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"There’s not much point in going backwards, is there?”

Looking at the programming of our state and major companies this year, it looks like the Bard is being given a break.

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Has Shakespeare gone on Annual Leave?

Date: 8 Jun 2018

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott played party pooper in an op-ed piece, suggesting Australia’s major theate companies drop the Bard for while.

A five-year moratorium, no less.

Looking at the programming of our state and major companies this year, it looks like the Bard is indeed being given a break.

Sydney Theatre Company? No Shakespeare. They didn’t stage one last year either.

State Theatre Company of South Australia? Nope. Belvoir. Nope. Black Swan. Nope.

Bucking the trend, Queensland Theatre just closed a musical version of Twelfth Night, composed by Tim Finn and with a female Malvolio (Christen O’Leary). Melbourne Theatre Company is also producing a new Twelfth Night, with Geoffrey Rush (just confirmed) as Malvolio, going into rehearsals in October.

Even the Shakespeare companies are doing fewer Shakespeares.

Bell Shakespeare is continuing its programming of two Shakespeares (Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar), down from its original three, to make way for a Shakespeare contemporary playwright. This year it is Moliere’s The Misanthrope, adapted by Justin Fleming.

Indie Shakespeare specialists Sport for Jove has dropped its winter Shakespeare in favour of Moby Dick. Last year, the winter Shakespeare was dropped for Howard Barker’s No End of Blame.

Has the recent upsurge in conversations around diversity and the representation of women put Shakespeare on the nose?

Are big ensemble plays beyond the capacity of companies to sustain in pinched times?

Or have we had enough Dreams, Twelfth Nights and Scottish Plays to last us a lifetime?

In part, at least, it’s a hip-pocket issue, says Brett Sheehy, artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Shakespeare doesn’t come cheap.

“It is becoming increasingly rare and financially prohibitive for any major theatre company to present some of the mightiest works of Shakespeare without major cuts to scenes or characters, and actors doubling or even tripling up on roles,” he says.

“For example, in 1962 MTC staged Macbeth with a cast of 23 and in 2017 we could afford only 16. That 2017 production was a success, but would it have been so with a cast of 12, or 10 or 8?

“Similarly, our 1980 production of Hamlet was performed by 20 actors, yet in 2011 only 14. When I dramaturged the STC production of Romeo and Juliet in 1989 it was with a cast of 19; STC last presented Romeo and Juliet in 2013 with only 10 actors. Dozens of such comparisons abound for all of our major theatre companies.”

As government funding currently stands for the theatre sector, no major company will again be able to stage some of the great Shakespeares exactly as written, Sheehy believes. “And this extends to works by Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Marlowe, Shaw, Goethe, Brecht and dozens of stage masterpieces through history.

“This situation of financial constraints forcing major text cuts and actors doubling is, to me, as ludicrous as telling an orchestra to cut 15 bars of a Beethoven symphony, or for a violinist to have to put down their instrument after the first movement and pick up a trumpet for a third movement because the orchestra can’t afford enough musicians. Of course, this is not the reality for our major orchestras, nor should it be. And neither should it be for our major theatre companies.”

Kip Williams, artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, has directed Shakespeare for the STC and says he plans to do so again … eventually.

“There are a couple more I’m keen to do while I’m here,” he says. “But it’s a funny thing. You think a Shakespeare would be instant box office gold and they’re just not. They only really ever sell off word-of-mouth. For instance, when I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream about 18 months ago, it was one of the least popular plays with subscribers. But then did incredibly well off single ticket sales. Shakespeare.”

Sam Strong, artistic director of Queensland Theatre, believes the era of automatic programming of canonical works – including those of Shakespeare – is probably over.

“I resist the idea that anything should be an automatic part of our company repertoire,” Strong says. “I’m not interested in programming a Twelfth Night, a Cherry Orchard or a Top Girls just because they are amazing plays – even though they are.

“I think you program a Shakespeare when you have a compelling reason: an actor who is perfect at that moment; a director who has a compelling vision, or something in the zeitgeist that demands a particular play be staged at that moment.

“If anything I think there might be a perception that certain plays have been ‘done’ in particular cities in recent times and are therefore off limits in that city for a while. But this approach doesn’t take account of the pleasure of seeing different versions or interpretations. Or how the plays reward return visits, both for the artists making them and the audiences watching them. Shakespeare can also sustain such robustness of treatment that I think new generations of directors will always return to him.”

In Strong’s experience, programming a Shakespeare makes good financial sense – if the production sings.

“Shakespeare still retains a wide appeal,” he says. “Granted it was basically a musical, but our Twelfth Night became the third highest selling show in the history of the company, and was especially popular with younger audiences.”

Speaking for Belvoir, artistic associate Tom Wright says there is no “deliberate break” between Belvoir and the Bard. 

“No doubt in seasons to come Shakespeare will be in a Belvoir season again,” Wright says. “In the current climate there’s only so many large cast shows the company can do, and we’ve put our resources elsewhere. We haven’t sensed any resistance to Shakespeare in our audience, and of course there is a company specifically set up to perform Shakespeare who plays twice a year in the city, so he’s hardly a vanishing act.”

Wright echoes Sheehy’s thoughts regarding the financial climate for theatre companies in 2018.

