their titles alone made it abundantly clear that things would not end well.

Then, just in case anyone was left in any doubt, at the start of Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare had his Chorus tell us that “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” will only head in one direction:

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

In a way, Romeo and Juliet are already dead before we even meet them, says Oxford scholar Emma Smith in her Approaching Shakespeare podcast: “We know the pain is coming. It’s inexorable, unstoppable. There’s something mechanical about it.”

Yet in a strange way there is something comforting about that for audiences. Knowing the destiny of our heroes removes some of the anxiety for us, according to Smith. While we may want to intervene (and ‘Choke the devil!’) we are forced, in a sense, to enjoy the ride. “We just have to sit back and relax; there is nothing anyone can do. It’s a foregone conclusion. In a way, it’s less stressful to watch a tragedy where the fate of the characters is already sealed.”

CALAMITY OVERKILL?
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo + Juliet elected to put the aforementioned words of the Chorus into the mouth of a TV newscaster. Entirely appropriate, given that TV news reports upon events that have already taken place, and can often seem like a litany of tragedies. Luhrmann’s approach underlines how we are still drawn to tragedy in modern society.

“In the 21st Century, the television, newspapers and internet all report tragedy after tragedy,” says Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber. “It has become the staple of our media diet. We hear of accidental tragedy, and purposeful tragedy. We hear bad news, we hear about people dying, people suffering, people losing things and so forth.”

Actor Damien Strouthos, who is playing Mercutio in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 Romeo And Juliet, agrees: “All you have to do is look on the internet at what the top stories are, and they’re always tragic ones”.

Through modern media our exposure to real-life tragedy is, in some ways, just as great as it was as in Shakespeare’s day, when bear baiting and public executions attracted huge crowds of onlookers. But if we see tragedy every day in the media, why do we want to watch it on stage too?

“It’s a very good question and a hard one to answer,” says Strouthos. “I think it’s cathartic for us to watch the characters suffer and figure it out. When we see someone else experience it and figure problems out, it makes us feel that it will all be okay for us, or that it will all work itself out.”

Garber says Shakespeare provides audiences with a safe zone in which to witness extreme circumstances: “Tragedy is something that happens for us so that it doesn’t have to happen to us. We can enjoy the tragic experience because it is happening to someone else who we identify with but nevertheless whose separation we are able to maintain. So we survive, but they may die.”

Peter Evans is directing Romeo And Juliet and Othello for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. He says tragedy allows us to explore the darker reaches of our imaginations, though we would never want to go there in real life: “We all have those fantasies about the worst case scenarios in our own lives. In tragedy we can experience this with a group of people in a controlled environment. Society needs pressure valves and places where we can experience these things without actually having to do them. In the making of art, where somebody expresses something for you – even about something horrific – it is ironically quite an uplifting experience.”

THE MORAL OF THE STORIES
Othello and Romeo And Juliet teach some cruel lessons to their characters. All too late, Othello learns the error (and agonising cost) of his ways, just as the Capulet and Montague parents do. Watching the plays can be enlightening for audiences too, according to Anjna Chouhan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “In 1595, the poet Sir Philip Sidney argued that tragedy ‘openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.’ So tragedy, Sidney argued, should be revealing. It should strip away all the decadence and superficiality, [and] plumb down to the depths of what makes us truly human.

“Sidney also said that tragedy ‘teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded’. In other words, tragedy is not simply a lesson for the characters. It’s actually a cautionary and instructive tale for the audiences, as well.”

For example, Othello and Romeo And Juliet are rife with the same bigotry and prejudice that we still witness in many places across the world today. In the gut-wrenching finales of both plays, the consequences of these attitudes are laid bare for us to consider within the context of our own societies.

SUFFERING TOGETHER
So Shakespeare forces us to confront our own values and search within ourselves for the answers. Is Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt justified, given that he is avenging the death of his friend Mercutio? Does Iago deserve to die for his crimes? And the real kicker: How should we feel about Othello – a man who is the innocent victim of manipulation and racism, but also the perpetrator of horrific domestic violence?

Shakespeare makes these dilemmas all the more difficult because we grow to love his characters. As 20th Century English scholar A.C. Bradley wrote: “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.”

Anjna Chouhan points out that Othello has to suffer for the audience to feel any kind of sympathy or disgust for his plight. “Something important has to be at stake in order for the loss of it to seem truly horrific,” she says. “[Othello] follows the linear trajectory of a tragic hero who starts out in an exalted position as General of the Venetian army. He endures suffering, largely of the psychological kind, destroys the thing that he loves most, and ends the play by dying. If we didn’t care about Othello in some way, his downfall wouldn’t seem remotely tragic.”

So our emotional investment in the heroes ties us to them, and means that we suffer with them. We are their silent witness.

Peter Evans says Shakespeare is skilled at putting the audience “on the same side” as his characters: “In Romeo And Juliet, for example, we have the voyeuristic experience of the soliloquies. We feel we are a part of what’s happening. In the balcony scene, Romeo invites us to look at Juliet and be part of his fantasy for her, and then she invites us into her thoughts about him. We’re with him and we’re with her. At that point, she doesn’t know that he’s present but we do. Then, when she does realise he is there, we experience a shared joy that she is catching up and we’re now all together. It’s an astonishing series of progressions to make us feel part of their love.”

The passion we feel for the characters is what makes us hope against hope that, somehow, our heroes can escape their own destruction. Shakespeare teases us throughout Romeo And Juliet with ‘if only’ moments, where opportunities for a happy ending are dangled in front of us – and then snatched away: The Friar sends a letter to Romeo, explaining that Juliet’s apparent death has, in fact, been faked – but the letter never reaches the young hero. A grief-stricken Romeo dashes back to Verona, finds Juliet lying apparently dead, poisons himself and dies – just moments before his young wife awakens. For the audience, it makes for compulsive viewing.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL?
Our support of Romeo and Juliet feels well placed, given that they are largely the victims of the piece. But in Othello, Shakespeare plays a devious little trick, making us relish the villain’s antics too. “Othello is much more troubling because of that,” says Peter Evans. “Iago has enormous charm and the audience actually wills him along. That’s part of the skill of Shakespeare. The audience wants Iago to keep poking the other characters. He keeps getting away with it and I think the audience delights in that.”

