Just like many a modern day screenwriter, William Shakespeare took some serious liberties with the historical record.
You take the “history” part of Shakespeare’s History Plays – the Richards II and III, the Henry plays and King John – with a grain of salt, says director Damien Ryan.
“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Shakespeare didn’t really give a crap about history. He butchered the facts because he is actually writing about an eternal present. You have to imagine he’s writing in a country heading toward the end of a queen’s reign and under continual threat from Scotland, the Low Countries and Spain. ‘History’ is being used to create a mythology for England, give the English a sense of a national identity. The theatre was very much part of that process.”
Ryan, as you can hear, is deeply immersed in the world of Shakespeare, specifically in the making of seven hours of theatre – Rose Riot – to be presented by his company Sport for Jove at Bella Vista Farm Park in Sydney’s Hills district and, in January 2019, at the Leura Shakespeare Festival.
The project is designed to give audiences a rare opportunity to see a compressed version of the plays in chronological order and come to understand how the plot and characters of one story play out in another.
“For example, to watch the Henry IV plays in isolation is to never really have a hope of comprehending what is the ticking time bomb at the centre of story, which is the guilt Henry feels for the way he deposed and murdered Richard II,” Ryan explains. “And Henry V is the inevitable result of what goes on in Richard II, but again, taken in isolation, there are parts of it where the audience can’t know what on earth is being talked about.
“It’s why you often see the character of Margaret cut from Richard III, because audiences don’t have a clue what she is on about when she talks about the murder of her son or the murder of her husband. The whole purpose of this exercise is to connect an extraordinary series of dots that span a hundred years.”
As well as illuminating the whole arc of the History Plays, Ryan’s two-part adaptation, The Hollow Crown and the Wars of the Roses, is also a celebration of 10 years of Sport for Jove, the company he founded in 2009.
“Toward the end of last year I sat down with some of the veteran cast members for a reading of this idea I’d been working on for years,” Ryan says. “Honestly, I was like, I don’t think we’re ready to do this yet. But they were absolutely up for taking ownership and jumping headlong off the bridge, so to speak. The commitment of this group of people has made is mind-boggling.”
Over the years Ryan and company have performed at Bella Vista Farm Park (beginning with Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It in 2010), Sport for Jove has fostered an unusual degree of loyalty and community among its actors and audience.
Several actors in The Hollow Crown and the Wars of the Roses worked with Ryan on Sport for Jove’s earliest productions. For many in the audience, a night of theatre under the stars (or, occasionally, under storm clouds) at Bella Vista is a longstanding annual commitment.
“It’s got to that point where we know so many people who come here by name, and they know ours. Almost everyone who comes to the gate will chat for a couple of minutes before the show,” says Ryan.
It’s a unique experience in Sydney, he adds.
“I think newcomers are sometimes taken aback by the strange hard beauty of the place. There’s something about the otherness of it. You’re not sitting in a chair in a dark theatre with the air conditioning turned up. You are out in the world with the actors. You’re watching them cope with the environment – the wind, the Christmas beetles, the birds singing – at the same time you are.”
That environment has also helped foster a muscular playing style all its own, Ryan believes.
“It’s very, very hard work. A lot of classical theatre we see nowadays has actors miked with lots of technical support and cameras, all sorts of things. All of that is absent here. The audience sees the work coming from every muscle fibre. You’ve got to talk to your audience and look them in the eye.
“There’s always a three-way exchange going on: between actor and actor, and actor and audience in every moment. And Shakespeare is written to do that. That’s why I think so many actors find it liberating to perform in this style.”
And what can we expect in Sport for Jove’s second decade?
Ryan says it’s time for some stocktaking. The company’s upcoming season will be substantially different to recent years in which the company has presented productions of modern classics in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre.
“Those productions have been very positive for us because we always try to take risks and do plays that allow actors to explore ensemble and language.
“But it’s also been heartbreaking. It’s very hard to get bums on seats just as it is for every other independent company. It’s been a tough learning curve and you can get weary after 10 years of trying.”
On the positive side of the ledger, however, is Sport for Jove’s increasing presence in the education space. In 2019, the company’s focus at the Seymour Centre and Riverside Theatres will be solely that.
“Education work has become enormous for us and for so many kids,” says Ryan. “We’ve built wonderful relationships with hundreds of teachers and we feel very much part of the curriculum in this state. And now that the curriculum is going national, we want to branch interstate with it and take our plays beyond state borders and into regional spaces.”