The Interview Series #3: Clara Vaughan on The Market Laboratory, UShakes and Shakespeare in South Africa

The Interview Series is a new Shakespeare ZA initiative: a collection of conversations with contributors to Shakespeare in South Africa, posted monthly.

Clara Vaughan.jpg

Could you tell us a bit about The Market Theatre Laboratory and your role there?

I am the head of The Market Theatre Laboratory. I would say that it is an incubator space – in a lot of ways. Its primary aim is to support and enable emerging artists to make professional careers in the performing arts. So, one of the main elements of The Market Lab is a theatre and performance school. We offer full-time and part-time courses for young people, usually from marginalised backgrounds, to get really high-quality, practical training to become actors, theatre-makers, directors, writers, story-tellers. We also have a theatre that programmes a particular kind of work, in that it focuses on supporting the emergence of exciting, innovative, and new interdisciplinary ways of working. Our programmes are also quite process orientated; we look at how we make theatre, and not just a good product … We like to experiment and push the boundaries a bit.

It sounds like The Market Laboratory is devoted to the development of the arts particularly in the South African context.

Yes, and I think who tells stories about a particular space and place at a particular time is a political question, and so it also allows voices to be heard that don’t have access to a university space … So it is also about the role of artists in shaping South Africa’s narrative – who is telling that story?

Does The Market Laboratory involve Shakespeare in its syllabus and, if so, in what way?

We do teach Shakespeare, and we do sometimes do Shakespeare productions. But I think the key thing we focus on is adaptation … Shakespeare adapted a lot of his story lines from other, older stories, and I think it’s really important to keep that spirit alive. Every Shakespeare adaptation that we have ever explored has been very much about locating it in a South African context and looking at how it can comment on and become meaningful in that context, rather than recreating a nostalgic period piece. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that because his language is so strong, it can be pushed and stretched in so many directions, and interpreted in so many ways without it losing its power. And I suppose I am interested in working with Shakespeare in a contemporary context … to see how far it can stretch, and be pushed, and become current, although I am also a huge fan of not losing the language. So, I have never done a production that contemporises the language, because part of what is special about Shakespeare is that his language is … poetry, so to keep the poetry, but create a new context, is meaningful, I think.

market lab.jpg


Is that what you did with your production of UShakes in Johannesburg last year? Could you tell us a bit more about that?

UShakes was the product of selecting scenes and monologues from ten Shakespeare plays and knitting them together to create an entirely new narrative. So, one character in UShakes might be composed of excerpts from Ophelia in Hamlet, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Desdemona in Othello, for example. But it’s telling a new, South African story. So that was the idea that we explored in that production, and we looked particularly at the texts that we felt resonated with and spoke to young people in the South African context. So, there was no Antony and Cleopatra or King Lear … but rather plays in which the youth are central characters, and from which we could draw effective tropes such as the girl dressing as a boy and going on an adventure in the world … It was really interesting to find that journey that thematically involved young people being in love and wondering what real love actually is. We also drew on Hamlet’s relationship with his mother – especially in the closet scene – as well as Ophelia’s relationship with her father to explore how young people negotiate their relationships with their parents … Shakespeare often had women dressing as men to escape the risks of being a woman, and so we also had a female character in the play make that choice because women are still very much at risk in public spaces. Particularly South African realities were also prominent … For example, we placed the Henry V speech: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…’ into the mouths of miners speaking about going under the ground … We referenced Marikana, as well as student protests – in fact, we had a monologue from Coriolanus delivered by a young woman who represented the head of the SRC of a university during the Fees Must Fall movement. The focus was on finding those universal human relationships and experiences Shakespeare depicts so well and on drawing them out into our context to contribute to and create a narrative of these young people falling in love and dealing with their parents in a political landscape of Fees Must Fall, and Marikana.

Have you done any other Shakespeare-related productions since you have been at The Market Lab?

We have done two other Shakespearean productions since I have been there – both of them were directed by Dorothy Ann Gould, and they were both adaptations. The first one was called iOphelia, which looked at Ophelia’s story within Hamlet, as opposed to Ophelia in the service of Hamlet’s tragedy. Her story itself is very tragic, and again, for me, what that production spoke to in a South African context was male control over women’s bodies … And then we also did a very fun adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called Bottom’s Dream, which was based on the scenes of the players as representing a South African community theatre group.

Do you have any upcoming engagements with Shakespeare?

Not at the moment; however, we are looking at some possibilities … I would love to do uShakes again. We performed it at the Sanaa Africa Festival at St Stithians last year, and the Head of Drama did comment that she thought it would be a really lovely way to introduce Grade 9s to Shakespeare because it is a contemporary interpretation. There are South African characters who are jamming in this poetry, but because of the context, the meaning is clear, which is an accessible and relatable way of approaching Shakespeare. So, I would love to do that but we have no concrete plans at the moment.