So at what point do we then decide, as an audience, that Iago has gone too far? “I think it’s the death of Rodrigo,” says Evans. “Iago pretends to look after Rodrigo but instead kills him. My instinct is that the audience thinks, ‘We’ve loved watching you mess with that naïve guy’ but the moment Rodrigo is stabbed and realises he’s been had, I think the audience then feels enough is enough. At that point, the story is unraveling on Iago. Then the play slows right down and Shakespeare takes us through this tortuous horror show that leads to the death of Desdemona. The more I work on the play, the more painful I think it is – and yet it’s undeniably popular.”

TO ERR IS HUMAN
Another reason Shakespearean tragedy resonates is because in all of Shakespeare’s tear-jerkers human beings are the agents of their own downfall. The idea that we are “in the hands of the Gods” might apply in Greek tragedy, but in Shakespeare it is the impulsiveness of Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio that hastens the characters towards their deaths. And it’s the despicable antics of Iago, coupled with Othello’s flaws, that scupper any chance of a happy ending for them.

The tragedy comes from a mismatch of individuals with their situation, argues Sir Jonathan Bate. In his essay ‘What is tragedy?’ he writes: “Imagine Hamlet in Othello’s situation and Macbeth in Hamlet’s. Would Hamlet be duped by Iago’s story about the handkerchief? Of course not. He would endlessly speculate on every possibility and devise a scheme to test the evidence –perhaps he’d put on a play about adultery and watch for Desdemona’s reaction. He’d soon discover that Iago is not to be trusted, and there would be no tragedy. Now imagine Macbeth commissioned with Hamlet’s task. Would he hesitate and agonise? No, he’d go straight to Claudius and unseam him from the nave to the chops before you could say Danish bacon. Again, there would be no tragedy.”

Of course, there is also that curious quirk: the metatheatre of it all. As Garber points out: “When we sit in the audience we know the play will, in fact, be performed again the next night. So in a sense, the characters do live to see another day. Shakespeare is conscious of that. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom plays Pyramus, we see him say, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus” and then he bounces up again and he asks if we’d like an epilogue. [In theatre] the lover who dies can leap up again. Tragedy has that reparative effect upon audiences.”

So despite all the corruption, broken hearts and death that we see on the stage, we experience a shared relief at the end. As Peter Evans points out: “When the applause begins, and the actors stand facing the audience, it’s a cathartic moment for everybody. We love watching the actors in all their weeping, sweaty, snotty glory. It’s a visceral experience and part of the contract that the audience and the actors have with one another. In that moment, everyone in the room is saying ‘Let’s be together’.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 May. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

Professor Marjorie Garber is the author of several books and essays about Shakespeare. Read more about her work at marjoriegarber.com

Andy McLean is a journalist, copywriter and magazine publisher.
@1andymclean

THE MERCUTIO SHOW

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO PLAY MERCUTIO, ONE OF SHAKESPEARE’S FUNNIEST AND MOST UNPREDICTABLE CHARACTERS? WE ASKED ACTOR DAMIEN STROUTHOS.

Mercutio loves nothing better than a big night out. If you were in the pub talking to a mate, how would you describe Mercutio?
Mercutio is the person in the pub who is standing on the table, drinking more than anybody else! He’s the loudest one in the room and the centre of attention at all times. He’s that mate you have who cracks all the jokes and who is a bit of a smart aleck – but also the one who will start the fight in the bar as well. He’s the first person to throw a punch because he’s always looking for an escape from normal, banal everyday life.

Put it this way: In the play Romeo And Juliet, Mercutio himself does not know that he is in the play Romeo And Juliet. Right up until the moment he dies, he thinks it’s The Mercutio Show.

How do you feel about playing Mercutio on stage?
I’m quite humbled because Mercutio is one of the great Shakespeare characters and I might never get the opportunity again. You could pick Mercutio up and put him in any one of Shakespeare’s plays and he’d have the same impact. He’s a vibrant and intelligent character with such a wit but at the same time he is the most bawdy and most volatile character. He’s a hugely fascinating character and I am relishing playing the part.

Are you anything like Mercutio in real life?
Honestly? I feel like I’m trying to live up to Mercutio because he’s such a fantastic creation. I feel like I have to grow myself to become him. He is the complete opposite of me in real life. I’m a pretty relaxed human being but it’s fun to play someone like Mercutio. He has such a mercurial nature.

He’s the life and soul of the party, but his feisty personality also leads him into the fatal brawl with Tybalt, which proves to be his undoing.
Yes, but I do sympathise with Mercutio. I do identify with his story a lot. For me, his story is one of the more heartbreaking ones in the play, because he never fully realises why he dies. He never finds out that Romeo is in love with Juliet. He spends the whole time thinking that Romeo is in love with Rosaline and that is what is making him [Romeo] sad. Mercutio never once meets Juliet and he never understands that his friend has found true love.

He’s neither Capulet nor Montague. So why does Mercutio step in to the fracas with Tybalt?
I think Mercutio gets involved for a number of reasons. Partly because he simply enjoys a fight but also because he wants to prove to his friend that he loves him. Mercutio spends the whole time trying to win his friend’s love back through gestures of grandeur. He wants to show Romeo that he’s worth more as a friend than a wife or girlfriend ever could be.

That’s interesting. Some people assume Mercutio is a just a headstrong, wisecracking rabble-rouser. But you really feel for him, don’t you.
His story is one of the more fascinating ones that Shakespeare wrote, mainly because it feels almost incomplete, in a sense. The audience is introduced to the character towards the end of the first act. He comes on and only after this gigantic monologue is he named. Romeo says, “Peace, peace Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.” and Mercutio says, “True, I talk of dreams”. We hardly know who this guy is and then, four scenes later he is dead – having changed the whole trajectory of the play.

Shakespeare took a translation of an old Italian poem and turned it into the Romeo And Juliet that we know today. In doing so, he amplified Mercutio’s role quite significantly. What does Mercutio add to Shakespeare’s version, do you think?
I think Shakespeare is very good at placing an idea in the same scene as the antithesis to that idea. Mercutio is an anti-hero to Romeo. Shakespeare is showing us different perspectives on the same circumstances.

