The Shakespeare we have to have ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Shakespeare we have to have

I am not reviewing Romeo and Juliet, The Bell Shakespeare Company's first touring production for this year, for two reasons. One is that I didn't see all of it; by interval I had had quite enough. The second is that I have known Chloe Armstrong, who plays Juliet, for many years, and feel unable to review a show in which one of the few compensations for an excruciating hour in the darkness is the startling talent of a good friend.

I haven't seen every Bell Shakespeare production, but I have seen a number over the years. Again and again (here's an exception - significantly, directed not by John Bell, but by David Freeman) the productions are superficially conceived, unevenly acted, confusedly designed and directed with an almost triumphalist mediocrity. Bell can have his pick of talent but, as in Romeo and Juliet, the good actors - those three or four investing the language with a feeling and intelligence beyond the fallback dum-de-dum rhythm - are dimmed by the complacencies that frame them. In the face of productions like these, it's very hard to argue with those young Turks who think Shakespeare ought to be banned from contemporary stages.

How does John Bell get away with it? Review after review lauds John Bell as the great Australian interpreter of Shakespeare. The company boasts a string of prestigious corporate sponsors, a large educational program, and a touring circuit that this year includes 47 theatres around Australia. In fact, as is noted on its slick website, Bell Shakespeare is "Australia's national touring theatre company" and "tours every state and territory with creativity and audacity".

I guess it's a kind of audacity to mount a production which lazily recaps Baz Lurhmann's sparkling gang warfare take on Verona, Romeo + Juliet, only without the flair, or to jam a model of Mafia corporatism over Antony and Cleopatra (watch out for those Sicilian asps). But the audacity referred to here is, I think, the company's supposed irreverence towards Shakespeare, a nationalistic expression of our very Australian egalitarianism, which lends the language a new, contemporary vitality. Or something. Certainly, according to Katherine Brisbane, in his early days at the Nimrod Theatre, John Bell patented "larrikin" productions of Shakespeare notable for their "energy, colour and a certain felicitous vulgarity".

That energising vulgarity has now, I fear, decayed into intellectual crassness, playing a corporate audience for easy laughs. Bell's patronising takes on youth culture might please the suits, but media-savvy young urbanites see straight through it and yawn, wondering as an aside why anybody should bother with anything as naff as theatre. Under its glossy PR, Bell Shakespeare is giving us the very definition of deadly theatre: it's Shakespeare-lite, stripped of everything that makes the Bard a significant and popular playwright.

Is this really the best that Australians can do with Shakespeare? I don't believe it for a moment. There is a truth in the core of Bell's cliched "larrikinism": the Australian vernacular can bring a tough vitality to Shakespeare's blank verse, and prick it fully alive. See my reviews of A Poor Theatre's production of Hamlet or The Old Van's Macbeth for some other possibilities. As for anyone actually interested in seeing Shakespeare on stage, my advice is to assiduously avoid our national company.


P'tit Boo said...

Oops. I think you reviewed it.

Alison Croggon said...

Not so much a review, Boo, as a fuse blowing...

Anonymous said...

Oh deary me, I quake when thinking of what your review may have been like. I’ve always had a soft spot for the company. More for its ambition rather than its accomplishments (though its production of Pericles remains a highlight and Essie Davies as Katherine in Taming of the Shrew floored me) however that being said I think what you say about Bell hints at a malaise that all our majors seem to suffer; the inability to engage with theatre as anything other than an evening’s ‘entertainment’. Sorry for the inverted commas and I must add that I have nothing against being amused but the notion that theatre and indeed most of the performing arts can be enjoyed for any other motive than escapism has over the last ten years or so been steadily erroded. Of course the rhetoric is still muscular… ‘relevant’, ‘provocative’, ‘cutting edge’ but oh lord the practise… ‘Noel Coward’, ‘Life without the dull bits (camp titter)’ and a company dedicated to Shakespeare that in fifteen years has not yet worked through the full repertoire. And yet all these people who sit at the helm of these companies are talented and committed practitioners with track records of achievement who sadly seem to have lost their balls (and occasionally their brains). So what gives? No doubt funding is part of the problem in so far as all our majors are de facto commercial managements with all the limitations of that position. And yet I suspect that our theatrical practise has become so habituated to this state of affairs that even if the purse were opened it would be a good while before bad habits were overcome. What of the environment in which the work is created? What are the quality of the conversations? I’m not being flippant here but I’m scratching my head to think of an article on theatre in an Australian daily that is anything more than a puff piece. Again I’m scratching my head to think of a review that doesn’t spend three quarters explaining the plot (of Romeo and Juliet for fucks sake). There was once a programme on the ABC called Critical Mass that only took 45 minutes at 10.45pm on a Sunday night and yet no one in that organisation of Arts graduates could make the case for continuing a programme that discussed a painting, a book, a film or a play. And of course if you look at the ‘age on line’ all things cultural are under the heading ENTERTAINMENT (this from an arts editor married to a distinguished playwright). I’m being a little bald here for there is a much more detailed argument to be made that I’m not going to go into as I feel as if I’ve already hijacked your blog but it is extraordinary the ways in which thinking seems to be continually deprecated. This doesn’t absolve anyone for derelict theatre making but an environment that seems to insist on the production of commodities of entertainment certainly gets the theatre it deserves. But oh lord we as practioners should know better.

