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.

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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.

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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.