Also Shakespeare was a writer for the people. He fleshed out Mercutio, I think, because he was writing this play for the queen but also for the commoners too. The most amazing thing about Shakespeare’s writing is that he can be so crass and bawdy and vulgar but he does it in such a beautifully poetic way that the queen will applaud him just as much as the commoners.

So I think Shakespeare needed a character like Mercutio to juxtapose Romeo’s beautiful poetry. He needed both sides to please the masses.

Mercutio is certainly an entertainer. The first two Acts feel like a comedy until he dies.
Oh absolutely. The play is a romantic comedy until then. Boisterous young kids who fall in and out of love, gate-crash parties and so on. Then it all changes when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, and then Romeo kills Tybalt.

Mercutio keeps the wisecracks up until the very end doesn’t he.
Even in those final moments, Mercutio is never accepting of death. It’s a curious thing to perform on stage. He makes jokes all the way up until he is dead: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”. Mercutio is very self aware of the fact that the world is about to lose a great mind. He’s really quite an incredible character.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at BellShakespeare.com.

Interview by Andy McLean.

JULIET IS THE SUN

JULIET IS AN EARLY EXAMPLE OF SHAKESPEARE GIVING WOMEN THE SHARPEST MINDS AND THE WITTIEST ONE-LINERS. IN FACT, BY THE END OF ROMEO AND JULIET, EVERYTHING REVOLVES AROUND HER.

By Andy McLean

As heroes go, it’s hard to think of a less likely one than Juliet Capulet: A giggly thirteen year old. Born into privilege. Living a sheltered life. Indulged by her own personal nurse. At first sight, it’s hard to believe that we are looking at one of theatre’s greatest romantic heroes.

But looks can be deceiving.

When we meet her, Juliet appears to be quite the goodie-two-shoes. She seems eager to please Lady Capulet, her mother (‘Madam, I am here, what is your will?’) and patiently listens while the Nurse and her mum have a lengthy discussion about Juliet’s past, present and future.

For most of this scene, the two older women are really talking about Juliet; not talking with her. They infantilise her, objectify her, and quickly agree that an arranged marriage to Count Paris is for the best. Juliet’s response is quietly submissive:

‘I’ll look to like if looking liking move,
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.’

BREAKING THE RULES
That early exchange is, in fact, a rather nifty manoeuvre from Shakespeare. It sets everyone’s expectations of Juliet very low, making sure that she is underestimated at every turn thereafter. Who would ever suspect that this meek young creature could smash the rules of society and family so spectacularly?

“Juliet goes on such a journey,” says Kelly Paterniti, who is playing the part in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 production. “She transforms in front of our eyes from this very young dutiful daughter to this mature young woman who disobeys her parents and goes for what she wants. She’s very headstrong and incredibly imaginative.”

Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber agrees: “She begins as a very obedient daughter. Then the second she catches sight of Romeo she becomes wonderfully, cleverly deceptive.”

By way of example, Garber points out that, seconds after Juliet’s first encounter with Romeo at the Capulet ball, she is desperate to know who he is. To conceal her interest, Juliet begins asking the Nurse who various other revellers are before casually pointing out Romeo.

This is the first of many occasions where Juliet chooses language to cloak her true intentions: “She is very honest,” says Paterniti. “There are a number of times where she’s talking with her father and she’s just incredibly clever at manipulating words to say one thing that isn’t a lie but has a double meaning. So she remains true to herself even though she’s saying what she thinks someone else wants to hear. If you really listen, she’s talking about something else entirely.”

Having fallen in love, Juliet’s language shifts markedly. She is capable of breathtaking rhyme and passionate blank verse or iambic pentameter. Author and feminist Germaine Greer explained the significance of this in an interview for the UK’s Hay Festival: “Juliet is a kid and what’s extraordinary about the play is that Shakespeare has put his first great heroic blank verse in the mouth of a 13-year-old girl. That’s an extraordinarily subversive thing to do. She’s not any kind of a conventional hero.”

SEIZING THE INITIATIVE
Later in Shakespeare’s career, he regularly created female characters who took control and ran rings around their male counterparts. Juliet was a precursor to those characters. “She’s every bit Romeo’s equal – in fact she is more than his equal,” says Peter Evans, who is directing the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of the play. “She’s so bright. She has to teach Romeo how to love and how to be real.”

In the ITV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, Oxford scholar Sir Jonathan Bate emphasised that Juliet has the initiative during the famous balcony scene: “She’s in control even to the point of planning the wedding. She’s discovering her sexuality. She’s not passive. She’s out there at her window, willing Romeo to come to her. She’s ready to give her body to him.”

Juliet’s love for Romeo can be viewed as a reaction against the establishment, according to Greer: “One thing is clear to me: Romeo is a dork, but she loves him. Why does she love him? Because she’s exercising her own right to choose under duress.”

DARING AND DEFIANCE
Greer’s assessment of Romeo might be a touch harsh, but it is his rash behaviour that ultimately dooms the two lovers. He lets the red mist descend, avenging the death of Mercutio by slaying Tybalt and, from that moment on, Juliet’s fate is sealed just as surely as Romeo’s.

Juliet responds by asserting herself even further. In an act of daring and defiance, she consummates the marriage with Romeo and pledges her allegiance to him. Then, when Romeo flees, Juliet stays behind to pick up the pieces.

“If you look at the structure of the play, when Romeo is banished, Juliet is left to orchestrate the plot,” says Garber. “Juliet says ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone’. She’s on her own here. She abandons her mother, she abandons the Nurse, she will no longer have any of this female support group and she makes her own plans with Friar Laurence.

“Juliet’s direction of the play comes rapidly,” continues Garber. “Shakespeare puts her in the driving seat very effectively.”

By the time she fakes her own death, Juliet has developed far beyond the passive young girl we met at the beginning. Now it is her actions that propel us towards the play’s heartbreaking conclusion.

