The Interview Series is a new Shakespeare ZA initiative: a collection of conversations with contributors to Shakespeare in South Africa, posted monthly.
South African Theatre Designer and Lecturer
Could you tell us a bit about your occupation and your interest in Shakespeare?
I am in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. So, as that title implies, theatre first, performance second, as far as I see it. I am interested in what Shakespeare brings to the kind of theatre-making and performance training programme at Wits. But my actual, real interest, my primary area of work, is production design. So, part of my interest in theatre, and not just Shakespeare, is in traditions of how an audience experiences a performance, and I am really very fascinated by the performance conditions of the Elizabethan theatre, where performances of his plays were part of a thriving popular (rather than elitist) public culture. I think we have to think of performances at the Globe and other public theatres as the equivalent of YouTube, you know, before technology, before electricity. It was just a completely different way of living. For example, the way of announcing that there was a performance was to raise a flag on the roof of the building. There was no other advertising. I think those aspects of how culture brings the community together, and cultural phenomena that bring the community together, are what excite me. But, back to the core of your question: What do I do? I am involved in the design side but also dramatic literature, and improvised performance training.
And what role does that play in your teaching of Shakespeare at Wits, in terms of how you engage with the students and include Shakespeare in the syllabus?
In terms of teaching Shakespeare, it’s not teaching Shakespeare per se. What I find exciting about his plays and the sonnets is how they extend the range of the speaking voice. So, for me, Shakespeare studies is about using Shakespeare’s texts to understand certain aspects of performance training. There is a fantastic essay by John Arden where he describes the working realities of Shakespeare writing for a company of people whose strengths he knew, where and how they might have rehearsed – in other words, in the pub, because they wouldn’t have been rehearsing at night after dark in that part of London … Of course, social organization and culture were so different then. There was such a formal organisation of who could sit and who could stand and where you stood and how close you were to each other. I suppose we experience the remnants of that in any institution today: consider the monarch, for example. Spatial arrangements, who was in the centre and who was on the margins, were very visible, everyday phenomena. And, in fact, status – which translates into one person’s right to dominate over another – is a very real phenomenon that we live with today, even though we like to think we are a democratic society. Nonetheless, status shifts and status dynamics were so much more apparent in Shakespeare’s world and the actors could just draw on that to improvise the staging. So, I am quite interested in fusing performing Shakespeare with improvising it, not in the vocal delivery, but in the actual physical arrangement on stage. That’s what I’m keen on: finding variables to experiment with, rather than fixing and setting them.
... I am quite interested in fusing performing Shakespeare with improvising it, not in the vocal delivery, but in the actual physical arrangement on stage. That’s what I’m keen on: finding variables to experiment with, rather than fixing and setting them.
I can imagine that is quite interesting in the South African context, in that you can draw on contextual factors to inspire that experimentation with space and hierarchy.
Absolutely, because there is no point in tackling any play without understanding that you’re dealing with the context in which the play was written and first performed; the context in which the story itself, the internal world of the action, is set; and the context of today. So, if you perform Julius Caesar in South Africa, for example, you are dealing with three historical worlds all the time: the time of Caesar, Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan epoch, and then the world of South Africa today. So those three different worlds are going to collide in your production. To try to pretend that there are not those three different simultaneous contexts is to be quite naïve, in my opinion. And I am interested in how this lack of a fixed, stable or rigid point or perspective depicts time as exploding across those boundaries. And I think Shakespeare, particularly, is open to that because his source material isn’t always Elizabethan. So, straight away, the minute you’re tackling Shakespeare, you’re tackling two different contexts. But, for any performer today, you’ve got to remember the most important context, which is the world we live in and the world of our audience. Speaking of the audience … one of things that excites me about using Shakespeare is the constant see-saw between the actor acknowledging the audience or pretending the audience is not there. It is that slippage or transition between playing the interactive encounter or disavowing the realities of theatrical presentation that is lightning fast and which could, again, change from performance to performance through improvisation. I think Shakespeare is uniquely available for improvisation, as his texts lend themselves to the interactive, outward dynamic. For me, what is exciting is the fact that the convention of the soliloquy in Shakespeare is so different from having to perform a sub-text but not actually speak it. In Shakespeare, of course, the soliloquies give you what the character is thinking and feeling, spoken out. It is not hinted at. It has got to be out there. So, there is something very theatrical about Shakespeare. At some point, in every one of his plays, the actor is really speaking to the audience in some form of direct address. That kind of theatricality is one of my core interests.