Finally, do you have any final comments on Shakespeare that you would like to share with our readers?

From a personal perspective, working with Shakespeare was one of my most formative experiences in terms of understanding performance. What he allows actors to do, in terms of the powerful poetry of his work, is liberating because his words are so open to multiple kinds of performance, and interpretation. And that is why I am passionate about having it at The Market Lab, because for me, personally, it was a real door opening into a new understanding of how to approach performance.

The Interview Series #1: Dorothy Ann Gould on her Shakespeare theatre group for the homeless in Hillbrow – Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM)

The Interview Series is a new Shakespeare ZA initiative: a collection of conversations with contributors to Shakespeare in South Africa, posted monthly.

On Monday the 21st of August, Kirsten Dey met with South African actor, director and teacher Dorothy Ann Gould at The Hillbrow Theatre, where she attended the Monday morning rehearsal of Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) – a Shakespeare theatre group for the homeless in Hillbrow, which was founded by Dorothy in July 2012.

How would you describe Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) and what it entails?

I would say it is about life skills and communication skills. I started with the group in 2012 and I found incredibly quickly that through breathing exercises, creative writing …  their confidence suddenly improved. We started with Shakespeare very early on because I believe that Shakespeare’s plays, especially the tragedies, are huge receptacles for pain that can help a person heal because when you feel that powerful language passing through you, you can release your anger or your pain, or your joy. And then, of course the extremity of a person standing at the traffic lights begging for food but reciting a monologue from, say, Hamlet … people started giving them more money! So, we realised that that was a kind of shock tactic that we must use, apart from the fact that I love Shakespeare, and that it healed me at the age of 14 when I came into contact with it. And so that is what we did. And the more that powerful language flowed through them, the more their confidence grew, the more their voices came out. So, for me, the class has been about saying to them and teaching them: “You have the right to speak. Despite your circumstances, you have the right to stand on mother earth. You have the right to be a citizen here.” After that, we worked on getting them ID documents, building them up one step at a time, to try to make sure that they are not below the radar anymore.

You said JAM was founded in 2012. What was the process that led to your bringing the group together?

Well there is a lovely dancer called Cinda Eatok and she uses dance to work with the homeless, and she phoned me one day to ask if I would like to help, and at that stage I was overcommitted but it stuck in the back of my head. She said that there was a group of men in Mitchell Street in Hillbrow who met once a week, on a Monday, for tea and a sandwich at The Good Shepherd Church. They have a prayer group and a hot meal for about 80 to 90 people every Friday and they provide tea and sandwiches every Monday. They have been doing this for about 24 years now. And so I got myself there on a Monday and I met this wonderful woman called June Jardine, and she had tried all sorts of things with them, like creative writing and painting, but somehow nothing was really happening, so she said I could take over and focus on acting with them. Since then, we have been meeting every Monday morning, and we have become a theatre group. So, that is how we started – how Johannesburg Awakening Minds – the name they chose to give themselves – was founded! Within four months, we did our first concert, which was a mixture of Shakespeare and gumboot dancing! And from there it just grew every few months until we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How do you conduct your classes? What do you focus on?

We focus on breathing … a lot of them breathe very shallowly. They don’t breathe for performance. If you breathe for performance, right down to the diaphragm, you are clearing the cobwebs out. And then we do exercises for tone; we do singing to open up the throat. Voice always has a psychological component, so of course for these men and women who didn’t feel that they had the right to speak … they were not letting their voices out and now they are. And when they stand on that stage at the end of every concert, each person says his or her name and for me, that is important, because we never are interested in the people standing at the traffic lights. We close our windows. We get nervous. And they are lovely, lovely people. And people need to be loved … So, I try to create a sense of community in each class. I really focus on that. I try to just say: “Let’s love each other, and let’s be a team. Watch each other’s backs on the street and on stage.” So, it has been about support rather than isolated defensiveness.

You spoke about the importance of Shakespeare’s works as receptacles for emotion. How do the members of JAM react to Shakespeare?

They are not that interested initially, but the sheer power of the language takes them over, and by the end they have tears running down their faces. Of course, I choose pieces like Edmund’s soliloquy from King Lear: “Why bastard? Wherefore base? … Why brand they us with base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?”… things that really touch them. Things they can relate to. They have rediscovered a passion for life through Shakespeare.

Since JAM was founded, where have they performed?