“Make no mistake: this is Juliet’s play,” says Garber. “There is no question this is Juliet’s play; both in terms of the staging, and in terms of the language. Her maturing is very rapid. The centre of the play has been hollowed out as a space for Juliet’s maturation.”

Peter Evans agrees: “Absolutely, I think it’s her play. Juliet is there with Rosalind, Cleopatra, Viola and Lady Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s female characters with a real engine and with real agency. I think Shakespeare says it himself in the last words of the play when he actually refers to ‘…Juliet and her Romeo’. He clearly says that this has ended up being a story about Juliet.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at Canberra Theatre Centre (1  – 9 April) and the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at  Bellshakespeare.com.au

Andy McLean is a magazine publisher and freelance writer. He tweets from @1andymclean

THIS BUD OF LOVE, BY SUMMER’S RIPENING BREATH

ALEX WILLIAMS AND KELLY PATERNITI ARE BUZZING WITH EXCITEMENT AS THEY PREPARE FOR THE STARRING ROLES IN ROMEO AND JULIET. WE ASKED THEM TO SHARE THE INSIDE STORY ABOUT THE TEARS (AND LAUGHTER) TO COME.

How did you feel when you heard you’d got the part?

Alex: I was elated! Romeo is one of those roles that I’ve always wanted to do before I get too old to do it. I couldn’t be happier that I’m doing it at Bell Shakespeare.    

Kelly: I felt excited. The way [director] Peter Evans explained what he wanted to do with Romeo & Juliet, I just couldn’t really have said no. He has such a wonderful vision for this production.

(Listen to an interview with Peter Evans about his plans for Romeo & Juliet here)

How have you been preparing for the role?

K: I’ve been doing a lot of reading. And I’ve been collecting my own little mini image board of things. I find it helpful to look at the visual collection and think “Oh yeah, that’s where my head is supposed to be”.

A: I’ve been reading the play non-stop! I’ve seen the movie versions a few times too but you don’t want to fill your head too much with other peoples’ interpretations.

How would you describe your characters?

A: With Romeo, there’s a lot of cheekiness. There’s a lot of emotion. He’s quite raw. And I think every actor’s Romeo is different. Everyone brings a bit of themselves to their Romeo.

K: Juliet is an incredibly bright young lady who transforms in front of our eyes from this very obedient daughter to this mature woman who disobeys her parents and goes for what she wants. She’s very headstrong and very imaginative.

Why do you think this play is still so incredibly popular more than 400 years after it was written?

A: It’s definitely one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. Not everyone can identify with wanting the throne like in the History plays, but with Romeo & Juliet everyone can identify with having strong feelings towards another person. On that basis, it’s very easy to sympathise and empathise with the main characters.   

K: If you look at everything that’s going on in the world today, Romeo & Juliet is still timely. There are still so many conflicts. People are still dictating what women can and can’t do. There are still so many people who are trying to escape where they are to follow their dreams. I was in India not that long ago and I met this guy who was madly love with this girl, but he could only see her in secret. And that was only a year or so ago.

The play is a tragedy but there’s lots of laughter in it too, isn’t there.

K: It’s really funny! I think everyone calls it a tragedy because they know how it ends. It’s comic but that makes it more tragic because you’re laughing and yet you know that, inevitably, these two people are going to die. There you go! The meaning of life! We’ve discovered it, right there!

A: I think comedy is what most guys will revert to when trying to woo a lady. In a few different points in the play, Romeo thinks he’s going to use his wit and intelligence to sweep Juliet off her feet – but she completely outwits him! And I think that’s part of the reason that he falls head over heels.

And despite the tragic finale, there is a hopeful message at the end too isn’t there.

K: That’s absolutely right. It takes something so tragic to make everyone realise how trivial the feud has been. What is hopeful is that these two families may go on and, in future, maybe new people could meet and fall in love from those families. It’s a nice way to end. I hope that’s what people will take from it.

Rehearsals start in early January. How are you feeling right now?

A: Terrified! [Laughs] No, I’m very excited to get going. I’m really looking forward to working with Peter Evans to not only realise what I think this story is about, or what I think my Romeo is about; but what everyone else thinks too. The collaboration is the most exciting aspect for me.

K: I feel excited. I’ve got to do all the Christmas cheer and joy first of course! But that’s also nice because I’ll be able to think about Romeo & Juliet over that extended period and prepare.

Alex Williams and Kelly Paterniti star in Romeo & Juliet at the Sydney Opera House (20 February – 27 March), Canberra Theatre Centre (1  – 9 April) and the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details here.

Interviews edited by Felicity McLean, freelance writer and author. http://www.felicitymclean.com

 

A TO Z OF BELL SHAKESPEARE: PART II

JOHN BELL CONCLUDES OUR 25* FACTS ABOUT BELL SHAKESPEARE TO CELEBRATE OUR 25TH ANNIVERSARY. HERE ARE LETTERS N TO Z.

(*PLUS ONE FOR LUCK)

 N is for National
Bell Shakespeare is a truly NATIONAL theatre company. Every year the company tours live theatre to many corners of the nation that others never reach.

“One of the reasons I agreed to start the company was the fact that I come from the country,” says Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell. “We didn’t get much live theatre where I grew up [East Maitland]. So I always wanted to take theatre into regional Australia and give other country kids a chance to see it.”

O is for Othello
OTHELLO has a special place in John Bell’s heart because it was the first time he saw Laurence Olivier act on stage.

“Olivier was my acting idol since the age of fifteen and the biggest single influence on my love of Shakespeare and my decision to be an actor,” says Bell, who camped overnight on the cold English pavement to get tickets to see Oliver play Othello – four times!

[Read about Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 touring production of Othello here.]

P is for Primary Schools
Traditionally, the first brush with Shakespeare for many young people was in English lessons at secondary school. Since 1995 however, Bell Shakespeare has gradually been changing that. “Younger children weren’t getting much exposure to live theatre and we were aware that was a neglected sector of the community,” says John Bell. “So we extended our Actors At Work scheme into performances and workshops in PRIMARY schools.

“Kids love the stories and the characters, be it the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the three witches in Macbeth. They love dressing up in the costumes and playing these characters. It’s all about having fun of course but it does have a side benefit: Enjoying Shakespeare at that younger age makes it much less daunting when students later study and perform the plays in secondary school.”