... if you perform Julius Caesar in South Africa, for example, you are dealing with three historical worlds all the time: the time of Caesar, Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan epoch, and then the world of South Africa today. So those three different worlds are going to collide in your production ... And I am interested in how this lack of a fixed, stable or rigid point or perspective depicts time as exploding across those boundaries.
Which of Shakespeare’s plays have you engaged with in that regard so far and what has your experience been of these plays, the students or people you have worked with and the design factors that you have included?
I have done quite a few at Wits with students improvising the staging. Much Ado About Nothing is just absolutely extraordinary because it is about eavesdropping, taking down or noting evidence, position and rank in society … and what is great about Much Ado is the fact that it’s a great play to convey the idea that it’s not always the big-name parts that matter the most. In fact, all of the students landed up saying, “But I want to play in the Watch. I want to be in the Dogberry Watch scene,” because in the Watch, you don’t even speak but you’re on the stage and you’re in an ensemble. So Much Ado, I think, is probably one of the greats for that kind of teaching purpose, but the other one that was really astonishing, in terms of how it could be used to test some ideas, was Julius Caesar. We started experimenting with another way of working and performing, which sounds anarchic, but it was about making Shakespeare feel accessible, as opposed to this particular, correct way of delivering the lines. We just started with Antony’s speech. It was that big one, you know, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” And we had everybody in the cast – and there was a cast of 10 – take turns to play the scene and learn the role of Antony. Everyone who wasn’t Antony was also on the stage as a citizen and we started to discover that, actually, it’s the citizens who shape the rhythm and control of that entire delivery, and it’s because it’s their questions and reactions which act as gear changes for the way Antony is speaking. So those scenes where you have got an individual and a group, which happen so often in Shakespeare (you also have them in Coriolanus), really become great texts to teach or convey, share, experiment with, the idea that, for actors, listening is more important than speaking. You’ve always got to respond to what you’ve just heard, as opposed to deliver rehearsed lines, otherwise it all sounds a little bit stilted and “fah fah fah”, and all in Shakespearean voice, which is the deadliest theatre of any kind. Shakespeare is interesting because it can be the best and most exciting theatre, and it can be the worst – I am paraphrasing Peter Brook here with his notion of the “deadly theatre”. Shakespeare can be the deadliest and that’s because it becomes artificial, fake, in line with some correct way of presenting it, and that’s not great theatre: that is dull and pretentious.
... for actors, listening is more important than speaking. You’ve always got to respond to what you’ve just heard, as opposed to deliver rehearsed lines, otherwise it all sounds a little bit stilted and "fah fah fah", and all in Shakespearean voice, which is the deadliest theatre of any kind.
What would you imagine to be an ideal future for Shakespeare in South Africa?
I think there is a bigger question lurking behind that, which is: What is the future of live theatre? Shakespeare is certainly a part of that, and Shakespeare is also a part of something outside of theatre, which is teaching, reading, discussion, learning, so there are two different ways to look at what Shakespeare offers us today. In the current, in fact, global economic climate, and in the face of, I suppose, different technological revolutions, what has theatre got that makes it different from any other cultural engagement or interaction? I think what’s really exciting about theatre is that it can be a public event, a public encounter between the group of people on the stage and the group of people in the audience. That kind of interactive participatory model of making theatre is very different from theatre in which there is no engagement whatsoever … the “Oh I have been to see a wonderful play” kind of theatre, which is something deadly. I think that anyone that operates in that conventional way is probably taking a huge risk, because that is just a nail in the coffin of theatre, and not just Shakespeare … What is exciting is that public gatherings, in whatever form they take, have to inspire the way we think about theatre-making, whether it is Shakespeare or anything else. Because there is such a strong, if residual, sense of community in South Africa, even it has been - historically - a very fractured and divided community, the public space, rather than the electronic screen, still offers storytellers something that is unique or different from other forms of communication and interaction. And it is that difference that makes theatre exciting, an adventure, and even possibly quite dangerous, because it is potentially volatile and I think that’s… that’s … what excites an audience. And if theatre is not provocative and exciting – then what is the point of making theatre?
And if theatre is not provocative and exciting – then what is the point of making theatre?
Do you have any Shakespeare projects coming up?