They have performed for Arts Alive, the launch luncheon, the mayor’s culinary international banquet … We have performed twice at Space.Com at the Johannesburg Theatre. We have performed at POPArt Theatre in Maboneng. And now we have our own little space at Piza é Vino in Auckland Park, and every few months, that is where we perform. There is a little open-air stage. We are waiting for summer now! We put tables and chairs and umbrellas outside; people give their donations and the guys perform. They used to perform for 20 minutes, and now it is over an hour, so it is a good, healthy performance. And they have performed four times on Classic FM. They have been recorded by the BBC, and that was out a couple of months ago. So, they are getting known, in fact, all over the world. Somebody from The Globe came to see them, to see whether they could take the whole group to The Globe because he said that they do not know of any other homeless theatre groups performing Shakespeare … But it is a tall order to take the core group to London to The Globe, and I wouldn’t want to leave any behind. But the goal is there!

So far, you have mentioned a few works of Shakespeare that they have performed. What has governed your choice of play or text?

Well, I have to be honest, you know, in saying that I am not familiar with plays like Pericles, and Cymbeline and Timon of Athens. So, first of all, it was about using the tragedies to help heal them, and then I just wanted them to have a laugh, so we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had directed three times before. It was important that I used things that I knew well, and things I knew I could really help with, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example. Of course, they have branched out into other work now. They have all been on Generations as extras. Three of them have had speaking parts on Generations. Sipho was in Akin Omotoso’s latest movie called Vaya. One of them has had two commercials and a part in a movie, as well as a lead in an SABC 1 series. But the other thing that is just as important to me is the fact that some of them have gone home to their families and are now not using acting, but because of their confidence, are able to do other jobs and are able to support their families. So, they have self-respect, and that is the thing that is important.

What have the effects of JAM been on the audiences – and on you?

Let’s leave me to last! I would really encourage your readers to see them perform. The audience usually have tears running down their faces, whether it is a comedy or not. Just to see the absolute joy on the guys’ faces … standing in front of an audience and having people clap for them. A lot of audience members have spoken to me and said: “I will never be able to look at another homeless man in the same way.” For myself, I have to admit that sometimes I feel inadequate. I wish I was a therapist … I wish I was a social worker. But I do find that if somebody needs to go to rehab to address a drug problem or an alcohol problem, I find somebody here at this wonderful Hillbrow Theatre, run by Gerard Bester. It is hard driving into Hillbrow, but I have many protectors … It is a huge commitment on my part, but it has given me great joy, and I love them. I don’t have children of my own, you see … They’re my naughty sons.

What would be your moment of pride with this initiative?

Certainly seeing them on the BBC because I have spent a lot of the last twenty years working in London. To go from where they have come from to being featured on the BBC Business page is no small feat. And then when young Michael Mazibuko translated Sonnet 25 into deep Zulu and it was featured by the BBC, my heart wanted to burst with pride. When he says: “This is the greatest moment of my life” … I think: “Well, yes, it is for me too!”

Are there any upcoming performances that you would like our readers at Shakespeare ZA to know about?

Yes! We are working on The Taming of the Shrew, and we are hoping that we will be able to perform that at the end of November at Piza é Vino in Auckland Park. We will keep you updated!

What are your aspirations for the group going forward?

If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said to get them to the Grahamstown Festival. That is still one of my aspirations but for that, we would need sufficient funding. I would say that there are 16 core members, and to do something like that in Grahamstown requires money for accommodation, food, a lot of things. More than that, I just wish high schools would say: “Come, we will give you R1000. Perform to inspire our Grade 10s and 12s.” If those kids who have a much more protected environment can see what these men are capable of, I think they would be incredibly inspired. I think these men are inspiring … they have been inspired, are being inspired, and can now inspire. And that gives them purpose.

Throughout the morning, a few members of JAM were asked how theatre and Shakespeare makes them feel:

Lwazi: Shakespeare makes me feel good, because it is an outlet … getting into that moment and telling somebody else’s story. Some of the things we talk about have something to do with us. We can relate to them.

Siphukazi: Theatre heals souls … and that is why I want to be an actress because I want to be able to reach out to people in that close space and setting.

Gift: We feel like we are special because all those years you grow up in the street and you don’t know what you’re going to do. You think about stealing, staying alive. But now, we have something else – something to do – something that makes us feel special. I feel proud – very proud.

Michael: Theatre allows me to breathe … It is life-giving. Shakespeare and theatre make me feel alive.

Voilà! Viola and Olivia Upstaged by Malvolia

Guest writers for the Shakespeare ZA blog, Carole Godfrey and Adriaan Venter, review National Theatre Live's recent production of Twelfth Night.