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s work in primary schools here.]

Q is for Questions
One of the defining hallmarks of William Shakespeare’s writing was his ability to leave QUESTIONS in the minds of his audiences. Throughout every play, there are grey areas that demand answers. (Henry V: inspiring leader or manipulative warmonger? Is Hamlet ever really mad or just pretending?)

“Shakespeare wrote the plays so that they could be interpreted in different ways,” says John Bell. “The contradictions within characters like King Lear or Macbeth can make us sympathise and at the same time be horrified by them. Hamlet knocks off several people and yet, at the end, it is ‘Goodnight sweet prince’. It really is quite extraordinary.”

R is for Richard III
Asking John Bell to pick favourites from Bell Shakespeare’s past productions is like asking him to pick a favourite child. Yet Bell doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the character he’s enjoyed playing the most: RICHARD III.

“I’ve always liked playing the more grotesque roles,” says Bell. “With Richard, I think somehow I responded to the disguise, with the crippled arm. It takes you somewhere else because physicality transforms you.”

So why is Richard III so popular with audiences? “I think it is his unashamed delight in what he’s doing. It’s like a gangster movie. You know the gangster is going to get shot in the end and the cops are going to win. But you enjoy going for a ride with this villain who exists beyond our moral codes.”

S is for Supporters
If A is for actors then S is for SUPPORTERS, as to have one without the other is like Romeo without his Juliet or Rosalind sans Orlando. Bell Shakespeare benefits from a range of support from sponsors, philanthropists, government, and of course, its audiences.

“Our audiences are incredibly diverse,” says John Bell. “We travel far and wide and see people of all ages, and from very different backgrounds. About the only thing that unites them all is that our audiences are all discerning. Perhaps we should file them under ‘D’ instead?”

T is for Translations
In recent years, Australian theatre audiences have begun something of a love affair with the 17th Century French playwright Moliere and it shows no signs of abating. Bell Shakespeare has performed two modern TRANSLATIONS by Australian Justin Fleming and another is in the works for 2016.

“Moliere is the French equivalent to Shakespeare really,” says John Bell. “They weren’t that far apart historically. They were both interested in comedy and comedy stock characters and situations. ”

Read more about the 2016 production of Moliere’s The Literati (Justin Fleming’s translation of Les Femmes Savantes) here.

U is for United Kingdom
Years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Australian theatre company to tour a Shakespeare play in the UNITED KINGDOM. But in 2006 Bell Shakespeare took the bold step of staging The Comedy Of Errors in the UK.

“We performed at Bath Festival and then did a season in Blackpool,” says John Bell. “The audiences were very enthusiastic and we had rave reviews. One said, ‘The Aussies beat us at cricket and now they’re beating us at Shakespeare’ and described our production as a warm ray of Aussie sunshine in a bleak English winter.”

V is for Volska
She’s played Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Gertrude and Lady Capulet to name just a few. She’s directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant Of Venice. And she’s been instrumental in the Bell Shakespeare story.

Anna VOLSKA is very much John Bell’s creative partner as well as life partner. “In 1990 we had two daughters growing up and I threw away a secure job to start up this new theatre company with nothing,” recalls Bell. “It was a pretty reckless thing to do but Anna encouraged me. She was totally supportive and enthusiastic. And right through to today, Anna is still my main support.”

W is for Why
The question John Bell gets asked more than any other is: WHY dedicate most of your working life to one playwright: Shakespeare?

Bell explains: “Shakespeare was a superb entertainer. His characterisation was astute. And he was versatile – Shakespeare could turn from comedy to tragedy to farce to historical chronicle to mystical fantasy, and carry them all off triumphantly.

“We also get to explore issues – how we live, how we should behave, why are we here – and view them through the filter of Shakespeare. So there’s that philosophical element, combined with his language being possibly the crowning glory of the English language.”

X is for X Factor
Theatre directors are always searching for the magic ingredient that will transform a good production into a great production. After six decades in theatre, John Bell has a few thoughts on where to look. “I think the X FACTOR is a really powerful actor using powerful language. With Shakespeare, I find the more cluttered you get – the more busy, the more effects you put on – the less you are in touch with that X factor.”

Y is for Yellow.
As in cross-gartered stockings. One of Shakespeare’s most-loved comic characters is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The sour-faced puritan is tricked into parading around in a pair of YELLOW cross-gartered stockings to try to win the heart of Olivia.

John Bell remembers his cross-gartered experience of playing Malvolio, 20 years ago. “There was a story in the newspapers at the time of a Tory MP who was found dead, wearing ladies underwear with an orange in his mouth. This inspired my Malvolio and I stripped down so that my top half was a smart suit but below were boxer shorts, yellow stockings and high heels. It was a weird look. The top half was all very Tory and the bottom half was this sort of drag queen!”

Z is for Zeitgeist
One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays endure is that they deal with themes that are just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. This allows directors to present the plays and tap in to whatever the current ZEITGEIST may be.

“When you come to do a play you’ve got to think, ‘What is society’s current paranoia or dread or aspiration?’” explains John Bell. “You need to bring that to the fore without compromising the play or in any way distorting it.

“Our current production of Hamlet, for example, shines a spotlight on surveillance and the growing power governments have to monitor people. The director Damien Ryan has picked that up brilliantly.”

[See here for details and tickets about the current production of Hamlet.]

 

By Felicity McLean, author and freelance writer. @felicitymclean http://www.felicitymclean.com

A TO Z OF BELL SHAKESPEARE: PART I

JOHN BELL SHARES 25* FACTS ABOUT BELL SHAKESPEARE TO CELEBRATE OUR 25TH ANNIVERSARY. TODAY WE START WITH A TO M.

(*PLUS ONE FOR LUCK)

A is for Actors
Much has changed since Bell Shakespeare began two and a half decades ago yet, at heart, it remains a company of ACTORS with open minds and unlimited energy, specialising in Shakespeare. “We have always concentrated on simple productions, with simple staging, with all the emphasis on the actors – the speaking voice and what the language can convey,” explains Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell. “I suppose of all the productions I’ve done, my last one [The Tempest] came the closest to what I’ve always aimed for: as much simplicity as possible and resisting all temptation to busy it up with effects and theatrical or technological magic rather than the magic of the words.”

