…And all the men and women merely players

billshakes.jpgHere is the long awaited second half of my interview with Rob Pensalfini, Artistic Director of the Queensland Shakespeare Company. In this article we discuss differing audience responses, favourite Shakespearean productions and views on modern interpretations of his plays. You can read the first part of this interview here.

While people the world over have many similarities, we also exhibit many differences, such as the way in which we appreciate and respond to art in all its forms. Does this apply to theatre as well? ‘Without a doubt, though my experience is not broad enough to be able to speak with authority about the world. What I can tell you is that contemporary white English-speaking audiences tend to be quiet and insipid thinking they’re being respectful or polite, but in actual fact diminishing the excitement that a live theatrical event can potentially have. By contrast, many other audiences will call out to actors, jump, stamp, whistle, clap and cheer. Shakespeare’s audiences threw oranges from time to time. We could use a little more of that (maybe not so much the oranges).

When I was growing up in Perth, I did a few productions of Italian plays, in Italian, for predominantly Italian-speaking audiences. Sunday matinees were usually full of OLD Italians, people who had not been brought into the cinema-going culture, where one sits in the dark and pretends there’s nobody else there. These old folks would talk back to the actors, call out to tell us what was going on and make suggestions. For me, having gotten accustomed to the well-behaved silent audiences, this was at first quite off-putting. Once I got used to it though, and started to see theatre acting as a two-way relationship between actor and audience, I found that the audience gave me energy and permission to transcend my limitations and expectations of role, character, and text. The experience became more exciting for me, I became more alive, and my audiences responded in kind.

Conversely, when I went to see a show at the Chicago Shakespeare Rep theatre about seven years ago, I was appalled to read in the program notes instructions to the audience which told us not to sing along, to talk, to even tap our feet in time to music, as this would be distracting to our fellow audience members! A clear directive that an audience is to pay its money and be voyeurs, not participants, in the theatrical event. This is theatre trying to kill itself. Theatre is a live event which brings diverse (hopefully) elements of a broader community together into one room to share an experience. Why pretend it’s something else?

The above is one of the reasons why I prefer, whenever possible, to work in a theatre where the audience remains lit throughout the show, so that they can see one another, and even more importantly so that the actors can see the audience as well as the audience sees them. I’ve only ever worked in Australia and the US, where by and large audiences are pretty much the same.’

Shakespeare offers everything from tragedy to comedy and many variations in-between, so it is understandable that choosing a favourite amongst those is a difficult thing to try to do. So does Rob have a clear favourite? ‘Whichever one I am working on at the time. Among my favourites are Twelfth Night (which I directed in 2000, and which I’ve been in two different productions of playing different roles), King John (I’ve been involved in three productions of it), Romeo and Juliet (which I’ve only done as a short), all of the Roman plays (I’ve done two of the four), and Henry IV, Part I (which I’ve been in a production of in the US). Oh and Hamlet, Richard III, and The Tempest. But name others and I’d go “oh yeah, and that one”. They are all wonderful explorations of the human condition and of the basic questions “what does it mean to be human?” (the universal question), “how should be behave?” (the social question) and “what must I do?” (the personal question).

But, if I had to give a definitive answer, rather than ‘all of the above’, I reckon today my answer would be Twelfth Night (ask again tomorrow and you’d get a different answer). Among the things I love about this play are the large number of meaty roles (a true ensemble piece), the rapid transition from comedy to farce to tragedy to romance, from the most inane hilarity to some of the cruellest scenes Shakespeare wrote. And of course the presence of music (‘music’ being the second word of the play, after all, and songs are integrated into the action throughout). I like the redemption of most of the characters, and the fact that not everything is tied up neatly at the end (Antonio, for example, is left hanging, and what does indeed come of Malvolio?) This play is a multi-faceted gem – every time I turn it a different way it seems like a different play.’

Shakespeare is produced and presented in many different ways, and can appear as anything from classical full productions, to modern interpretations of his texts and characters. ‘I’m not really a big fan of ‘interpretation’ of any sort if what is meant by that is deciding ahead of working on the play what it is about and what it’s going to look like. I believe that ought to come from delving deep into the text with the community that is going to perform it (hence the whole ‘ensemble’ thing).

