The Interview Series is a new Shakespeare ZA initiative: a collection of conversations with contributors to Shakespeare in South Africa, posted monthly.
Marguerite de Waal recently met with the director of Umoya Shakespeare Company, Sean Redpath, to talk about the theatre group and its vision for staging Shakespeare in South Africa, as well as its upcoming production of Macbeth (September – October 2017).
Can you tell us a bit more about Umoya Shakespeare Company?
The name firstly – Umoya – I chose because it’s a Zulu word which means ‘spirit’ or breath – ‘breath of life’ – and that I chose specifically because it embodies what the company is about for me, and that is bringing life, that spirit of life. Shakespeare – it’s on the page, but as actors, we have to make that a living experience. That’s what it is about for me, a company that is able to turn Shakespearean texts into dynamic, real experiences for people to watch. So yes, you’ve got the verse, you’ve got all these poetic devices, but for the person watching it, it has to be a drama. You have to have the conflicts, that fire, that passion, all of those elements which are so deeply present in his works … to me it’s all about capturing that on stage, that’s why I chose the name Umoya. What I’m also looking at is the return to the idea of the repertoire theatre – the Royal Shakespeare Company is that, in the sense that they will have a production which is showing at the moment, while the actors are rehearsing for the next production, and then the shows are rotated, according to their performance schedule. Also, you’ve got actors being trained from within the company, which is something we don’t have in South Africa. We have actors who join a production for the duration of the show, rehearsing for a few weeks, and then the show will run for perhaps 4 weeks, and then that’s it. With each new show a new cast is put together, and although there are actors who carry over into subsequent productions, there isn’t a progression from one show to the next in terms of the training of the actor, and to me that’s essential, especially to creating the standard of performance needed to play Shakespeare. The idea is that with each production you take it up and up a level, and that’s what the repertoire companies have to offer: this ability to take an actor through that process, as well as give them the opportunity to work opposite more experienced professional actors.
So the idea is the education of other actors in a similar style, similar vein?
Yes. So what we have now is the university model, which never used to be the way actors trained. Before the days of actors studying acting at universities, actors trained in repertoire theatre companies, so you said, “I want to be an actor,” and they said, “Well we’ll let you join the company, we’ll train you as you go, and we’ll give you some small part … see how you do.” That’s how you learned your trade – from other actors, from people who are doing it all the time. The danger with learning acting in an academic environment is that it can so easily become theoretical or simply book knowledge. The idea for me is to go back to the old model of training actors on the job. This is not to say that I don’t see value in training academies. I would very much like to, at some point, establish a training academy. However, this would be tied with the company, in the same way that a ballet company and their trainee and aspirant dancers are tied together, and very often they will bring those trainee dancers into the performances. For me that’s the most important thing, that the younger actors need to be working constantly alongside the master actors, if you want to call them that.
I see it as an actor’s script, and I think it should always be understood as such whenever one approaches it, whether you are approaching it as an English student or as an actor.
Then it becomes a very direct learning experience.
Exactly, from the master to the apprentice. There are simply too many grey areas these days. Too many theories. It’s got to be a lot more practical, you know, especially with Shakespeare. I don’t read Shakespeare in my head, I read it out loud, because that’s the only way it works. You’ve got to say it to be able to get it, to understand its rhythms. So whenever I’m reading a play at home I read it out loud. Ultimately, you want to see it performed. I guess you can – you can study it as a piece of literature, you can – but I see it as an actor’s script, and I think it should always be understood as such whenever one approaches it, whether you are approaching it as an English student or as an actor.
Breathing life into Shakespeare, then, is about performing it and performing it well?
Yes. And understanding how to do that. You know, you’ve got the iambic pentameter – this underlying pulse … in those passionate moments, Shakespeare often switches to iambic pentameter, and for the actor that’s a wonderful tool, because it drives the emotion. That itself is not enough, because you have these breaks in the rhythm, the caesuras. There’s got to be a lot of understanding about that, an understanding of the antithesis too. I do also bring in elements of acting technique: you see, firstly there’s dealing with the text, how to work with it. Then there’s also examining the conflicts, what conflicts are going on, what’s happening with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the power struggles between the two of them – it’s about looking at those conflicts and bringing them up to the surface. It’s essentially having an eye on the text while simultaneously looking at what’s going on behind the text.
Because nothing else grabs me as much as he does. I trained in various aspects of the performing arts – acting, dance, singing – and when I went over to London shortly after finishing my training, my focus was actually on musical theatre, but soon found I didn’t quite fit with musical theatre. I remember walking past a tube station and seeing a poster advertising workshops run by an actress named Barbara Kinghorn, who had worked for some years with the RSC, and I remember thinking, “I want to do that.” So I gleaned what I could from the various workshops I attended in London, and it just kept growing within me, and as I went on I thought, “Why can’t we do this in South Africa?” I just kept working on the material myself, and I thought, “I want to do this. I want to work with this." Why Shakespeare? Because there’s a tremendous depth in it for me. He touches on issues that are universal – you’ve got people who are in love, jealous, who are passionate, and ambitious, like Macbeth. Who can’t relate to ambition? Who can’t relate to love, or unrequited love? You know, all these various themes that play out – they are universal and the particular way that he has worked them has stood the test of time with people around the world in English, and not only in English – there have been translations into many other languages. So he’s definitely onto something, and it got to a point for me that I thought, "Well, if I don’t do anything else except this, I’ll be fine."