B is for Boards
Artists sometimes regard them as just ‘suits’, so why do theatre companies need BOARDS of Directors? “That’s easy – to keep artistic directors in check!” laughs John Bell. “We are all answerable to somebody. Boards are so significant and too often they’re not recognised.”

Bell Shakespeare’s directors are all people at the top of their profession, which means they already have their hands full, says Bell. “Yet they work so hard and give so much of their free time – and a lot of them are financially generous too, supporting the company. The expertise and scrutiny that they bring to the company is absolutely essential.”

C is for Circus Tent
Yes, CIRCUS TENT. That’s where the first ever Bell Shakespeare productions were staged.

“Shakespeare can be exhilarating when played in rough conditions, on an unusual stage, where actors have maximum contact with, and access to, the audience,” explains John Bell. “We hired a circus tent in 1991 and we pitched it inside the Sydney Showground. It was a cheeky way of announcing a new company. On the first night some of the audience wore evening dress and thongs, or evening dress and board shorts.”

D is for Designers
When the curtain comes up on a new Bell Shakespeare production, look out for the people with red eyes, trembling fingers and unkempt hair. They are probably the DESIGNERS of the costumes, set, lighting, movement and marketing! “They work extraordinarily hard,” says John Bell. “Among the many artists that we’ve fostered and developed over 25 years, there have been many amazing designers. It has been wonderful to help those creative people up through their careers.”

E is for Evans
As in Peter EVANS, who is receiving the reigns from John Bell at the end of 2015. “Peter has so many things combined,” says Bell. “He has the energy, passion and drive to run the company. He’s a good strategist, but also has an appetite for the day-to-day nitty gritty. He also has a taste for management and working with funding bodies. Plus he’s got a very unique, easy and amiable manner with actors in the rehearsal room.”

[Listen to Peter Evans revealing what he has up his sleeve for Bell Shakespeare in 2016 here.]

F is for Fat suit
Or Falstaff. One of the greatest comic roles in theatre, Falstaff is the rotund rascal who leads everyone astray, including the future king of England Prince Hal, in Henry IV.

It took John Bell more than 20 years to finally don the FAT SUIT and play Falstaff. “I felt totally different when I put it on,” says Bell. “It’s fascinating. It just changes everything about you. Your whole demeanour, energy, tempo and body movement becomes different. I loved living in the fat suit for that period.”

G is for Gilbert
As in the late Tony GILBERT AO, who wrote a fan letter to John Bell in 1961. “This was an object lesson in being polite to your fans,” smiles Bell. “It was the first fan letter I’d ever had so I decided to reply and invite my fan out for coffee.”

It transpired that this fan belonged to a big car sales family, and over time he and Bell became firm friends. Then in 1990, Gilbert phoned Bell with an idea. “He had some money for philanthropy, put aside to promote Shakespeare, but wasn’t sure what to do,” recalls Bell. “I told him, ‘You have to start a theatre company,’ but he replied, ‘No John. You have to start a theatre company!’ he told me to take it and run with it and that was the starting point of this company. We owe him everything. Without Tony Gilbert the company wouldn’t have come to be.”

H is for Hamlet
In 1991, HAMLET was the first play performed by Bell Shakespeare. By sheer coincidence, it is also the same play being staged now during the 25th anniversary celebrations.

“We’ve actually only had five Hamlets in 25 years,” says John Bell. “So it’s fairly rare that audiences get to see Bell Shakespeare taking on this most famous of plays.”

Damien Ryan directs the 2015 production, currently on stage at the Sydney Opera House. “Damien’s Hamlet just knocks you over every time,” says Bell. “It’s totally fresh and surprising and shocking. You find yourself thinking again, ‘My God, what an amazing play’ because Hamlet is different every time you see it. The potential for re-invention and variation is endless.”

[See here for details and tickets about the current production of Hamlet]
[Read insights about the current production of Hamlet here.]

I is for Inclusive
“The whole vision when we started was to be INCLUSIVE and share the magic of Shakespeare with people irrespective of age or background or status,” says John Bell. “Little by little, it’s grown from there.”

You can say that again. Since 1991, Bell Shakespeare has participated in workshops and staged plays in every state and territory in Australia. In remote Indigenous communities, in primary, in secondary schools, in juvenile detention centres – you name it, Bell Shakespeare has been there. And through the Hearts In A Row program, Bell Shakespeare has also been able to perform for the homeless, the unemployed, and to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s community projects here .]

J is for Japan
Bell Shakespeare has also showcased Australian theatre overseas on a number of occasions, including JAPAN in 2000. A tour of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, translated into English and directed by Roger Pulvers, saw Anna Volska, Bill Zappa and John Bell perform to audiences in Tokyo and Osaka.

“Fortunately Dance of Death made a very good impression in Japan,” recalls Bell. “We had quite large attendances and then had the chance to return the following year to do workshops in those same theatres. It was a fabulous experience for everyone involved.”

K is for Kick Ass.
As in, KICK ASS roles for women; something Shakespeare excelled at. Invariably, the female characters in his plays are wiser and wittier than the men. That’s given Bell Shakespeare the chance to put women centre stage throughout the past 25 years.

“As William Shakespeare’s career developed, so did the female parts he wrote,” says John Bell. “Women sometimes had to impersonate men to find their own voice which was an interesting social development [e.g. Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night]. He later wrote women who were far more heroic, compassionate or humane than the men around them [e.g. Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Cordelia in King Lear]. Then there are two of Shakespeare’s greatest creations: Rosalind [As You Like It] and Cleopatra [Antony & Cleopatra] who toy with the men around them.”

L is for Learning
English theatre director Peter Brook once said that Shakespeare is a great school of life. Away from the spotlight, LEARNING and education form a large part of Bell Shakespeare’s activities.

This includes the remarkable Actors at Work programme, which sees young Bell Shakespeare actors touring primary and secondary schools to perform and participate in workshops. “In 25 years, we’ve reached so many students,” says John Bell. “It must be well over a million, perhaps even a million and a half.”

