Honk for Shakespeare

Speaking out for the traditional teaching of Shakespeare in schools drives campus ranters wild. Wonderful. Rightly, they see this as expressing contempt for Marxism, feminism, postmodernism and any other recently downloaded “ism”. As controllers of our culture they would have to do the teaching and they know (who better?) the problems of doing so in the ruins of the educational system they so enthusiastically blitzkrieged. Amongst cultural dissidents, whose daily concerns may have nothing to do with teaching, Shakespeare is shorthand for intelligence, literary beauty and tradition.

Read Bell Shakespeare’s publicity and you want to stand up and cheer; see a performance and you may have serious concerns about what they are doing. Over the last eighteen years more than two million people have seen its productions. It sounds good, like the long ago Rayner sisters’ Australian Children’s Theatre. Staging the classics with a young company of performers, touring them around the country and introducing the plays to schoolchildren seems a thoroughly good deed. Yet there is a problem which undermines the project. In performance the plays are embalmed in the circa- 1968 Nimrod Theatre style of production, periodically updated with infusions of fashionable, program-note literary theory.

Company founder John Bell says the Nimrod “began the evolution of an Australian Shakespeare style”. Forty years ago, that was fun. Audiences knew the plays and delighted in the liberties being taken. But rewriting the scripts and adding tomfoolery is neither Kiss Me Kate nor Shakespeare. Passing on our literary culture is not best done by turning the classics into pop-feminist postclassics.

The production of As You Like It presently touring regional Australia is a taste of the Bell Shakespeare recipe.

Close to performance time the players drift on stage. Some of this year’s crop of actors have beards. While looking like products of a cookie-cutter IVF assembly line, their facial expressions are restricted to contortions of the bits above the whisker line. This, given the doubling of parts, creates some unnecessary confusion of characters. As they make their entrances they talk to each other. They look out into the audience. They smile. They wave. It is all very unconvincing and stagy. There are musical instruments stage left, some chairs at the back. Costumes come from trunks placed stage right. The actors wear overcoats and berets and a mismatched assortment of bargain hire wear from a theatrical costumers. Some readers may be experiencing déjà vu. On stage are, as always, military uniforms and decorations. This is a comedy but if there were really bad people about then there would be a showing of long leather coats. This conforms to international theatre conventions in which modern military uniforms means bad and leather equals fascist—killer socialists (if observed) attract non-judgmental costuming. If you have seen a Bell Shakespeare performance it was probably great fun. If you have seen a second one, it was like the last. If you have seen three, ditto. The freshness quickly fades.

The costumes reflect the production’s deliberate lack of cohesion. Touchstone (Ed Wightman) is a Carry On spiv in a multicoloured jacket—the jester’s motley. Long dresses on Rosalind (Saskia Smith) and Celia (Lexi Freiman) until Rosalind emerges as a spunky, Sussan-dressed gamine. The bad duke has become the bad duchess with Camilla Ah Kin looking like the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass. Sir Oliver Martext (Jonathan Gavin) is what the abused script calls “a marriage celebrant”. The part is played in drag, in a tight tailored ladies’ suit, pearls, hat, wig and beard. Oliver (Jonathan Gavin, again) in white jodhpurs and tall black boots. Orlando (Stephen Phillips) with stubble and in nothing very special. Rustics in music hall hayseed regalia. Some players impersonating pantomime sheep. In the forest of Arden the nymphs and shepherds disappeared, pushed out by NIDA students with Equity cards playing at dress-ups.

At this Saturday matinee, at Hobart’s Theatre Royal, some of the actors seemed distracted. Long ago on a hot summer’s day in Paris in an almost empty theatre the young James Agate saw the great Réjane give a dull performance. At interval he sent her a note: “This is impermissible.” The next act was brilliant and Agate, alone in the front row, received a bow at the final curtain.

Rosalind instructing Orlando in lovemaking was a delight. And the scene should have been a pleasure. The writing is a joy, the face-pulling of the young players had flashes of charm but, like the production, lacked overall maturity. Smith was a lively Rosalind, though Phillips was a rather vague Orlando. The fault lay with the director. Cut the words, as he has done, and infantilise the acting and you end with a Rosalind and Orlando from Neighbours. Which may be what Bell Shakespeare is all about—trying to fool the inmates of a subnormal education system into believing that Shakespeare is just like Neighbours or Home and Away.