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

Oh my, Theatre Queen, you are so right. It is a symptom of a very complex and more general problem: it hasn't occurred overnight, and changing the underlying problems in the culture won't happen overnight either, even if it's possible. Which in my worser moments, I doubt it is. (Of course, I do have better moments...)

And yes, if this is good enough - and it was good enough for The Age and The Australian - why should they do any better?

Chris Boyd said...

God, Alison, I thought you must have been exaggerating when you wrote the production was good enough for the Oz and The 'Aged'... so I checked for myself. The Oz was more "near enough" than good enough, but Helen's review is a palpable rave.


Well, this R&J certainly wasn't good enough for the Herald Sun... take it from me! (The review's prolly in front of Rupert Murdoch's estimable lawyers, even as we 'speak'!)

You should have stayed for the post-production speeches. Apparently Bell's show was all about Cronulla's race riots.

Old Van did a ripper Romeo and Juliet last year in a Mildura packing shed, with more town's folk than pro actors. Sparks literally flew. Metaphorically flew too. As you can imagine, it was everything that this production wasn't. It had a pulse... unlike this blue-around-the-lips corpse.

Ben Ellis said...

I just read The Age review... holy shit. No wonder you walked away. Juliet dancing to an iPod?!? A street gang delivering a rap?!? That's not cool or relevant, that's more like wrapping the text in cellophane to make it superficially more attractive; after all, everybody can understand translucent yellow or pink. Triumphant mediocrity, indeed. But rapping?... stab me, stab me, stab me.

One of the interesting things that Julian Meyrick writes about in his history of Nimrod, "See How It Runs", is that the generation of practitioners that Bell both formed and represents thinks of their work ahistorically. That is, they believe that it owes nothing to previous generations, and furthermore that they owe nothing to the next. Because of their late-60s/early-70s New Wave successes they cannot conceive that their operations of major institutions can corrode audiences' relationships to the artform, or their own manners of staging to the artform itself.

Jack Hibberd once proposed that Australia ban new writing for the stage for a period of five years. Well. Effectively it has. But why not try something more effective, like banning the word, 'relevant' from the lexicons of directors, otherwise we'll be rapping theatre new and old into demented oblivion.

Chris Boyd said...

Hey Ben, I've got a feeling that Jack (the Quack from Warrack) suggested we not subsidise theatre for five years. But, hey, he was so misquoted/misunderstood, I'm reluctant to paraphrase even this much!

The opening rap/chorus in Bell's R&J was terrifyingly bad. Our first glimpse of Juliet -- jiving bare limbed in a red dress with her back to us, plugged into an iPod Shuffle -- was an unexpectedly persuasive and delightful moment. (Much better, incidentally, than David Freeman's doof-doof iPod mini-obliterated "if music be the food of love, play on" opening to Twelfth Night... one of the few false notes struck in that production.)

Anonymous said...

My recollection is the same as Chris Boyd's; Hibberd was refering to subsidy. I haven't read Meyrick's work See how they run but I recall his essay Trapped by the Past. It was an interesting argument but the conclusion that he drew from the evidence that he marshalled I found unsatisfactory. If I recall correctly he pointed to a generational antagonism (something of what you mentioned Ben in your precis)whereas I think with the same evidence an argument could be made that regardless of individual or generational propensities there is an institutional imperative that for all the best reasons can hijack best intentions. Take a squiz at a funding application for the Oz council and you can fill in the dots of my argument.

I think to impute bad faith as far as Bell's responsibility to the next generation is getting a little dirty. Fair enough if you don't like the work but the man has laboured with conviction and with energy and if his directorial takes on the bard are at times erratic by all means have a go but lets play the ball not the man.

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, TQ: let's indeed play the ball. I absolutely agree (I seem to be agreeing with you all the way) with what you say about "institutional imperative"; it exercises considerable power. The structures have to be changed if anything else is to happen. But I think that a pervasive climate of anti-intellectualism both inside and outside theatre and the active suppression of real critical dialogue (part of the no-memory syndrome) has also taken its toll. (This is also a long and complex case).

Fwiw, my take on Meyrick's "Trapped by the Past" is here. Really Meyrick is making a call for another and more historically definition of "Australian theatre", and a better theatrical memory. Underneath that is a generational "push" that is, perhaps, less interesting.

As for the rapping - oh boy, did that hurt my poetic ear. Rap rhythms simply do not fit over blank verse without a lot of squeezing and mangling. (Technically -a rap line is a four beat line in anapests, while blank verse is iambic and five beats).

Ben Ellis said...