The purpose of work in schools is partly academic, but there are social benefits too, says Bell. “In our workshops, we get the students to perform sections or scenes from the stories. This encourages self-esteem, expression and respect. It’s character building. And one of the by-products has been reductions in school truancy.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Teachers are invited to come and work with Bell  Shakespeare every year, to help them transmit Shakespeare in their classrooms. Bell Shakespeare has also produced learning packs, a unique education iPad app, and tours a dedicated schools production in theatres every year.

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s education work here.]

M is for Mind’s Eye
As a theatre company mainly focused on one particular writer, Bell Shakespeare has set itself the ambitious task of leaving a legacy of new writing too. “The initiative we’ve created is called MIND’S EYE,” says John Bell. “For the past few years, we’ve encouraged writers to create new work based on an idea that has a Shakespeare connection. We’ve been developing those over the time. Four or five have actually been performed in Sydney or Melbourne with various companies. Others remain in development.”

[Read more about Mind’s Eye here.]

The Bell Shakespeare focus on writing and writers also extends beyond Mind’s Eye. The company now has its own Writer in Residence, the playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, who spends two days per week writing at the theatre company’s Sydney office. The dedicated workspace offers Mulvany access to a Shakespearean library, plus the opportunity to bounce ideas off Bell Shakespeare’s actors and creative team.

[Read more about the Writer in Residence project here.]

 

By Felicity McLean, author and freelance writer. @felicitymclean http://www.felicitymclean.com

METHOD IN THE MADNESS

LAUGHING, CRYING, FIGHTING, DYING – IT’S ALL IN A DAY’S WORK FOR JOSH McCONVILLE, WHO HAS BEEN PLAYING THE LEAD IN BELL SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET SINCE JUNE.

You’ve been rehearsing and performing the role of Hamlet for six months now. How would you describe the experience?

Touring Hamlet nationally has been fantastic. Everyone in the cast and crew gets along, and we got to see the whole of Australia together.

For me personally, playing Hamlet has been life changing. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. Diving into a character of this depth is something I’ve never done before.

It’s been physically and emotionally exhausting. I’ve learnt so much about my technique and stamina. Hamlet has taught me how to regulate my body to get through a show of this length. Everything you learn at drama school needs to be applied in this role.

What has surprised you about the past few months?

Playing Hamlet is like playing a game of footy every night – you really have to be match fit! The role is emotionally driven and vocally demanding, and there are a lot of physical elements too, like sword fighting and stage fighting. It has really taken me by surprise just how fit you need to be.

Seeing you on stage, it’s obvious how much emotional energy you are throwing into the role.

Yes, it’s making me a little insane actually! You feel grief. You cry every night. You feel lost and vengeful and angry. Every emotion on the human scale. And you fence. You jump into a grave. You die. If you’re committing to it and giving it a red hot go, then it really takes a lot out of you.

So how are you responding?

In the daytime, prior the show, I’m just playing video games! I’m doing things that remind me of my childhood, when I didn’t have a care in the world.

As an actor, you know it’s all pretend of course. But I spoke with Leon Ford and Brendan Cowell, who have both played Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare, and they agreed that it’s draining. They said that when you finish you need to get away and just do nothing and reset your brain.

Do you feel sympathetic towards Hamlet as a man?

I think you’ve got to be sympathetic with every character you play, because if you’re not then you’re just commenting on them. I feel strongly for Hamlet. He’s in deep grief over his father, who was his best friend and the guy who he looked up to. Then all these terrible things happen. He sees a ghost. His mother marries his uncle. It’s a snowball effect of insanity that he is rolled in to. I have massive sympathy for him.

Yet he’s capable of some quite horrifying acts too, isn’t he.

Most tragic heroes are flawed and that what’s makes them tragic. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is awful but it can be justified. She hasn’t spoken to him for the past two months. She’s not replying to any of his letters and he doesn’t know why. Then she appears out of nowhere after hearing him deliver his speech about “To be or not to be” and she gives all the letters back to him and says that they’re all tainted – and he can’t understand why. Also, he suspects that her father is spying on him.

If you put yourself in the shoes of Hamlet – this poor kid who is quite fragile, who goes through so much – then you can sympathise. He makes some terrible decisions but they can be justified in the sense that no-one is listening to him or giving him the time of day.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this production?

Everyone has a pre-conceived idea of what Hamlet is. I hope people arrive with an open mind and leave feeling that they’ve seen something fresh and new in the play. We’re very proud of this production; there’s clear storytelling and there are wonderful actors in it. So I hope people walk away having seen something in our Hamlet that they’ve never seen before. I think that would be great.

 Josh McConville stars in Hamlet at the Sydney Opera House from now until 6 December. Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. @1andymclean

WHAT MAKES HAMLET SPECIAL?

ONE OF THE WORLD’S LEADING EXPERTS ON SHAKESPEARE, SIR JONATHAN BATE, TELLS US WHY HAMLET STANDS OUT FROM THE CROWD.

 Many people say Hamlet is the greatest play of all time. Why is it so revered?

One of the things that Shakespeare seems to do more completely than any writer who went before him is reveal the variety of the human mind; the way that people are very complicated.

Shakespeare does that through the soliloquy – the character alone on stage talking to himself, opening up his mind – and Hamlet just does that more than any other character. So there is that psychological complexity. That’s one reason the play is revered.

Then if you combine that with simply the power of the revenge story. The primal idea of your father being killed by your uncle, and then your mother being compromised by that, she marries the man who killed your father – that’s a very powerful plot line. Combine it then with Hamlet having this task of revenge, and not being naturally suited to it. Then throw in the idea that he is a young man in love but he realises very quickly that that love affair is going to be a distraction and it has got to come to an end.

So you’ve got those two things: the psychology and then just the sheer force of the plot.

Hamlet is searching for answers throughout the play isn’t he?

Yes he is. Hamlet keeps asking questions. The play even begins with a question:

Barnardo: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

In a way, the whole of the play is [distilled] in that opening exchange. It asks questions but it refuses to answer them. It is Shakespeare’s most philosophical play in that sense; the way he asks the biggest questions about the nature of human beings.