It depends also what is meant by classical Shakespeare. For a lot of people, this means prancing about in tights putting on upper class English accents. I hate that, for a variety of reasons. First of all, and most of all, the accents. Shakespeare did not speak in a nineteenth century upper class accent (this accent did not exist yet when Shakespeare was alive and furthermore Shakespeare was decidedly NOT upper class, nor was he from London). And we are Australians. So why would we use an aesthetic that is neither ours nor his? The Brits themselves stopped doing this kind of Shakespeare about 40 years ago, and the Americans have been happy to use their own accents for a long time. Australia is kind of the last hangover of this dreadfully elitist and exclusive Shakespeare.

As for the tights… If Shakespeare’s company wore tights and codpieces on stage, it was only because that, for them, was contemporary dress. What little evidence we have suggests that they pretty much wore street clothes, embellished with the odd bit of flair such as a crown to signify kinghood, or maybe a sash over the shoulder for the roman plays. They did something quite brilliant really, which was to simultaneously (through costume) indicate their own time and the time of the setting. We have a similar aesthetic. In Coriolanus, for example, our costumes used mostly contemporary elements but with elements that suggested classical Rome without “being” authentically Roman (best look at the photos on the QSE website rather than have me try to explain what I mean).

At the other end, contemporary interpretation, I think it’s important to remember that what Shakespeare wrote was HEIGHTENED – so contemporising is fine, as long as you don’t try to make it kitchen sink. Staring at the floor and mumbling, wearing jeans and t-shirts, probably won’t cut it, as you lose the heightened aspect of the work. It’s not naturalism, it’s epic realism. So something in there has to tell us that while the story is very much our story, very much of our time and place, it is also something bigger, something that rises above the mundane and speaks to the universal.

Both in terms of design and use of language then, I encourage people very much to be as they are, who they are, the nationality and class they are, but to be the biggest version of that person they can be. Shakespeare often wrote verse, which is heightened language, and it ought to be delivered as such, with heightened rhythm, a sense of the sounds as well as the meanings of the words, so that it speaks not only to the intellect but also to the rhythms of the body and the spirit of the audience. But there’s no need to be putting on British accents, that only sends the message that these stories belong to someone else, and that’s dangerous.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of ‘clever’ reinterpretations, of the sort “Hey, let’s set The Tempest on a space station in the year 2300″ or “Let’s do Julius Caesar in a 1980s boardroom”. These typically tend to constrain the play and make it a much smaller event than the text demands. Also, as Bogdanov (the British director) said, these kinds of concept tend to place yet another layer between the text and the audience which must be negotiated, resulting in a more obscure production. I’m not a big fan of being obscure.

However, I am not ruling out that we would ever do such a re-telling, as long as I could be convinced that the concept came out of the text itself, and, most importantly, out of the confluence of text, context (the society and audience in which we are performing), and actors.’

Thanks to Rob for providing such fascinating and comprehensive answers in the two parts of this interview. I know I for one will never think about or look at theatre in quite the same way again.


  1. kelley

    That was very interesting. I enjoyed his comments about audiences kind of being conditioned by their experiences in dark movie theaters, where we all try to ignore each other. He makes a good point about how the dynamic shouldn’t be the same for live theater; I’d never thought about it like that before, but it makes sense that maybe there should be a little give-and-take interaction.

  2. Tracey

    Hi Kelley – Yes, I thought Rob had some really interesting insights to offer. I was amazed at how much I hadn’t thought about theatre and how much I didn’t know. Such a fascinating world!!

    As to the point that you raise about audiences and how live theatre really should be more of an interaction between actors and the audience rather than a one sided experience…so interesting. I have to admit that it would be a bit of a culture shock to experience more interactiveness in theatre but I can certainly see that the experience would be a better one. I was also disturbed by reading that theatre companies are distributing ‘advice’ to their audience members…that’s definitely taking things a step too far.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Lx

    nice job you.
    i envy your interaction with these kinds of people.

  4. jan

    I remember when my children were very young, I prepared them for a production of “As you like it.” It was staged by a very raucous troupe from San Francisco, thoroughly delightful and a trifle bawdy. Rosalind’s true sex was discovered when her breasts were noticed. The professors at the college were quite disgusted with the production, but my kids and the audience loved it.

    Years later we saw another production of AYLI, very staid and scholarly. NOT what Shakespeare had in mind.

  5. Tracey

    Hi Lx – Thanks for reading. 8) I’m just fortunate that they’ve agreed to talk to me!!

    Hi Jan – My goodness those uptight professors must have been unprepared for that production!! 😉

    It sounds like at least you and your children had fun!! Which as you say is surely exactly what Shakespeare intended.

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