“It’s precarious at the moment – it always is – but Shakespeares are expensive, and only a few of them really sell. And in recent years these ‘sellers’ have had good outings in this city. It’s a bold company who’ll take a punt on Timon of Athens or King John or even All’s Well That Ends Well. So we’re really only talking about seven or eight plays.”

It’s not enough to “do” a Shakespeare anymore, Wright adds. “We do have to regularly ask the question: what this great late-renaissance theatre artist means in Australia now? The answer to that should be constantly shifting. Just doing Shakespeare because he’s a cipher for High Literature and represents the epitome of western civilisation is a bit like being told to eat your greens.”

Geordie Brookman, artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, says he hasn’t programmed a Shakespeare this year and may not for some time.

“We’re not taking a conscious break, [but] there just hasn’t been a compelling argument for programming a Shakespeare since our Ensemble tackled Macbeth in 2017,” he says.

“I’m sure his work will have a place in a number of seasons around the country, though possibly not in ours. I think theatre makers have a responsibility to always look for new ways to approach the material. There’s not much point in going backwards, is there?”

Brookman agrees with Sheehy that money comes into the equation. “There’s no doubt that scale makes Shakespeare challenging to produce, especially for the state theatre companies of more modest size like STCSA. But Comedy of Errors, Othello and Macbeth all performed well at the box office for us.”

The Bard does have his champions, however.

Peter Evans, artistic director of Bell Shakespeare Company, sees the dearth of Shakespeare’s work on our stages as “the natural ebb and flow”.

“Shakespeare has never been more relevant,” Evans says. “When programming, we work to be as nimble and reactive to the world around us as possible. Balance is always important to ensure our audience is on a journey with us. And fit between play and artist is an essential element in how we put seasons together.

“More specifically we have been enjoying History plays recently that speak to a frightening number of contemporary issues. After Julius Caesar, we will be mixing up some comedies, which still have a sting in their tail, and some deep dark tragedies.”

Damien Ryan, artistic director of Sydney’s classics-focused indie company Sport for Jove, isn’t presenting any Shakespeare plays outside of the company’s education season this year, but doubts the Bard’s works will remain dormant for long.

“History has shown us that Shakespeare goes in and out of fashion briefly, gets lauded and pilloried at different times in different places but in the end, there is an essential quality there that just does not and will not go away,” he says.

“Directors will still suddenly find themselves engulfed by a need to search these plays or be inspired by a vision for one of them. Thousands of actors still scream to do them from the very pits of their guts and audiences still want to see them when they are done well and when they are inventive and resonant, because audiences love seeing stunning acting and theatricality and that’s what is required of these plays.”

But the way Shakespeare’s plays are programmed and made has and will continue to undergo profound change, Ryan says. Doing a Shakespeare is no longer regarded as a necessary benchmark achievement for directors or actors.

“Before the last ten years or so, companies had no great demand on them to achieve genuine diversity in casting or gender parity so it was typical and easy to hire a bunch of white blokes who had lots of Shakespeare work under their belts along with one to three experienced women to play the few female roles and put the plays on,” Ryan says.

“And until the 1980s this could basically be done repeatedly in period dress and everyone, including critics, were pretty happy. It wasn’t so much about hitting the zeitgeist or finding reasons to tackle a play, but about presenting the canon for an audience who believed they wanted the canon.

“Now we celebrate a range of cultural approaches to the work, see the stories through different lenses, and also focus on creating a range of wonderful female roles in the plays that are traditionally dominated by men.

“A new generation of Shakespeare makers are already, and will continue, to make Shakespeare’s work their own, but I think it exists in a broader, healthier marketplace now where that cultural elitism is not dictating that every year there has to be another ‘classic’ grand Shakespeare produced in order for a director or company to achieve authenticity or add to the great ‘legend’.”

Your 2018 Shakespeare Fix

A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Macbeth (Riverside Theatres & The Seymour Centre, June 9, 16, 27 and July 7)

Sport for Jove presents “one-night stand” performances for general public audiences of its tight, action-packed Shakespeare productions created for HSC students. Or head to a school matinee and hear the kids scream like its a rock concert.

Wryd: the Season of the Witch (PACT, June 20-30)

Presented by Ninefold Ensemble, a high energy, choreographed performance features elements of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, reordered and stitched back together with toe-tapping 50s pop songs, choral speaking and movement informed by the Suzuki Method of Actor Training.

The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark (Seymour Centre, July 4-22)

Made especially for kids, this messy and hilarious collaboration between The Listies and director Declan Greene is revived for the July school holidays.

Hamlet: A New Australian Play (Bondi Feast, July 24-25)

From Antoinette Barbouttis and Tom Christophersen, Hamlet-meets Brecht meets Adult Swim featuring drag Ophelia, fantasy, pop sing-a-longs and a paper shredder.

Julius Caesar (touring Australia, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 18-28, Sydney Opera House, October 23-November 25)

Kenneth Ransom takes the title role in Bell Shakespeare’s second Roman play for the year. “The play is being revived around the world. “It’s populism, right?” says Ransom. “And Donald Trump. You couldn’t be a more populist leader than Donald Trump. I’m grappling with that myself. How much do I make Julius a populist?”

Twelfth Night (Melbourne Theatre Company. November 12 – December 29)

Simon Philips directs Shakespeare’s comedy on a Gabriela Tylesova design. Stars Geoffrey Rush, Christie Whelan-Brown, Richard Piper and Frank Woodley.

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