Bell dra­maturge Bene­dict Hardie has taken a few lib­er­ties with the Bard’s tale, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre - The Mer­chant of Venice

‘Ihave never been in­ter­ested in mu­seum the­atre. My feel­ing is that the­atre al­ways has to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with au­di­ences.” Ac­tor and writer Bene­dict Hardie is speak­ing to Re­view from the NSW coun­try town of Or­ange, the first stop in Bell Shake­speare’s 27-venue na­tional tour of its new pro­duc­tion of The Mer­chant of Venice.

On his mind is ev­ery­thing from how to make Shake­speare’s 400-year-old clas­sic of reli­gious prej­u­dice, power and the pol­i­tics of money res­onate with au­di­ences in 2017, to the cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween Syd­ney and Mel­bourne when it comes to in­die the­atre, to the ir­rel­e­vance of the tra­di­tional the­atre sub­scrip­tion model, to changes in how we con­sume not just the­atre but film, cin­ema and other me­dia.

Hardie, 32, is swap­ping his di­rect­ing, writ­ing and act­ing hats (he has ap­peared in Julius Cae­sar for Bell, as well as in The Drover’s Wife and The Dog/The Cat for Belvoir, among other things) for the role of dra­maturge in the pro­duc­tion, di­rected by Anne-Louise Sarks in her de­but pro­duc­tion for Bell, and fea­tur­ing Mitchell Bu­tel and Jes­sica Tovey.

The na­tional reach of the pro­duc­tion is adding a cer­tain cre­ative fris­son for cast and crew. “Of­ten, when you’re mak­ing a show in Syd­ney or Mel­bourne it’s for a fairly nar­row de­mo­graphic. But tak­ing The Mer­chant around the coun­try is very ex­cit­ing, be­cause you’re cater­ing for a broad range of life­styles, so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds and so on.

“It’s one of the great things Bell Shake­speare does, na­tional out­reach, and for many Aus­tralians, it is their first in­tro­duc­tion to Shake­speare.” He laughs. “It’s fantastic but it’s a great re­spon­si­bil­ity. I don’t want schoolkids to be turned off Shake­speare.”

A po­ten­tially neo­phyte au­di­ence hasn’t stopped the com­pany from tak­ing some dra­matic cre­ative lib­er­ties with the Bard’s fa­mous tale of power, greed, prej­u­dice, jus­tice and le­gal machi­na­tions. “I think purists will no­tice there have been a lot of changes, a lot of edit­ing of scenes, we’ve moved a lot of things around.”

A cin­e­matic ap­proach has also in­fused the craft­ing of the work, re­flect­ing con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences’ ap­petite for and con­sump­tion of cross-cul­tural and mul­ti­me­dia sto­ry­telling, he says. “Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in sto­ries, nar­ra­tives, short films, cin­ema, video — au­di­ences are much more lit­er­ate now, and that’s ex­cit­ing for the­atre-mak­ers. You have to be aware of the lan­guage of cin­ema, the lan­guage of short story writ­ing, the lan­guage of jour­nal­ism, what­ever peo­ple are con­sum­ing.”

Among key in­no­va­tions are story strands that imag­ine what hap­pens to Shy­lock and his daugh­ter Jes­sica af­ter the end of the play. In this pro­duc­tion, Hardie says, we will see him a bro­ken man re­cently bap­tised as a Chris­tian. In some ways, he says, Jes­sica is one of the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters in the play, and her imag­ined jour­ney — along­side the moral dilem­mas she is forced to con­front when faced with her fa­ther’s sad fate — is a fo­cus of the pro­duc­tion.

But the play’s cen­tral ques­tions — reli­gious free­dom, the power of money, jus­tice and class and its ques­tion­ing of the “other” — will re­main the an­chor. At a time when we are see­ing a resur­gence in anti-Semitism glob­ally, and de­bates about faith, Is­lam, “alien” ci­ti­zens and free­dom of speech have ac­quired greater po­tency, The Mer­chant of Venice is a play for our age, he says.

But for all its in­no­va­tions, the pro­duc­tion is firmly an­chored in tra­di­tional the­atre-craft. In his role as dra­maturge, Hardie has rel­ished the schol­arly process of re­search­ing and build­ing the world of the play, bring­ing his­tor­i­cal and so­cial con­text to what we will see on stage — “ev­ery­thing from the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion when Shake­speare was writ­ing the play, to the an­ti­Semitism of the time” — and pro­vid­ing feed­back to the ac­tors in re­hearsal.

This new Mer­chant marks his lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sarks, with whom he shares a long and rich the­atre-mak­ing his­tory.

“I first met her at SUDS, the drama so­ci­ety of the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. It would have been around 2003, 2004. Anne-Marie was one of the movers and shak­ers, pres­i­dent of the drama so­ci­ety. My first im­pres­sion? She was al­ways very in­tel­li­gent and very for­mi­da­ble.”

Hardie, 32, born and raised in Spring­wood, in Syd­ney’s Blue Moun­tains (“my par­ents are ar­chi­tects, we lived in a house they built”) wasn’t nat­u­rally drawn to the­atre as a school­boy, de­scrib­ing him­self as a sporty, soc­cer-lov­ing knock­about. But a love of drama was stoked while at Pen­rith High School, and at univer­sity he threw him­self into un­der­grad­u­ate the­atri­cal life (“I was prob­a­bly do­ing more the­atre than ac­tual stud­ies”) be­fore join­ing the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, along with Sarks, af­ter grad­u­at­ing, “as part of a co­hort do­ing act­ing cour­ses there at VCA from 2005 to 2007”.

