“…when the world loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood, its common experience.
No mortal child was ever begot, only an immortal common image…” Wim Wenders
Not many days go by when I don’t ask myself the question: why is it necessary to keep the flame of these old classic plays fresh and vital for future audiences? Why do Shakespeare anymore?
I hope we never stop asking the question because producing Shakespeare can never just become a reflex action, a simple exercise in bardolatory. And some days, as I drive out to a new school to speak to students or head into rehearsal on a 400-year-old English play, I lose faith in my ‘stock’ answers to that question. But with each renewal of contact with these plays, and with each new audience member I meet who has never experienced or ‘understood’ Shakespeare’s work before, the question answers itself exponentially.
The exhaustive interrogation of thought and human behaviour in Shakespeare’s plays is honest, compassionate and it changes the way I think, the things I feel, and the way I see the world, and it does those things for all of us when that special connection comes in the theatre. His plays are fuelled by a faith that we like Prospero or like Cordelia have the capacity to change, to forgive and to tell the truth.
It is no great mystery that the work endures so completely. Shakespeare’s observation of us remains painfully accurate and subversive. The language is inspiring, daring, playful and filled with extravagant flair and soaring emotional intensity. The plays never preach to our understanding but leave us with questions and humane challenges, allowing audiences to see themselves and their aspirations and concerns reflected on the stage, particularly in the way the plays obsess with the basic concept of living in a family and a community. They are like X-rays of the internal experience of being human, while also celebrating with vividness and popular appeal our relationships to each other.
In talking and presenting work to young people particularly, I profoundly believe in the enduring social value of these stories, their provocative questioning of human systems and instincts, their immense force as a poetic communal experience, and their open-ended capacity to reflect the personal and cultural experience of different peoples, different generations and different artistic tastes and styles.
And quite simply these plays always ask more of the performer. We are excited and inspired by the recurrent challenge that emerges for actors working on the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chekhov in terms of the vast and ever-deepening imagination they demand, “that not-withstanding [its] capacity, receiveth as the sea”.
The Ancient Greeks placed the actor at the centre of that experience, consistently making powerful links between the actor (the human body, the mind, the instincts) and the musculature of the theatre itself, as if they were essentially one. They thrive on the palpable presence of the sacred, intangible, magical possibilities of performance when fuelled by an enlightened inner ‘life’.
As Peter Brook says, “If habit leads us to believe that theatre must begin with a stage, scenery, lights, music, armchairs…we set off on the wrong track…there is only one thing theatre needs: the human element.” In Japanese actor Yoshi Oida’s judgement, again, the actor and the theatre are, literally, one – “In Japanese the word for stage is butai, bu meaning ‘dance’ and tai meaning stage. Literally, ‘the place of dancing’. However, the word tai also means ‘body’, which suggests an alternate reading: ‘body of dancing’…in other words, the stage dances”, as if come to life.
Voice teacher Kristen Linklater has always been a passionate advocate of the specialisation and imagination required to bring Shakespeare alive - “Personal truth sometimes seems too small for Shakespeare’s poetic grandeur…classical drama has to be played on a human instrument that is radically altered even from a hundred years ago.” That instrument, “the twentieth century voice”, particularly in Shakespeare’s theatre of words, of emotional and linguistic ‘extremity’, must be reawakened to the “language of extreme expression” capable of coping with the “visceral and spiritual urgency” of work such as Shakespeare’s.
But above all it is the theatricality of the plays that can charm and dazzle us. Shakespeare’s art requires custodians and without detailed, insightful, intelligent, surprising and affordable productions of the work, there is no way to sustain a worthy or valuable role for Shakespeare and classical drama in any society or school curriculum. People, particularly the next generation of Australian theatre-goers need to ‘experience’ the work to recognise its worth.
Sport for Jove Theatre was founded with the intention of offering actors and audiences, both young and experienced, the opportunity to play with these ideas and goals in mind, to work patiently and consistently, to achieve new boundaries in the production of classical theatre in Australia.
- Damien Ryan, Artistic Director