I went to a girl’s high school in Melbourne and was lucky to have a wonderful literature teacher in my final year. She was an intellectual who really knew how to lever Shakespeare off the page and into our devilish imaginations.
I well remember the night the whole Literature class went into the city to see a brilliant international cast perform Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. Oh my God, the swooning that went down when wicked, wicked Edmund was physically bound to the wheel of fortune. The wheel was a huge wooden prop that had already been used as both bed and table.
So there we had the very evil Edmund – the ‘bastard son of Gloucester’ – sweaty, shirtless, with muscular biceps and skimpy tights barely concealing his pronounced assets. We schoolgirls all morphed into Shakespeare groupies that night.
The actor playing Edmund – like the rest of the cast – was classically trained and he ripped through Shakespeare’s rich prose, bringing it to life and effortlessly defying the shonky acoustics of the grand old theatre.
I was not the only young lady present who promptly shifted her loyalty to Edmund and dumped his kind, nice brother Edgar. We didn’t give a damn that Edmund had already had his way with the cruel and capricious sisters, Goneril and Regan. Nor did we care that Edmund was playing them one off against the other. For having been introduced to Emily Bronte’s, Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) a few of us had already developed a taste for bad boys.
The Pop-up Globe Theatre is currently in Melbourne and at the weekend I saw Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’. It was brash and loud with clever slap stick and physical comedy in the tradition of Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey. As it was in Shakespeare’s day, the actors referenced contemporary culture.
There were hipster dance moves, street posturing and raucous renditions of I Want to Know What Love Is and My Heart Will Go On. The audience was encouraged to sing along and those in the mosh pit were treated to verbal sparring and sprays of fake vomit and urine.
Two of the cast appeared smearing their faces with Vegemite – straight from the jar. I idly wondered what foodstuffs could be utilized if the cast performed in other countries. Nutella in Italy? Wasabi in Japan? The mind boggles.
Back in the 1600’s Shakespeare had to please royalty, gentry, trade folk, the bourgeoisie and the groundlings; those who filled the standing room front of stage. While the upper classes expected to be stimulated intellectually by universal truths and allusions to historical events, the groundlings just wanted to have fun and be entertained. Romance and bawdy sexual references cut it with all factions and love, revenge and tragedy became dominant themes in Shakespeare’s plays.
According to historians, if the groundlings got bored and out of hand, the actors would be given a verbal bollocking or else get pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables. Apparently the polite reverential clapping, common to contemporary Shakespearean theatre, was largely absent.
Shakespeare’s plays have been successfully adapted to suit different audiences all over the world. The bard was a prolific playwright and has been credited with 37 plays, numerous collaborations on other plays and about 154 sonnets. It’s an astonishing feat that more than four hundred years later, Shakespeare’s plays are still in demand.
Mind you, some historians dispute not only the number of works but whether the bard actually wrote them. Various other playwrights have been put forward as contenders. But can the mystery ever be solved? And in the scheme of things, does it really matter?
Vive William Shakespeare!
photograph: Reginald Denny (left: wearing a very dashing codpiece – or is it a coin purse?) John Barrymore & Basil Rathbone in the lavish 1936 film, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ directed by George Cukor. No expense was spared procuring Renaissance-style costuming and settings and Juliet’s balcony was imported direct from Italy. But the critics were scathing that Juliet (Norma Shearer, the director’s wife) was 36 years old and Romeo (Leslie Howard) nearly 40.