Tamsin Greig in National Theatre Live's Twelfth Night. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Tamsin Greig in National Theatre Live's Twelfth Night. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Simon Godwin’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night opens with a devastating scene of shipwreck. The twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra) clutch at each other’s hands through the railings until they are eventually torn away from one another, and the stage itself splits in two (credit for this clever design goes to the stage designer, Soutra Gilmour). From this point until the final scene of the play, each twin believes the other dead. The stage continues to divide and revolve throughout the rest of the performance, showing how the broken relationship between the two grieving siblings is the catalyst for the multitude of confusions that abound throughout the rest of the drama.

However, those who know the play will not be surprised to hear that the action soon returns to a more comedic bent. And quite a bend it is, with Tamsin Greig playing a gender-swapped Malvolia (Malvolio in the original) who gets the audience laughing with her take on this Puritan narcissist. Another favourite of ours and the rest of the audience was Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose adorable stupidity and entertaining dance moves (which we are still attempting, unsuccessfully, to emulate) kept us chuckling until well after the play’s end.

One criticism of the production is that there are perhaps too many chuckles and not enough tears. The play itself ends with the sound of the clown, Feste (Doon Mackichan), singing the refrain ‘the rain it happens every day’, but when the curtains closed, most of the audience were still crying with laughter. In the beginning of the play the Lady Olivia (Phoebe Fox) is supposedly grieving for her recently deceased brother. This grief is clearly exaggerated a bit to keep her unwelcome suitors at bay. Yet when Olivia meets a potential mate whom she is actually attracted to, Cesario (who is actually Viola dressed up as a man), this grief dissolves so quickly that one might question whether Olivia ever cared for her brother at all. These are not the only instances of fickle affection in the play. At the end of the play, another major character, Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), swiftly drops his supposedly deep devotion to Olivia in order to marry Viola, at the moment of discovering that Viola is really a lady and not Cesario, the young page. Olivia accepts Sebastian as a husband, despite having been desperately in love with Cesario/Viola moments before. The fact that Sebastian looks like Cesario seems to be enough to satisfy her. Many of the characters seem to exist in a happy whirlwind of shallow devotion which can easily be transferred.

A notable exception is Greig’s Malvolia. After a scene of cruel (but hilarious) deception, she is fooled into believing that her mistress has a romantic interest in her. She blooms at this unexpected news and screams ‘I AM HAPPY!’ while her face splits into a painfully awkward grimace, her best attempt at a smile. As funny as this moment is, it is also a tender scene that shows the awakening of a Sapphic love that is unfortunately doomed. Other reviews of the production have sometimes complained that the lengths to which Malvolia goes to woo her mistress stretch the limits of plausibility (and yes, the rotating nipple tassels might have been a bit much), but the achingly sincere exuberance that Greig brings to the role left us convinced that an individual so repressed might very well be gulled into behaving the fool when she is shown the love she has not dared let herself hope for.

The deception exercised on Malvolia is made all the more terrible by the fact that the modern audience can empathise so well with Greig’s portrayal. In Malvolia, the off-putting pride and condescension of Malvolio become necessary defence mechanisms against those who would mock Malvolia for her unconventional sexuality. One can also empathise with Malvolia’s dislike for Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan), a man born with all the privilege of high class and heterosexuality, and who has no idea how difficult life for Malvolia may be and never pauses his revels and cruel jokes long enough to think about it.

At the end of the production, Viola and Sebastian are reunited, the various misunderstandings of the play are resolved, and the brokenness caused by the shipwreck appears to have been healed. However, one might wonder if the ending of this production deliberately questions the play’s alternative title, ‘What You Will’. Few of the characters seem to get what they really want, and the audience do not necessarily get what they want either. We would certainly have liked Olivia and Viola, who have by far the most convincing chemistry in the production, to end up together. We were also rooting for Antonio (Adam Best), who serves Sebastian loyally and is clearly besotted with him, to win his young friend’s heart. Instead, Viola ends up with the rather uninteresting Duke Orsino, while Olivia marries Sebastian.

The character with the most dissatisfying and troubling ending is undoubtedly Malvolia. The production ends with the image of her sobbing on the split steps of the shipwreck. Malvolio is usually portrayed as a character who is opposed to everyone else’s happiness. However, in this adaptation Malvolia is far more the victim of malice than a malevolent character herself. This final image of a woman broken because she dared to allow herself to love leads us to question whether Olivia and Viola are in fact more deserving of having their love returned. Are these two characters’ fates happier simply due to society’s willingness to approve of their choices? Though Malvolia does not win Olivia’s affections, her character tugs at our heartstrings much more than those of the traditional heroines.