As we like it

by Denis Welch / 29 May, 2004
William Shakespeare is so hot right now: three new Shakespeare productions are performed this month, and another two open in August. What explains the continuing popularity of the Bard in New Zealand?

The curtain rises on an empty stage. A door opens and we see the back of a crutch-supported figure in a green doublet. After the first roar of welcome, he turns, limps towards us, and takes us into his confidence. "Now is the winter of our discontent ..."

Thus Isobel Andrews in the Listener in October 1948, still in raptures over Richard III. England's Old Vic Company had just completed a fabulously successful tour of New Zealand, performing Shakespeare and Sheridan for Kiwis starved of European culture after the long shutout of World War II. People had waited in queues for up to 16 hours to see Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh strut their stuff, with Olivier's hunchbacked Richard a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Times were tough - post-war rationing was still in force - but the Bard was back, in a big way.

Fifty-six years later, he seems bigger than ever. He just keeps coming at us. Where would professional theatre be without him? No annual programme is complete without a Shakespeare play, and this year is no exception. Right now, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet are playing in Christchurch and Wellington; Macbeth opens in Auckland this week and in Wellington in August; and Othello gets a run again in Dunedin soon.

Make no mistake, these plays are not being staged out of sentiment or reverence for tradition, but because they make money. And not just from the usual ageing theatre audience: younger generations are coming out of our schools imbued with a working know-ledge, even a love, of Shakespeare. Last year the annual Sheilah Winn Festival of Shakespeare in Schools involved 4800 enthusiastic students from 230 secondary schools.

Michael Hurst, about to take the stage as Macbeth, recalls a Romeo and Juliet he did for students in a contemporary style: "They absolutely ate it up, these kids," he says. "And Hamlet last year, the students, the high schools that came - we talked to them afterwards - they just got it."

Play them how you will, cut them, rewrite the jokes, relocate the settings - there's been a Romeo and Juliet set during a civil war in Western Samoa, a Twelfth Night aboard a 1920s cruise liner - the plays survive just about any treatment (except perhaps King Lear being turned into Queen Leah).

"The Shakespearean plays are so robust they're almost indestructible," says Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl. "That's why they've survived for 450 years. People constantly reinvent them, but the poetry is so strong, the stories are so strong that they can take a bit of battering and the essence of the play still comes through.

"I've done Macbeth three times, and each time it's been totally different. That's the joy about them, that you come back to them at different times in your life and see different things."

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs ...

Shakespeare has been with us in Aotearoa since Captain Cook stepped ashore in 1769. One of the few books on the Endeavour was Shakespeare's collected works. The Bard was on board, as much as any crew member. As poet-politician William Pember Reeves once rhapsodised, "The outward-bound magician sailed with them ... His dream majestic borne to shores afar." He came with the colonists, too: along with the Bible, the collected Shakespeare was often the only book in pioneer homes. One still hears tales of settlers who cleared the bush while reciting Shakespeare and Shelley by heart.

As for the first stage performances - who knows? In Peter Downes's history of early New Zealand theatre, the first recorded Shakespeare productions are Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Richard III at Auckland's Theatre Royal in 1856 - "all presented, as ever, with a 'screaming farce' as tailpiece". An 1858 Wellington Othello by the Foley company was billed as the "first Shakespearean drama represented here". Right through to 1948, in fact, the way most New Zealanders saw Shakespeare performed was by touring companies, mostly from Australia or Britain. For instance, the English actress Mrs Scott Siddons wowed Christchurch with a feast of Shakespeare in 1877 ("Of her Juliet it is difficult to speak with calmness," panted the Lyttelton Times); and George Rignold took the country by storm two years later with an epic Henry V.

In between the tours, some of which were massive undertakings, the Shakespearean standard was kept flying by amateur groups and repertory societies. The country's first amateur dramatic society was possibly the Grafton Shakespeare and Dramatic Club, formed in 1912, while Dunedin had its own Shakespeare Club by 1920. In the following decades, Ngaio Marsh evolved a highly stylised brand of amateur Shakespeare in Christchurch, but the first major tour of a Shakespeare play by a genuinely local company did not come till 1950, when the Community Arts Service took Twelfth Night through the North Island, playing six nights a week with two or three matinees on many days as well. The biggest house was 1220 at New Plymouth; they even drew 400 people at Okaihau.

Those were the days. "We picked two people in each place for walk-on parts," recalled producer Frederick Farley, "and at Pukekohe we had two schoolmasters. When they came on, there was a terrific roar from the audience."

The New Zealand Players, our first professional company, took theatre to a new level in the 50s. Among their 30 productions were A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice (with a young "Ngaire Porter" in a minor role). "Repertory companies held Shakespeare aloft as the inherited jewel of England," says New Zealand Players co-founder Richard Campion, recalling how he grew up in an Exclusive Brethren household where, besides the Bible, the only book was Shakespeare's plays.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue ...

On the other hand, some people think Shakespeare is overrated, or at least too sanctified. Director/writer Jean Betts, for instance: "We're not imaginative enough, we don't put him on for good enough reasons. All those school Shakespeares they do and all this Globe stuff - there's a lot of reverence being whipped up. That is a real stumbling block to looking at the plays imaginatively, with a bit of grunt."

