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