Shakespeare and Contemporary Theatre

Essay Talk/Lecture  

A brief presentation given at the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of a panel discussion chaired by and featuring Tim Crouch and Oily Cart..

This being recorded isn’t great, normally what is said in the room stays in this room.

I am going to address the subject of Shakespeare’s relationship with contemporary theatre from the narrow perspective of Stan’s Cafe. Not out of arrogance, it’s just wise to speak of what you know.

Looked at superficially this could be an embarrassingly short presentation. What influence has Shakespeare had on Stan’s Cafe? None at all.

Stan’s Cafe has been making theatre for a little over twenty years and we have never staged one of Shakespeare’s plays (we devise our own original work and staging existing plays has yet to be part of our agenda) [1].

Shakespeare’s works are extraordinary texts and cultural touchstones, as such they are regularly quoted, referenced, bastardised, deconstructed, remade and appropriated. Canonical texts are useful as, being so well known that it is easy for the means of telling to become the content. We could have used Shakespeare’s text in this way but instead our latest show, The Cardinals, uses The Bible and our National Theatre commission Revolutionary Steps translates Bruchner’s Danton’s Death into DIY performance instructions spread through venue’s foyers.

Perhaps the closest we have come to using Shakespeare was in Canute The King (1993). When the eponymous hero is found trapped in his flooded castle with the waters rising his status and plight carry such Shakespearian overtones that, when he consults his cabinet of soggy socks about his plight, it is only natural that he speaks in iambic pentameter.

Canute The King contains a nod towards Shakespeare but to say it was inspired by him would be absurd. As I said at the start, “Stan’s Cafe is not influenced by Shakespeare”. Yet, at the same time as being true, this is clearly nonsense.

Of course we’re influenced by Shakespeare. As a teenager my Aunt brought me here to see two productions: Taming of the Shrew – I recall a woman being pushed into a pool of water in a large wedding dress – and The Merchant of Venice – I recall two organists who played for the opening before being rotated out of sight, never to be seen again. I also recall thinking “what a poor use of a production budget”. My abiding memory is being high up a long way back and uncomfortable. I remember gathering up my stuff thinking The Merchant of Venice had finished after four acts and being appalled that there was still a fifth act to come, then being hugely frustrated as lots of lose ends were tied up. Most spectacularly I recall my little brother eating chips before the car journey over from Worcester and being a vivid shade of green by the time we arrived. It wasn’t an auspicious start.

School wasn’t auspicious either. I recall being in Macbeth, having to tell someone their entire family had been massacred and feeling a little out of my depth as to quite how one would do that ‘realistically’, it wasn’t a life experience I had had at that point and the teacher in charge, understandably had little patience for my needy actorly ways (it didn’t take me long to recognise I am terrible actor). At university a production of As You Like It was staged. It was a notch above the school production: it had a waltz [2].

As a child growing up in England it’s tough to avoid direct contact with the works of William Shakespeare even if you only reading through one of the plays in class. Even if you have never had first-hand experience of a Shakespeare play, Shakespeare is so embedded in British culture and looms so large in the world of British theatre, to claim not to be influenced by him would be rather like saying you have not been influenced by your Grandfather. You may have no direct recollection of your Grandfather but it’s more than likely that he influenced the people who influenced you.

My myriad theatrical parents, influenced by a theatrical grandfather includeJohan Kresnick, whose ballet version of Macbeth I saw shortly after learning to waltz. His production included vast metal doors far upstage and as they opened so did my perception of theatre. I’d been excited by experimental forms of theatre for a couple of years but had thus far assumed this was exclusively a marginal activity performed in insanitary back rooms, where people met like the French Resistance before dispersing anonymously into the night. This Macbeth was big and strange, it was at an International festival in a proper theatre with a red curtain and everything. It wasn’t sold out but there were more people there than the combined audiences of all the other experimental shows I’d seen combined. It was strange but also legitimate – why legitimate? – because it was an adaptation of Shakespeare.

Rather than talk about the influence of Shakespeare I’d rather describe affinities with him:

I warm to his sense of fun and playfulness; the presence of the audience can be acknowledged and theatre can be a metaphor; magic can be summoned to the stage; male actors can play female characters who then pretend to be men.

I admire his economy of means: worlds conjured from words. I love the richness of these words and his relish of them and their bulletproof ability to survive the less ept [sic] productions I have seen.

I subscribe to Shakespeare’s idea that theatre should be bold enough to address life’s biggest themes and share a belief that audiences are smart and savvy; that they respond to being treated as collaborators not as passive recipients of pre-digested pap. Experiencing theatre should be a creative act that requires energy and imagination.

As an artist I’m pro-Shakespeare, but as someone trying to chisel a living out of making contemporary theatre I am less sure.

On the positive side it could be argued that with Shakespeare as its champion theatre is placed squarely in the centre of our culture, it will never be entirely wiped out in Britain. However, the man’s legacy also gets in the way.

With the works of Shakespeare generally regarded as the pinnacle of theatrical achievement, there follows the false implication that all serious theatre should be measured against a Shakespearian paradigm, in so doing narrative drive literary value are privileged over formal innovation and the visual.

Conversely those who, like the teenage me, are introduced to Shakespeare as the very definition of theatre and do not enjoy the experience, are in danger of being repelled from the form believing this is what all serious theatre aspires to [3].

For years the Shakespearian legacy was fully indulged by the British Council, principle promoters of British Culture overseas, they appeared fixated on pushing productions of Shakespeare around the globe and it seemed impossible to get support exporting contemporary theatre. It was only with the dawning of New Labour that the British Council’s cultural agenda took a radical shift and rather than promoting Britain as a heritage state they started to reposition us as world leaders in innovation and creative thinking and in so doing started pushing the likes of Tim Crouch and Stan’s Cafe.

The RSC’s own Deborah Shaw, director of the World Shakespeare festival, riled me a few years ago by suggesting that “all experimental theatre makers are drawn to Shakespeare in the end”. I fundamentally disagreed with her. Given that Tim, Oily Cart and I are here today it turns out she was probably right after all, but whilst she may be factually correct I believe I remain morally correct. I am here but for the money not for Shakespeare [4]. Touring theatre in this country is hugely difficult. If the work is not a known play by a know playwright the job is well neigh impossible. No wonder contemporary theatre makers are tempted to do ‘a version of’ a Shakespeare play. His name pulls people in. Of course many contemporary theatre makers are drawn to Shakespeare eventually, it’s so exhausting being out there not doing Shakespeare. There is so much money and kudos centred on this building you’d have to be hard nosed to refuse to cross its threshold and deliberately estrange yourself from the establishment. What has been fantastic in recent years is that the team here have opened the Royal Shakespeare Company back up to experimental influences, returning it closer to its founding vision. I suspect the founding vision didn’t involve piles of rice representing human population statistics, but we’re certainly delighted to be here now.

1: I deliberately ignore our restaging of The Carrier Frequency as ‘not the same’
2: I still claim to be able to waltz but this theory is rarely tested.
3: The RSC now have innovative programs that are helping to ensure school children’s engagement with Shakespeare is more inspiring than my day.
4: Cue slightly nervous laughter.

James Yarker, 12th May, 2012