Ah, yes. I stand corrected - I'm confusing Richard Wherrett (whose words were "ban all new Australian works from the stages for 5 years with the note 'write better'") with Dr Jack. Thankyou, TQ.

But I'm not sure what you mean when that I'm "playing the man". Apply the understanding that Bell and others like him believe that they have an ahistorical relationship to Australian theatre and their place in it, and their work becomes more fathomable.

I also wouldn't blame the OzCo application forms for deadly theatre. Unless they were in the rehearsal room.

Anonymous said...

Hmph. Sorry. (that hurts). The Oz council comment was more a light hearted attempt to draw the attention to the beaureucratic hurdles to theatre making. Of course there has to be transparency and accountability when the public tit is involved. But having to state how innovative you are going to be, ticking off the criteria of the current political desiderata etc does has its effect. But like Allison I emphasise that this is only one small part of a larger phenomenon.

As for playing the man I objected to the assertion that Bell belives he owes nothing to the previous or the following generation. This simply cannot be known.

As for the ahistorical nature of his work you'll have to help me here. My reading of the period is that many of the practioners were, amongst other concerns ideological and aesthetical(?),engaged in asserting a distinctly australian articulation in as far as they felt that this had hitherto been ignored or deprecated (I'm fond of this word) by a wider society still in parts insecure about its colonial heritage. That seems to me a fairly historically rooted practise.

Thanks Allison for jogging my memory about JM's essay. The generational push was a theme not the thesis.

Theatre Queen

Ben Ellis said...

TQ, well put. I need to think about the question of ahistoricism a lot more clearly. I'm suffering from generalisationitis. Specificity will cure me and it might take a few weeks.

I'm invoking Ganglands a little, that's all. People who would want to rap Shakespeare must be unfamiliar with hip-hop to do so. Not only unfamiliar with hip-hop but the cultures around it, and with the diversity of people who employ rapping to great effect (from Mike Skinner to Dr Dre). Rapping Shakespeare illustrates a deep misunderstanding of why people rap; the desire to bring Shakespeare's words closer to Yoof by shunting the square of content into the circle of form destroys the artfulness of both, and results in my wondering what kind of generational bubble the director lives in. But, yeah, I'm making a synecdoche out of a molehill.

I agree that when administrators are frequently confronted with policies where the vocabulary is straight out of The Language of Wood & Social Justice & Best Practice Slogan Handbook, artistic thinking - which feeds on specificity - can be damaged by the usage of often confused abstractions. (Please don't get me wrong: I think social justice is a good thing, only that the discourse of it when applied to government can be woolly.)

Anonymous said...

In absolute accord. Couple the Social Justice handbook with all the theatrical yay words such as 'making relevant', 'universal human values' and oh I can't go on as I've clenched my buttocks so tight they've gone into spasm. Thanks to you and Allison (again) for reintroducing me to the delightful categories of prosody...synecdoche, anapests...ahh.

Alison Croggon said...

Ben, yes, it's just window dressing. The thing about the rapping street gangs was how, well, unthreatening they looked - four skinny white guys in boardshorts with a skateboard and an acoustic guitar, I ask you -

I keep wondering all the same what yoof Bell imagines he's appealing to. None that I know. My unscientific sampling includes theatre arts students who've been to see R&J and humanities-inclined teens as well as my own teenage children, who for various reasons have seen a few Bell productions - young people that Bell ought to be wowing - and they feel the shallowness of the allusions to their culture and react very badly. (But these same kids love McKellan's Richard III).

Oh, those universal human values, they're bad for the digestion...

Peter said...

I saw it last night and was generally underwhelmed. But thought it had some lovely moments, even if they were a little too rare to make 3h10m worthwhile. R&J's initial meeting was directed beautifully - making them seem as if they were the only people on stage. And Friar Lawrence was magnificent.

The thing about R&J is that it is a magnificent piece of soap opera - complete with ludicrous plot devices devised to bring the characters a wonderful moment ("I want something so he thinks she's dead but she's not so he kills himself and she wakes up - a potion? Yeah, that'll work.")

But you can't "act" that sort of high emotion. If you play it as soap, it becomes farcical melodrama - this was the trap I thought they fell into. Play it straight and honest, and the words and the action carry the emotion. Try to "emote", and you look like a tool. I'm looking at you, Romeo (and note: dropping to your knees does not = tortured. Work harder).

I suspect if that opening "rap" was put on a high school stage, there would be sniggers all round. But Bell does it and, well, it's "edgy". It was not.

Anna said...

I know I'm a little late for this discussion (over a year!) but just wanted to speak on behalf of my generation (those troublesome Y kids) to say that though I felt the 'contemporary' touches in this production were quite naff (particularly the rap) and provoked much eye rolling from myself and my friend, I still loved the produciton. I can't help but be touched by Shakespeare's plays, and I felt that there was a beauty and simplicity underneath all the quite ridiculous window-dressing. Was especially moved by Chloe Armstrong.

Shakespeare done bad is still Shakespeare.

Though slow-motion fight sequences is a bit much!