I am working on a project with the senior theatre students next year. We may or may not do just a part of Much Ado About Nothing. When I say just a part, we might do, and this is a very crude working title at this point, “What did Dogberry see, and what did Dogberry know?” And the more I think about just looking at the three scenes in which Dogberry is actually speaking, the more I am struck by the overriding sense of who Dogberry is and his enormous presence throughout the play. I’m thinking of using that as the starting point … that template of “let’s take a character that’s in the margins and put him in the middle”. Well, what does he and doesn’t he see and what does it feel like to be that character and what do you do when you’re not on stage? Stoppard uses that idea with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – they dislodge Hamlet as the central character of his play. I want to see what comes out of an improvisation. So that’s one I’ll be working on at Wits, and then I’ll be working with the National Children’s Theatre on the school touring production of Antony and Cleopatra, which will be a small ensemble. I’ll just be designing there; I’m not rehearsing with the actors. But a lot of the cast are people I have worked with, so they are very interested in ensemble-based interaction. I think that’s what’s great about Shakespeare; it is all interactive. Characters speak to other characters, or they speak to the audience; they never are really talking in their own private, solipsistic little worlds. Shakespeare is outward in his focus.
Would you say that the interactive nature of Shakespeare’s plays makes his works universal, in that their outward focus enables the audience to relate to the characters in their humanity?
In fact, I think what’s great about Shakespeare is that Shakespeare has the potential not to be universal … Shakespeare is so specific to his own time – at least in the socio-political and ideological sense. Again, I think about the way it would have been performed, as opposed to a reading of it, as I am not a Shakespeare scholar in a literary sense … So, what did the actors look like if they were performing Antony and Cleopatra? There were absolutely no attempts to try and create historic Egyptian and Roman looks. They would have improvised with their Elizabethan garments to create this sense of a Roman toga. They would use an Elizabethan cape and hold it in a different way to convey a sense of being yourself and something else simultaneously, which is not quite the same as being universal as it is an Elizabethan take on Romans … and I think that we need to a find a triple layer, which is to do a South African take on an Elizabethan take on the Romans. And it’s not about being universal, but about being very South African in the way we do it.
In fact, I think what’s great about Shakespeare is that Shakespeare has the potential not to be universal … Shakespeare is so specific to his own time – at least in the socio-political and ideological sense.
What would you say to those who think that Shakespeare’s depiction of the humanity of the characters and their emotional experiences enables us to relate to them in a universal sense?
One could make arguments about the human condition as depicted in Shakespeare, but we have to acknowledge that we live in such different worlds from those of the characters and the Elizabethans themselves. Yes, we may have feelings that approximate, but the way in which those feelings play out are not the same, because of what is possible in one world and not possible in another world. So, here’s an example. At the end of Macbeth, Macduff beheads Macbeth, which is quite weird for me to get my head around because it somehow seems a very extreme thing to see done in a theatre. Yes, we can make a prop head and make it as realistic as you like, but in the world in which I live, I don’t see people’s heads chopped off and put on a stake and say, “Oh, we’ve got rid of a tyrant.” But in Shakespeare’s world, that would have been part of everyday life. So, you’ve got to work through the filtering of not how you feel, but what happens in order to make decisions about what you’re going to do with that moment on stage, because it is beyond my comprehension to imagine a prop head as a real head … The whole audience knows it’s fake. We all know that. It is a given – just as Shakespeare’s audience knew it was a fake head, but they had seen the real ones, quite possibly, on their route to and from the theatre that afternoon. So, at some level, our worlds are so different … and that is the rich seam to explore in interpreting and staging his plays. The great director Robert Lepage, whom I really celebrate for his complete embrace of theatricality (the idea that theatre is theatre and not trying to be life) has got a great phrase where he says, “In theatre, you’re always building a new world on the ruins of the old.” In other words, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is more Elizabethan than Roman. So, for us, our Julius Caesar has got to be more South African than it can be Elizabethan. I like that phrase … building new worlds on the ruins of the old. You are working with fragments of the past. I think it is incredibly liberating because it removes the obligation to be completely and entirely new and original all the time, which is almost impossible. The way we do it is original anyway; we don’t have to try so hard to be original. It’s about embracing the differences between the various contexts that are being worked with.
The great director Robert Lepage, whom I really celebrate for his complete embrace of theatricality (the idea that theatre is theatre and not trying to be life) has got a great phrase where he says, “In theatre, you’re always building a new world on the ruins of the old.”
I remember the late David Ritchie, an actor, director and scholar, once saying to me: “The whole point of a great play is that it doesn’t provide answers; it just raises a whole lot of questions.” And that is why Shakespeare is great. You don’t finish watching the play with a whole lot of answers, but you have been asked to deal with a whole lot of questions. I think that that’s part of the very pragmatic and practical approach to the plays and the sonnets, but it is also part of the excitement, the discovery, the adventure, and if it’s not an adventure, then why do it? And I think you’ve got to be prepared to take risks and to gamble. To have all of your questions answered before you start … well that’s just boring. That’s like saying theatre-making is like following a recipe, and I think theatre needs to be much more anarchic than that.