He and Sarks were among the found­ing mem­bers of The Hayloft Project, the in­de­pen­dent the­atre group formed by Si­mon Stone in 2007. Hardie re­mem­bers it fondly as a hub of cre­ative youth­ful en­ergy.

“I think at the time we were not par­tic­u­lar en­thused by what we were see­ing at main­stage com­pa­nies. We all ba­si­cally started work­ing and run­ning the com­pany and stag­ing shows. In those early days, we did one to two shows a year but there was a time when we did five pro­duc­tions in one year. It was very re­ward­ing.”

He and Sarks col­lab­o­rated on a num­ber of Hayloft pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing The Nest, Yuri Wells and By Their Own Hands. In 2014, Hardie, by then artis­tic di­rec­tor, re­lo­cated the com­pany to Syd­ney, to the con­ster­na­tion of some fol­low­ers. To him it was a no-brainer. “Belvoir saw what we were do­ing and, more im­por­tantly, they could pay us … they also gave us the free­dom of work­ing in the Down­stairs The­atre, which was very ap­peal­ing.”

He en­joys the vi­brancy of both the Syd­ney and Mel­bourne in­die the­atre scenes but says: “I think there is quite a dif­fer­ence be­tween [the two cities] in the sense that in Mel­bourne, the in­die scene is re­garded as [valu­able] in its own right, whereas in Syd­ney it’s re­garded as a step­ping stone to the main stage, to work­ing at the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany or Belvoir.”

He at­tributes the cul­tural dif­fer­ences partly to eco­nomic fac­tors — pri­mar­ily the cost of liv­ing (“in Mel­bourne, peo­ple have more of an abil­ity to work on things with­out proper pay; you can’t re­ally do that in Syd­ney”) — as well as some­thing more neb­u­lous: a com­mu­nal ver­sus in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic ethos.

“In Syd­ney, it feels more in­di­vid­ual, it’s like: get your ex­pen­sive house by the wa­ter. But in Mel­bourne, there’s a need for con­gre­gat­ing”, from sport to the arts. It’s a grass­roots trib­al­ism that is re­flected in the sup­port for in­die the­atre, he says. In both cities and else­where, he be­lieves, there’s been a re­nais­sance in writ­ing fu­elled by a resur­gence in the pub­lic’s ap­petite for new work. “Au­di­ences want to hear new sto­ries in a way I think they didn’t 10 years ago.

“It might be re­lated to the way we con­sume TV and cin­e­matic con­tent. More and more peo­ple are cu­rat­ing their nar­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ences rather than turn­ing on the TV and see­ing what’s be­ing pro­vided. Peo­ple now have their Net­flix or their other stream­ing ser­vices. And this change, I feel, is re­flected in the way they also con­sume the­atre.”

Au­di­ences are seek­ing be­spoke, per­son­ally res­o­nant cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences rather than pack­aged con­tent. “They are ask­ing: who are the voices we haven’t seen be­fore, who are the char­ac­ters, who are the authors?” It’s a shift that is en­cour­ag­ing new cre­ative voices on stage, he says — but it also one poses a threat to the main­stage com­pa­nies’ tra­di­tional sub­scrip­tion model.

“The ma­jor the­atre com­pa­nies have be­come de­pen­dent on this model, which among things had led to con­ser­vatism in pro­gram­ming. Of­fer­ing au­di­ences, say, three shows rather than 10 shows al­lows them be more cu­ra­to­rial — and also en­cour­ages new voices on stage, with­out which the­atre will die.”

In re­cent times, Hardie’s film ca­reer has taken off in­ter­na­tion­ally. He has a new film, Leigh Whan­nells’s sci-fi Stem, in the pipe­line, and his movie cred­its in­clude roles in Derek Cian­france’s The Light Be­tween Oceans, Mel Gib­son’s Hack­saw Ridge and Rus­sell Crowe’s The Wa­ter Diviner, among oth­ers.

All three di­rec­tors were com­pelling in their cre­ative en­ergy and gen­eros­ity of spirit, he says. But Gib­son in par­tic­u­lar was a sur­pris­ing stand­out. “Work­ing with Mel was re­ally ex­cit­ing. I had ex­pected, based on his work be­fore as di­rec­tor, that he might be dic­ta­to­rial or a bit of an au­to­crat, but ac­tu­ally he is in­cred­i­bly col­lab­o­ra­tive and in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble as a cre­ative per­son — not bom­bas­tic or ag­gres­sive in any way,” Hardie says.

Gib­son would seek opin­ions from ev­ery­one around, from the ac­tors to the cam­era op­er­a­tor. “He’d be like, ‘That shot was re­ally good’, or ‘Hmm, I’m not sure, what if we try it that way — what do you think?’ ”

Crowe, sim­i­larly, was “very col­lab­o­ra­tive, very en­cour­ag­ing, very sup­port­ive, and very gen­er­ous with his time”.

Work­ing with two of Aus­tralia’s most ac­com­plished ac­tors and di­rec­tors ap­pears to have fu­elled Hardie’s cin­e­matic am­bi­tions. “I’m start­ing to write films these days, which is a new thing for me,” he says. “I’m some­one who gets rest­less if I stay in one place do­ing one task. If I haven’t done much act­ing lately, I’m keen to do more, or if I’ve been do­ing a lot of di­rect­ing, I start get­ting hun­gry to write my own stuff. I guess I like to mix it up.” Bell Shake­speare’s plays tonight at Bun­bury Arts Cen­tre in WA, and tours re­gional venues in each state un­til Novem­ber.

Ac­tor, di­rec­tor, writer and dra­maturge Bene­dict Hardie, top; Jo Turner and Mitchell Bu­tel in Bell’s The Mer­chant of Venice, left

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