As the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth looms, Bell Shakespeare’s Peter Evans charts the far-reaching influence of the great playwright on language, love and art
In a minute there are many days — Romeo and Juliet
LAST year I directed Bell Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We played to more than 10,000 students in Sydney and Melbourne and received countless letters from students after the show.
One student of Collingwood English Language School wrote to express how stressed she felt for Hermia at the beginning of the play, when she is forbidden to marry her love and instead is being made, under the threat of death, to marry her father’s choice.
Wonderfully, the lovers defy their elders and run away to the forest and much mayhem ensues, but at the play’s resolution, when the lovers are paired correctly and are allowed to marry, the student summed up her delight and relief with a simple sentence: “I feel relax.”
William Shakespeare, a man who famously coined words and manipulated existing ones, would have loved that line. On Wednesday, thespians and bibliophiles across the world will mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare, a writer whose influence has shaped the English language and the world of theatre as we know it today.
My earliest memory of Shakespeare in performance was seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s 1969 film Romeo and Juliet. The score of that film itself is so evocative and carries the deep love, melancholy and tragedy of this extraordinary work. It’s a play full of violence and misguided bravado but also boyhood mischief and mateship; of love so clear and focused you can’t help but be swept up in the dangerous passion, like those first experiences of love, that can overtake us. I remember clearly the eyes of Olivia Hussey, in close-up, when the lovers first meet. She blinks so slowly it’s like slow motion.
My love of Shakespeare can be traced back to a singular lesson by a remarkable English teacher, Joe Bennett, who taught me in my last few years of high school at Christ’s College, New Zealand.
We hadn’t begun our Shakespeare play for that year and were expecting the usual tedium of reading some play from start to finish, sharing the parts, for weeks on end. However as we entered the classroom, Mr Bennett, standing before a large green blackboard, posed a question: what words might we use to successfully woo a woman?
The predictable puerile responses from a class full of boys flowed, but gradually we began to find words that might win the hearts of our imagined girlfriends. The blackboard filled with one-liners and phrases. Mr Bennett then quietly handed us a speech from Twelfth Night and explained that the speaker was Viola, at this point in the play dressed as a young man, replying to Olivia when asked how she/he would woo her:
I would: Make me a willow cabin at your gate, And call upon my soul within the house; Write loyal cantons of condemned love And sing them loud even in the dead of night; Halloo your name to the reverberate hills And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!
This lesson began a love for me, first of that character, then of that play. And my enduring love for Shakespeare finds me, at 42, the proud co-artistic director, with John Bell, at Bell Shakespeare theatre company. It is a privilege to direct plays for a living and I never take it for granted.
I was 20 when I directed my first Shakespeare work; bulletproof. My dramaturg and I decided to stage a large outdoor production, with audience on all four sides, of Much Ado About Nothing. The twist was we focused heavily on the darkness, making it a rather nasty feminist tragedy … I blush to think of it. Later, after meeting John Bell, I directed a touring production of Macbeth with post-punk ferocity. I like to think Shakespeare would have got a kick out of it.
Shakespeare, I have learned, is at its best with a healthy dose of respect but not reverence. And after directing at the Victorian College of the Arts The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the early comedy, I’d had my revelation: Shakespeare was about fun, mischief and joy.
I have been lucky enough to direct Hamlet and count it as the greatest play written. I have directed the symphonic scream that is King Lear, the sexy freight train that is Macbeth and the brilliantly contemporary Julius Caesar. The diversity of Shakespeare’s plays means that, depending on one’s mood different plays come to mind at different times.
On Wednesday’s anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, it will be the comedies and the romances that will occupy my mind. I wonder if in 2016 when we celebrate the anniversary of his death (on the same day, it is worth remarking) that space will be occupied by his tragedies?
Indeed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play and his hymn to forgiveness, stands alone as a
career-defining moment. I directed John Bell in the 2006 production, and I shall never forget Ariel’s departure after Prospero finally releases her, the initial hesitation from the sprite, then she bolted off stage, free. John looked like a limb had been removed and was momentarily spent then roused himself to his next act of reconciliation.
But here, too, Shakespeare reveals himself as a masterly writer of emotional depth. Witness the scene in which the King’s son Ferdinand, shipwrecked and believing himself now an orphan, meets Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, sheltered from the world and ignorant of young men. It precedes a remarkable scene in which Ferdinand is clumsy, and at times revealed as a bit of a tool under the glare of Miranda’s incisive, clear-eyed intelligence.
It’s a common theme in Shakespeare’s writing. Women are generally steadfast; the men must learn from them. They are invariably smarter and funnier than the men also.
On declaring their love for each other and intention to marry Ferdinand gestures: Here is my hand And she replies: And mine, with my heart in’t.
Simple, smart, truthful and heartbreaking. If only I could have had that line when Mr Bennett asked for suggestions.
I am lucky in my job. I am surrounded by profound ideas, poetry and humour: surrounded by Shakespeare. And so this week I will celebrate this anniversary with reflections on the plays, but also the times in my life when the works have most resonated.
Shakespeare is not a writer just to be studied. He is to be read and performed for all his exuberance, fun, naughtiness, wisdom and passion. His oeuvre is a gift left for us against which we measure our lives.
Perhaps do what I shall do on Wednesday: open a bottle of red, watch Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, relish the exquisite pain and let your heart break. Then have a laugh with Tom Stoppard watching Shakespeare in Love, and “feel relax”. Peter Evans is co-artistic director at Bell Shakespeare.