Betts, twice in the 80s and 90s, put her money where her mouth is, with legendary Wellington productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream (shamelessly rewritten and retitled Revenge of the Amazons) and a Hamlet that was even more unrecognisably transmogrified into Ophelia Thinks Harder.

To an extent, David Lawrence agrees with Betts. "We like to treat Shakespeare with reverence," he says of his theatre group, the Bacchanals, "but not with the sort of reverence you see in productions where they don't feel they have to do any work to try to impress you. They assume that you're coming in having bought the preconception that Shakespeare is brilliant. So we try and assume that you know nothing about it, and prove the brilliance in doing the play the best we can."

Lawrence doesn't do major rewrites, however: on the contrary, the Bacchanals play Shakespeare uncut - and very fast, in accordance with Lawrence's belief that this enhances rather than hampers understanding of the words. "With my actors," he says, "I wanted to return to a style where people don't pause unless they need to - you do your thinking within the lines rather than in between them."

It irks Lawrence that some Shakespeare productions take three or more hours: the opening chorus of Romeo and Juliet, he points out, promotes the plot as the "two hours' traffick of our stage", which he feels is what Shakespeare intended as a natural running time.

Lawrence was particularly inspired by Murray Lynch's production of The Taming of the Shrew at Downstage in 1991: "That was the first production I saw that convinced me that it could be really energetic and fresh and exciting and theatrical."

Lynch, these days Downstage's artistic director, acknowledges that the plays may seem daunting at first sight, but has no problem with cutting and pasting them. After all, he points out, non-English speakers regularly retranslate Shakespeare into fresh modern idiom, so there's no reason, says Lynch, "why we should be stuck with the archaic words. We don't need to lose the poetry or the magnitude of the language simply because it's in English."

Miranda Harcourt, director of Downstage's current Romeo and Juliet, agrees. She has cut large parts of the play, and a "swathe of characters", too (the original script has 27 speaking roles). There are huge tracts of so-called hilarious comic business that, she says, are just not funny any more - and looking at the original text, you would have to agree. Romeo's merry cry of "O single-soled jest! solely singular for the singleness" just isn't up there with "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?"

"I don't feel the responsibility of presenting the text as originally written," says Harcourt, who saw a recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford-on-Avon in which "every word was in aspic". It went on for three and a half hours; her version clocks in at two.

What do you read, my lord?

Words, words, words.

If Grant Tilly had his way, we would either do the plays as they are or not at all - and, on the whole, he would rather the latter. "There's far too much snobbery attached to the idea that Shakespeare was the greatest playwright ever," says the veteran actor. "He may very well be an important dramatist, but to my mind someone like Alan Ayckbourn is an equally great dramatist, because he's dealing in a manner and a language that we contemporaries can understand."

Tilly says he is always being told that Shakespeare's language is superb, "but the language, I find, is very very difficult to speak, to make it sound like these are real living people".

As for radical relocations, "we have seen too few really good productions of Shakespeare before anyone starts dickeying around with it. I'm sorry, but Lear on Banks Peninsula, Julius Caesar with Nazis ... either it's going to mean something to us anyway in the form that it was written, or it's not. I hate people telling me what to think about things and saying you must see the relevance and that's why we're doing it like this. Let me draw my own conclusions."

Michael Hurst admits that Shakespeare can be dense and difficult - playing Touchstone in As You Like It, he says, was "like having barbed wire in your mouth" - but has no compunction about "de-holying"the Bard and bringing him up to date. Macbeth, for instance, contains the first recorded knock-knock joke, except that the answer to "Who's there?" ("A farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty") won't exactly have 21st-century audiences clutching their sides.

"No one is going to get that," says Hurst. "But the scene has to be funny. How do you make it funny? My answer to that is you don't cut the scene, you update the jokes. Shakespeare wouldn't mind, he was a plastic playwright, he really liked things to develop."

Try telling Hurst that Shakespeare is not the greatest.

"I never tire of it. We did Hamlet last year. I could play it again. I could play it for a year and not get bored. I'm not kidding - it's just so rich."


Miranda Harcourt, whose production of Romeo and Juliet is currently on at Wellington's Downstage Theatre, has no trouble recalling her seminal experience of Shakespeare: it was Tony Taylor's production of The Merchant of Venice at Downstage in 1979, starring Ginette McDonald as Portia. What particularly appealed to her about Taylor's approach? "Irreverence. It's just in that one word - irreverence. A lot of the way I feel about Shakespeare derives directly from those early experiences of watching Tony's Shakespeares, where what I read on the page at school was so radically different from what I saw in three dimensions on the stage. And that's what I think should happen ... Shakespeare's text only resides on the page in order that it can be lifted off."


Michael Hurst, whose Macbeth opens at Auckland's Maidment Theatre this week, answers like a shot when asked what his seminal experience of Shakespeare was: "In 1972, I went and saw the Court Theatre's production of King Lear, with Patrick Smyth as Lear. I was 14 or something like that, and I didn't really know anything about King Lear or Shakespeare that much, but I sat there - I think I was about two rows from the front, it was like being in your living-room - and I was just overwhelmed by it. There are moments I remember - the Fool, the eye-gouging scene, his carrying in Cordelia at the end - but I was absolutely overwhelmed. That was the thing that made me sit up and take notice."

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