AT ANY TIME in Australia thousands of students are studying drama. Few of these will ever attend a non-compulsory theatre performance—unless they have a friend in the cast, and then they tend to behave like visiting royalty. Drama education in schools, colleges and universities turns out students who wannabe actors, wannabe film directors, wannabe “arts administrators”, but don’t wannago to the theatre. The only way they would enjoy Shakespeare is if you cancelled the performance. Appreciating Shakespeare needs effort and maturity; educationally it should be a rite of passage to adulthood—and how out of touch with our lousy education system that bit of moralising sounds. Near me, a young man who I took to be a drama or communications student passed his time surreptitiously texting. A small vignette of the addictive and corrupting technological revolution which is under way, at a moment when our elites have checked out of Western civilisation and are cohabiting with barbarism.

Jaques (Damien Ryan) was a disappointment. Once, when an actor began “All the world’s a stage”, audiences would tense with anticipation, and were capable of comparing performances. Out in the learned world of beauty-haters, A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Blackwell) says of the speech that it “satirizes a series of pathetic male roles”. In this performance Ryan turned the poetry to prose. The possibilities of the role shrank into the representation of what seemed a wooden-faced academic on a research trip to the forest of Arden. Kill the poetry, and you kill Jaques.

American playwright David Mamet recently offered some good sense: “Take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.” To heart-start Jaques, director John Bell gave him an injection of homosexuality. In conversation with Rosalind, dressed as a boy, Jaques attempted a gawky, though sensitive, kiss. The dialogue was turned down to background noise. The scene begins with Jaques addressing the pretend boy, “I prithe, pretty youth, let me be better acquainted with you.” The words begin Act IV and may have been a piece of attention- grabbing broad humour. A moment of heterosexual wit, for which the boy player, acting as a girl disguised as a boy, was the butt. The laugh is not pursued and the disguised Rosalind immediately passes to more serious observations, “They say you are a melancholy fellow.” Following this prompt Jaques discusses his own character until they are interrupted by the entrance of Orlando. Exit Shakespeare and enter John Bell, who uses the talk to frame a clumsy but very serious attempt of a kiss by Jaques. This adds a suggestion of sexuality, not present in Shakespeare’s words. For the audience the action, the attempted kiss, left a far stronger impression than the words. When a director ignores the author’s text and inserts a demonstration of fashionable gender cant he is playing to the professors, and the Australia Council, not his audience. This is Queer Studies 101, not Shakespeare 1599.

The jester Touchstone’s comic discourse on the “Retort Courteous” was done with Audrey (Camilla Ah Kin) seated on his knee as a ventriloquist’s dummy— very Melbourne Comedy Festival. The two actors do the scene very well, but don’t we ever get to grow up? Must our culture be lived at the level of a fifteen-year-old? At the boisterous Paris premiere of Satie’s ballet Parade in 1919 a lady was heard to say, “If I’d known it was so silly I’d have brought the children.” Almost 100 years later our high culture is aimed at entertaining uninterested adolescents.

At the end of Shakespeare’s play, when Rosalind comes forward and delivers the epilogue directly to the audience, it makes good theatre. At the end of John Bell’s As You Like It Rosalind’s curtain line, “bid me farewell”, was followed by yet another clunky dance sequence. Having sat for almost three hours it felt as though we were being kept in, perhaps for having dissident thoughts about this director—and other National Trust Living Treasures.

Reducing the classics to Shakespeare—His Gay Bits creates more forgettable entertainment to add to the endless online inventory of available distractions. Bell Shakespeare is frozen into a method which cuts and cheapens the words and underestimates audiences. The power and beauty of Shakespeare exist within texts which possess coherence and order. A chance of opening a window for the young into another world is passed over in favour of another serving of slick clowning and cultural relativism. Though the company has introduced their version of Shakespeare to hundreds of thousands of young Australians, most of them seem quite happy to forgo further acquaintance. That kid texting in his seat indicates where Bell Shakespeare is heading, unless it takes stock of what it is doing: 2b or nt 2b? 🙂

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