Hamlet seems to be paralysed by all of his over-thinking. He rarely knows which way to turn.

He absolutely defines himself by inaction – a life of contemplation, a life of philosophy, the life of the mind. Then he is given this task, this enormous task of avenging his father’s death. In Hamlet, Shakespeare is especially fascinated by a task being given to someone who is not naturally suited to it and that is what leads to the tragedy. But if you think about Macbeth, who is a great man of action, if you have gave Macbeth the job of dealing with Claudius…

…it would be a short play!

It would be a very short play! Macbeth would rip Claudius “from the nave to th’ chops” before you knew it! Conversely, if you gave Hamlet the job that Macbeth has, of deciding whether or not to believe the witches, Hamlet might be a little more hesitant and ask a few more questions than Macbeth does.

The role of Hamlet is greatly coveted by actors. Why do you think that is?

It is partly the sheer size of the role. Hamlet is one of the small number of Shakespeare’s plays where there is a single part that has a huge, huge percentage of the text. So you kind of know that if you are going to play Hamlet, you are going to be at the centre of things. You are carrying so much of the play.

Then there is the fact that there are these soliloquies where you have to hold the whole theatre alone and the language is immensely rich. Then there is the range of feelings – you’ve got to feign madness, you’ve got to be angry, you’ve got to be thoughtful, you’ve got to be in love, you’ve got to be out of love, you’ve to got to decide whether Hamlet is really mad or pretending to be mad. As an actor you are always pretending, so what is the difference between acting ‘really mad’ and acting ‘pretending to be mad’? It is such a great challenge.

What makes the genre of revenge tragedy so irresistible to audiences?

There is something very primal about it. Going back to origins of western drama, to ancient Greek tragedy, those are so often about revenge and about family conflict. If you think about the Bible, the story of Cane and Abel; Hamlet alludes to that in the play – the Cain and Abel idea, the sort of primal curse of the brother killing a brother. So it really gets to the rawest human emotions imaginable.

I think the other thing about tragedy is there is a way in which seeing difficult experiences acted out in some way makes us feel better about our own lives. I always remember one of my old teachers at Cambridge, the great scholar Sir Christopher Ricks, saying: “Comedies make us feel sad because we feel life can’t be that good. Tragedies make us feel happy because we feel life can’t be that bad.”

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

Sir Jonathan Bate is the author of several books about William Shakespeare and his work. Details at www.jonathanbate.com

Interview edited by Felicity McLean, freelance writer and journalist. www.felicitymclean.com @felicitymclean

LEADERSHIP SPILL

AS HAMLET HEADS TOWARDS CANBERRA, DIRECTOR DAMIEN RYAN DISCUSSES THE POLITICAL TENSION THAT SIMMERS THROUGH THE PLAY.

In your production, how are you exploring the political drama in Hamlet?

This play is about more than just two families imploding, and Hamlet is more than just a whinging boy who can’t get over his mother’s sexuality. Shakespeare housed this domestic drama within a political framework that is far more interesting. It allows Hamlet’s consciousness to be trapped inside something bigger than just his family – it’s trapped into a way of life that he simply can’t countenance.

Norway and Denmark have been in an enormous arms race – a real Cold War – that is beautifully described at the start of the play. Horatio and Marcellus talk about how the armament factories are building night and day (“…this sweaty haste doth make the night joint-labourer with the day”) and the endless endeavours of shipwrights and so you get this powerful Cold War and the strong government focus on border control.

Besides the external threat, there’s plenty of political intrigue within the Danish court isn’t there.

Absolutely. The play begins with a guard on border control but ironically he’s not seeing an external enemy, he’s seeing a ghost. And Horatio fears the ghost might be privy to his country’s fate.

What we learned from the Cold War and what we’re learning from Australia right now or from Edward Snowden or Julian Assange is that we’re in a world where governments feel they need to protect the citizenry from powerful perceived external threats. What happens is that the citizens become heavily seduced by the need to give up their personal freedoms – their freedom of speech, their freedom of thought. Their telephones are hacked and their lives are spied upon. It’s that very East German quality, which we thought we were safe from in a country like Australia but that we’ve quickly learned that we’re not.

So the Cold War, and war more generally in the sense of an external threat, is central to the true telling of the story of Hamlet. It gives a character like Polonius the permission to sneak inside bedrooms and inside the heads of everyone in Denmark.

What do you hope audiences take from that?

The ultimate point I try to make in the production is that the essence of tragedy is simply this: We spend our lives arming ourselves against what we perceive are our external threats – the things that we think are going to come across our borders – and Australia is extremely guilty of this. We fear what will happen to us if we let the wrong people in. Yet tragedy is there to teach us that we are actually the problem and the problem is already inside the fence. We are the greatest danger to ourselves and that’s what tragedy is trying to teach us. Denmark is arming itself for a giant external political threat but the threat is actually sitting on the throne. And the only person who can stop it [Hamlet] is too much of an enemy to himself to do anything about it.

This tension between the political and the personal is everywhere in the play isn’t it. 

Yes it is. The play is about grief and suppression of grief and I think that there’s another very political thing that Shakespeare is saying. In Catholicism, funeral rites and grieving in England were very, very different. Under the Tudors, when the Church became Protestant and Catholicism was wiped out, all the rules were changed about how you were permitted to grieve. They pulled all the theatre and all of the ritual out of the grieving process. You can almost feel William Shakespeare’s anger about that in Hamlet.

The play is all about a group of young people who lose their parents, but not one of them is permitted to grieve. Hamlet’s first scene in the play has his mother and his uncle absolutely condemning him – quite brutally – for the fact that he’s still grieving his father a month after the death. Then Ophelia’s madness is entirely founded in the notion that her father disappears off the face of the earth; she had no funeral, no ritual at which she could offer her deep sadness. So her mind breaks and she conducts a funeral in her own imagination, handing out flowers and singing eulogies.

The play is a very powerful expression of how we are forced by society to bottle up our grief and not express ourselves.

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is touring regional centres, before being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. Twitter: @1andymclean