What is your experience of South African audiences, their reaction to and engagement with performed Shakespeare?
That’s a very good question, and it’s a difficult one to answer. We haven’t been exposed to it an awful lot on the one hand, and the exposure that people have had to it … very often we have productions where people are doing the best they can with what they know, and I think very often that just doesn’t result in something that is enough to engage the audiences and to excite them and to make them go, “Wow, I love Shakespeare. I want to go watch another one.” We often make excuses that “oh, the audiences don’t like Shakespeare. They’re not interested in Shakespeare. They’ll find it boring. The audiences won’t get it. They’re not intelligent enough." I don’t buy that at all. I think it’s our job as producers, directors, and creatives to do it in such a way it that makes people say “wow!” In a small way that’s what I’m trying to do, to establish a standard and quality of performance. So that’s the challenge and that’s what I’m working towards, but I do think that if it is done well, the audiences will come.
What made you decide to perform Macbeth specifically?
I didn’t – it chose me in a sense. I was working on some of the scenes that we were looking at with a couple of actors, just filming some of the scenes, then it came to a point where I needed to choose something to do as a first production, and there were a couple of factors that played into choosing Macbeth: the size of the cast – I was able to cut it down to just four of us doing it, which I was able to do by keeping Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff, and the main characters in the story arc in terms of Macbeth’s journey. Also, for me it’s a very accessible story … you know we live in a culture that is very ambitious in a sense that we’re driven to achieve, to be achievers. It plays into that, as well as gender roles – you know, who’s the “man” in this relationship, here – and how Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth from thinking that a real man wouldn’t kill Duncan – he’s a noble, virtuous king – to thinking that a real man would kill him. Also, the action is very quick in Macbeth. From the time they decide to kill Duncan, there are a few scenes and then they’ve done it and then the remainder of the play takes us with him on his journey of self destruction, and I think you can easily cut out a lot of the background action … on many levels, it seemed like a good choice.
It is a truism that every engagement with Shakespeare has the potential to uncover some new element or layer of meaning. Were there any surprises or lessons or moments of insight in your preparation for this production?
You find those things in the playing it. There are places where you think, “Oh, when I come to that line, I’ll approach it like this”, and then one day you’ll be doing it and it’ll come out a different way and you’ll go, “Oh, that’s what it means” – you discover those things in the moment of doing them. Take for example when Lady Macbeth, after hearing that Duncan is coming to visit, basically says to Macbeth, “You just leave it all to me. I’ll go and sort it out”, and Macbeth’s line is, “We will speak further”. Now that can just mean, “We will speak further”, but there’s so much more behind it. Depending on where the stress falls on the line there, it tells you very much about how he’s reacting to her. One day you’ll suddenly flip the line and you’ll say it in a different way, and you’ll realise that that changes the relationship with Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth says, “If it were done when 'tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” – that one line, the amount of times I went over that one line … so, yeah, it happens all the time, more often than I can point out.
Top: Sean Redpath and Sarah Richard. Bottom from left: Guy Trask and Miles Petzer.
You are playing Macbeth – could you tell us a little bit more about the rest of the cast, their roles, and your dynamic?
So there’s Sarah Richard, who is playing Lady Macbeth. Miles Petzer plays about five different characters: he plays Duncan, Macduff, most of the servant roles and one of the witches as well. We’ve got two witches who somehow become three – there’s an interesting bit of physical play that we use to do that. Then we’ve got Guy Trask, who is the youngest of the performers, who plays Banquo, and the doctor who comes in at the end. Although all of the actors have worked with Shakespeare before, there’s still been a lot of training in the rehearsals where I have endeavoured to pass on whatever knowledge I have gained. It’s been a challenging rehearsal process, with large gaps in between rehearsals and actors having other jobs, but yeah, I’ve worked a lot on getting everyone understanding how the characters fit together, what their relationships are with each other, and what conflicts are going on between them in the various scenes.
Do you have a personal favourite moment or piece of dialogue from the text?
I think the one just before Macbeth determines to kill Macduff’s family, and Macbeth builds himself up into this rage. He is a person who continually builds himself up, even as everything keeps falling away before him. Prophecy after prophecy comes true to show him that he’s not going to be king forever.
"Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits. / The flighty purpose never is o'ertook / Unless the deed go with it. From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand. And even now, / To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done …"
The most challenging one is of course the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, because there are so many ways of doing it … we’ll have to see what happens on the particular night.
Umoya Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth will be showing at:
· POPArt Theatre, Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg, from 5-8 October.
5-7 October at 8pm.
8 October at 3:30pm.
Tickets are R100 at the door, R80 if booked in advance.
· RedFest and Redhill School, 20 Summit Road, Morningside, Sandton, Johannesburg, 23-24 September.
23 September at 3:30pm.
24 September at 5:00pm.
There will also be special schools performances at POPArt from 5-7 October at 10am or 12:30pm.
R80, or R195 with lunch and neighbourhood tour. Email Nikki at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.