Tara Notcutt and The Shrew: Interview Series Special Edition (Part 1)

Tara Notcutt - photo by Sophie Kirsch 3 (1).jpg

Tara Notcutt

Director and Producer

Photo Credit: Sophie Kirsch

A historic production of The Taming of the Shrew featuring an all-female lineup is currently showing at the Maynardville Open-Air Festival in Cape Town. Shakespeare ZA spoke to director and producer Tara Notcutt about her take on the play as “comedy-horror”, the staging process, and what the Shrew contributes to the #MeToo conversation.

For newcomers to the play, how would you describe The Taming of the Shrew in basic terms?

How I see it, and how we’ve staged it for a modern audience in 2018: The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy-horror about a woman restricted by archaic values still held by some men today, and how systematic misogyny and oppressions of a patriarchy left unchecked lead to her downfall.

In plainer terms, it is as much a comedy as Bob Dylan is a good singer.

Why did you want to direct this specifc Shakespeare play?

I wanted to take on something that I knew would be challenge, as well as something that would respond to what’s currently happening in the world. Seriously though: I thought it would be interesting to do an all-female Two Gentlemen of Verona, but then when I realised I would be not only directing, but self-producing, I thought I better find something that would have a bit more commercial appeal.

People have also asked me why I would want to do this show in the first place, and I quote, “Because no one really thinks that way about women anymore, right?” Wrong. I think what makes this a dangerous and important play is the fact that the values in it are not completely of a bygone time; some aspects are just around in much more subtle, subversive ways.


It is as much a comedy as Bob Dylan is a good singer.


 Kate (Alicia McCormick) and Petruchio (Daneel van der Walt). Photo credit: Jesse Kramer.

Kate (Alicia McCormick) and Petruchio (Daneel van der Walt). Photo credit: Jesse Kramer.

Your production boasts an all-female cast and creative team. Could you comment on how this speaks to the current discourses surrounding gender and the position of women, both in South Africa and abroad?

It has been fascinating doing this play with an all-female company, especially in a #MeToo / #TimesUp world, and in the wake of #MenAreTrash early last year. The deeper we have dug, the more we have realised just how appropriate it is to be doing this play in the way we are doing it now.

The strong female cast is a particularly exciting choice for The Taming of the Shrew, as characters such as Petruchio have often been interpreted as being misogynistic. How do you approach the more volatile points of the play in your interpretation?   

I think the female cast highlights the misogyny all the more clearly. When you’re sitting in an audience watching a performer (who you know is female) portraying a man, you start to receive what they say in a much clearer way. It’s like listening to songs from the early 2000s (when the play is set): there’s latent, quiet, subtle misogyny written into all the songs we get nostalgic about (which I think also says a lot about why young men of a certain generation feel the way that they do about things – because it’s been subliminally drilled into them from a young age). The play is similar in that way: it’s difficult to ignore the more tense, cruel, awful moments when you know it’s a woman saying those lines. In this way, we’ve been able to really dig deep into the more volatile areas, instead of skating around them.


It's difficult to ignore the more tense, cruel, awful moments when you know it's a woman saying those lines.


Could you tell us a bit more about the creative process behind staging the play?

It has been the most wonderful, intense experience I have ever had in a rehearsal room. Not only have I directed it, but I am also self-producing (as I mentioned), which adds a whole other kind of intensity to the process. I like to be as collaborative as possible, and really enjoy creating an environment where performers feel like they can play, make suggestions, and try things out. It’s also particularly wonderful to work with my sister, Cleo, as choreographer, as she really just gets me. There’s a shorthand when we work together, and I can often leave her with just a few words to describe a moment and I’ll see it later and it’ll be spot on. My Assistant Director Dara Beth has been amazing, as has my Stage Manager / Assistant Lighting Designer / The Widow – Ameera Conrad. They are excellent young directors in their own right and it’s been extremely valuable having their outside eyes on the play with me.

Also, when you have a cast as talented and clever and daring as mine is, it makes one’s job extremely easy.

 In rehearsal: Ann Juries (left) and Daneel van der Walt (right). 

In rehearsal: Ann Juries (left) and Daneel van der Walt (right). 

What do you feel Shakespeare’s place is in South African theatre?

I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a small child. I grew up at Maynardville; going with my dad since I was very young, and it was my first job out of university. I feel like there are a lot of parallels to be found in the modern world, and what has been so exciting about this production is that we’ve been able to take a classic text and bring it into the modern understanding, showing that there is a huge relevance and a lot to talk about from it.

Shakespeare can also be hella boring, but I think that if directors take the time to explore how it relates to a modern audience, there is a lot of value to it.

What do you hope the production brings to the discussion surrounding Shakespeare in South Africa?

For me, it has reignited my passion for Shakespeare, and that’s really something. All of our schools performances are sold out, which is incredible, and I hope that young people coming to watch have a good time, feel like they can access it, and walk away not only finding something relevant about it, but also engaging with the conversations that a play like The Taming of the Shrew brings up.


"My tongue will tell the anger of my heart / Or else my heart concealing it will break."


Do you have a favourite moment or piece of dialogue from the play? 

So many things! One of my favourite things is not a specific moment, but in Act 1 Scene 2 we meet Petruchio, and a lot of the men in the play talk to each other. What happens in that scene is the plot gets explained about 4 times – each by a different person. It’s the ultimate mansplaining.

One of my other favourite lines is when Baptista – the father – has just broken up a fight between his daughters and he looks directly at the audience and says “Was ever a gentleman thus grieved as I?” – and it’s hilarious. It’s like when my dad gets a cold and it’s the absolute end of the world; it’s so wonderfully self-pitying, and Lynita Crofford plays it to perfection.

Another favourite, which breaks my heart, is when Kate (played by the magnificent Alicia McCormick) says “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart / Or else my heart concealing it will break”. It’s devastating.

____________________________________

The Taming of the Shrew will be running until 3 March. Look out for Part 2 of this Special Edition of the Interview Series, in which we speak to the actors involved in the Maynardville Shrew

The Interview Series #5: Sarah Roberts on Theatre, Theatricality, Teaching 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.

129.jpg

Sarah Roberts

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.


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.


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.

thumb_IMG_9649_1024 (1).jpg

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?’

 

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.

Clara Vaughan.jpg

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.

market lab.jpg

 

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.