Making Shakespeare

by Marguerite de Waal

One month ago, following the “my shakespeare” teacher’s workshop at the Baxter theatre, a diverse group of theatre-makers and actors gathered at the Fugard Theatre for “Making Shakespeare”, exploring how – and why – artists might make, unmake, and remake Shakespeare in South Africa. This was a landmark gathering in many ways, and resulted in invigorating discussions and performances which will doubtless prove fertile ground for future artistic practice.


About 30 participants, ranging in age and experience and representing many different backgrounds (and approaches to Shakespeare) gathered on the morning of Wednesday, the 15th of May, in the Fugard foyer for a cup of coffee and a snack before starting a full day of workshopping. The hospitality of the Fugard staff was a constant during the two-day event, and especially felt during the tea and lunch breaks in this same foyer. Similarly, participants became well acquainted with the three main meeting spaces at the theatre, each with its own character and spatial dynamic: the Sigrid Rausing studio, the Homecoming Centre workshop room, and the Fugard meeting room. Starting at 09:00, the whole group met in the Sigrid Rausing studio, where they were formally welcomed by Chris Thurman, the president of SSoSA (the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa).


The introduction outlined the motivations for convening the workshop, placing it in context as the second of three events forming part of SSoSA’s triennial congress: “my shakespeare”, “Making Shakespeare”, and the “Shakespeare and Social Justice” academic conference, which was set to start at the tail-end of the theatre workshops on Thursday afternoon. All three events wanted to acknowledge the challenges and complicated history behind Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in South Africa. This included the question of whether Shakespeare should still be staged or taught at all, and if so, how? For “Making Shakespeare”, the focus was therefore placed squarely on the theatre makers and actors as creative agents.

Participants were then divided into three groups of between six and eight performers; each group would remain together while rotating through three workshop sessions by different facilitators in different venues throughout the day. In a last, fourth session, each of the three groups convened to put together a short performance of sorts built on dynamics and ideas developed throughout the day.

… the focus was placed squarely on the theatre makers and actors as creative agents.

The sessions provided rich opportunities for working towards the performance end-goal. One session looked at voice work and a practical application of a range of vocal expression to some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Another asked performers to respond in an improvisational mode to a physical copy of a Shakespeare text placed in the centre of the stage. This exercise became even more dense and interesting when, once a pattern of response had been established, the text was removed. Most sessions, like these, were very practical, and acted very much like specifically framed rehearsals. For example, one of the first sessions, held in the workshop room of the Homecoming Centre, prompted actors to learn a speech from one of the plays without any script. Instead of learning the words from a piece of paper, the director/facilitator read out lines in short sections to groups of two to three actors, who rehearsed them in iterations that built up (as more fragments of the speech were provided) into the full speech, memorised and interpreted through intense collaboration. At least one session did break from this pattern to provide a more reflective, discussion-based interaction.



In the practical sessions, a recurrent theme was the free translation of the Shakespeare text into the home languages of the performers, including Setswana, isiZulu, and Afrikaans. The importance and potential of such translations became a central point of discussion after the performances on the second day of the workshops. Another frequent reference point was Hamlet – whether looking back at past performances, working with the text itself, or simply considering the text-as-object. This was deliberate, as one of the closing sessions of the last day would be a round-table discussion aimed at the planned production of Hamlet to be directed by Neil Coppen at the Fugard in 2020.


Thursday the 16th of May started off with the three groups each presenting the performance they had put together in the final session of the previous day. Each performance reflected aspects of the previous days’ workshopping in different combinations and to very different effects, all three equally entertaining and intriguing. The discussion following each was animated, covering a range of pressure-points for making Shakespeare in South Africa, including translation, school curricula, decolonisation, and uneven (and unequal) race representation in productions. There was a clear sense both of the energy and enjoyment behind the playfully subversive performances of the actors, as well as of the importance of having the debates and discussions which ensued. Many of these talking points continued into and formed the basis of the discussion on Hamlet 2020.

… a recurrent theme was the free translation of the Shakespeare text into the home languages of the performers.

The rest of Thursday afternoon and evening was spent on three events which marked the transition of the “Making Shakespeare” workshop to the Shakespeare and Social Justice conference: a conversation between Buhle Ngaba and John Kani, Professor Ayanna Thompson’s presentation on “Shakespeare and Blackface, or, Shakespeare and Unfreedom”, and a performance of Kunene and the King, starring John Kani and Anthony Sher.

These three events added more layers of complexity to the discussions that had been initiated over two intensely engaging days. None of the questions raised during “Making Shakespeare” were paired with definitive answers by the end of those two days. This is as it should be, I think: any cure-all “solutions” put together over such a short period of time would have to be treated with suspicion. Moreover, the workshop seemed to demonstrate that growth, change, and creativity are the results of the sometimes painful, often liberating act of questioning. In such a context, insisting on a single resolution in any one direction runs the risk of being reductive. To counter that which is restrictive and static (and colonial?), we need to keep questioning, playing, making, and re-making.  


The Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa and all the “Making Shakespeare” participants thank The Fugard Theatre, CN&CO, and BASA for their wonderful support in making this event possible.