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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

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.

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