The Interview Series #4: Guy de Lancey on Performing 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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Guy de Lancey

South African theatre maker

Can you tell us a bit about your interest in Shakespeare and what prompts it?

I think Shakespeare is contemporary performance. The notion that it is old English, or the way it is advocated for as ‘heightened speech’, is misleading. The point is: Shakespearean English is a young language. Approached with that in mind, staging Shakespeare becomes a fascinating contemporary experience. Being a foreigner in one’s own language is the starting point of discovery. Shakespeare for me is very much about discovery. It is layered thought and articulation about human behaviour that transcends a particular time and place, yet transmits something of that time and place, as any time, or any place.

There are many ready-made, pre-packaged notions of what Shakespeare is, or ought to be, particularly in English, or theatre academia, and the Anglo world of Shakespeare performance, even to the point of ‘innovation’ in Shakespeare performance looking and smelling like an ineffectual ‘rebranding of the same old thing’ – the received Shakespearean canon – that is as manufactured as any attempt to dress it up on the surface as contemporaneous. Strained stylistic augmentations have more to do with reheated ‘directorial vision’ than discovery or illumination. Shakespeare himself makes a mockery of all this. When you get past all the pretension about the canon, heightened speech, old English, fashionable or unfashionable critical reverence for the text, you see a living, breathing thing.

Shakespeare ... is layered thought and articulation about human behaviour that transcends a particular time and place, yet transmits something of that time and place, as any time, or any place.

  A Midsummer Night's Dream , staged by The Mechanicals in 2011. Photo credit: Jesse Kramer.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged by The Mechanicals in 2011. Photo credit: Jesse Kramer.

You have produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2011) and King Lear (2012) with your theatre group, The Mechanicals. Were those attempts from your side to do it differently, to respond to other productions you’d seen and been involved in?

Yes. Other productions were being done, on rote, by the same people with the same mediocre interpretive insights – either drama department academics or old hacks who had tenure in a system of patronage that had suffocated itself of any real inspiration into what could be done with Shakespeare. That hasn’t changed – other than they have truly ruined it for any intelligible paths of discovery from those who may have the proclivity for real risk in Shakespeare. Quite understandably so. Be that as it may, we will probably now enter a phase of ridiculously timid stylistic political correctness when it comes to the appointing of practitioners in the allocating of resources for Shakespeare staging, particularly at Maynardville, which to date is the largest resource. Doing Shakespeare ‘differently’ still seems to be configured either as a conceptual surface jig with the material or as being ‘representative’ in stupid costumes in interpreting the work. Diversity, for the sake for appeasement. Rather than real Difference. Risk.

The Shakespeare I had been involved in prior to attempting an alternative operated as idiotic summer school boot-camps, with questionable ‘drama school' techniques of interpretation, voice training, and a total lack of critical engagement with the text toward uncovering more than than the obvious, one-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs of character and motivation.  A sort of off-the-peg, second-hand, watered down version of new historicism was pedalled. The insights seemed to come from SparkNotes, or Shakespeare for Dummies.

There is an article in the Daily Maverick by Marianne Thamm (link) in which she quotes Tom Lanoye, who says an interesting thing: that Anglo countries should be banned from doing Shakespeare for twenty years so that they can rediscover what it is. I kind of get that – I think banning it is a bit much – but yes.

What were the principles that informed the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear?

The first ‘principle’, if one can call it that, was to be aware that most of what we had been taught or seen in Shakespeare performance was ‘received’, that is, passed down from decades of Shakespeare referenced to the ‘cosmopolitan centre’. Even British Shakespeare now seems to ‘receive’ its own tradition of Shakespeare performance. The idea was to immediately look for opportunities to invert these received ideas, as a rehearsal tool, as an interpretative strategy, and an attempt to uncover character and motivation from an angle other than the obvious, other than the historical weight of stock references these characters carry. A variety of counterintuitive responses were sought to see what that might uncover for performance and insight into the deeper layers within the text – the text being a blue-print for the performance, not a canonical treatise. It was about breaking the scar tissue down of those received ideas, to get people to mean what they say: to speak to each other, and to react honestly to what happens.  

The attitude that Shakespeare could possibly have been one of the earliest ‘screenwriters’ was adopted. So ‘Exeunt’ became ‘cut’, and ‘contemporary time’ itself, not historical time, played an important part in interpreting rhythm, character, motivation, subtext, context, style, design, and use of language.   

It was about breaking the scar tissue down of those received ideas, to get people to mean what they say: to speak to each other, and to react honestly to what happens.

So we found the right actors, we found the right rehearsal techniques to find the characters, and from that we could see moves and styles develop. The group of people involved in The Mechanicals were willing to put their time and exploration into something that grew organically. I think a director is just an immune system – you’re not an authority figure. With King Lear, our Edgar ended up strangling the fool. He said, ‘I want to strangle the fool’, and I said, ‘why do you want to do that?’, and he said, ‘because I want his clothes’. It was an actor choice, and he justified it in a way that was interesting, so that’s how we did it.

  King Lear , 2012. Photo credit: Guy de Lancey.

King Lear, 2012. Photo credit: Guy de Lancey.

I think a director is just an immune system – you're not an authority figure.

How have you experienced the engagement of South African audiences with Shakespeare, to your own productions of Shakespeare?

The audiences that engaged with our productions of Shakespeare were very positive and affirming in stating that they had never seen Shakespeare interpreted in that way. Whatever that meant. They were also highly encouraging in requesting to see more of it in the same vein. 

However, without the resources to continue doing so, it became increasingly difficult. The resources for Shakespeare production, particularly in Cape Town, kept going to the same people doing the same thing. That has not changed with the reshuffling of executive management that has stewardship of those resources, other than an attempt to window dress a form of politically correct ‘representative’ mediocrity in Shakespeare interpretation for the stage.

Apart from quite a broad range of appreciation from theatre goers, our own productions were basically ignored by the theatre establishments, and some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen from actors, delivered through their own initiative and commitment to the idea of inverting everything they had been ‘taught’, are ignored by the discerning awards system in Cape Town. So a mixture of engaged appreciation, and insecure threat would characterize audience engagement to the work done.   

If you were to think about plays you’d want to do in future, which ones appeal to you?

I could just latch on to any one of them. I’ve realised now you can dive into any one of them, and you will find something - something will be uncovered from the reading, the experience of the actors. I think we deserve a Hamlet that hasn’t been done in a certain way before.

Thinking about the future –  ideally – what would Shakespeare’s place be in the South African performance landscape?

I am not sure of Shakespeare in the South African performance landscape. The big thing now is decolonisation, and you’ve got to get past that first before you get to how you’re going to put it in place. Shakespeare should be demythologized, as should most theatre training, because in most cases those doing the ‘educating’ are faking it and have no idea what they are talking about.

Shakespeare should be demythologized, as should most theatre training.

I have witnessed school children come alive to Shakespeare when they discover that speaking Shakespeare is not unlike doing rap, something close to their experience and understanding in how language can function poetically and contemporaneously at the same time. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Get it out of the clutches of comfortable, salaried drama school academics, and into the schools as plastic material that can be shaped by one's own hand without the ‘guidance’ of ‘those in the know’.

Do you have a personal favourite moment or piece of dialogue in Shakespeare?

The first line of Hamlet:

‘Who’s there?’