Title

Claiming Shakespeare for our own: An investigation into directing Shakespeare in Australia in the 21st century

Date of Award

2014

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

School

Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)

Faculty

Faculty of Education and Arts

First Advisor

Associate Professor Maggi Phillips

Second Advisor

Dr Reneé Newman-Storen

Abstract

Shakespeare has been performed on Australian stages for over two hundred years, yet despite this fact, in Australia we still treat Shakespeare as a revered idol. It seems that, as a nation of second-class convicts, consciously or not, we regard Shakespeare as a product of our aristocratic founders. However deeply buried the belief may be, we still think that the British perform Shakespeare ‘the right way’. As a result, when staging his plays today, our productions suffer from a cultural cringe.

This research sought to combat these inhibiting ideologies and endeavoured to find a way in which Australians might claim ownership over Shakespeare in contemporary productions of his plays. The methodology used to undertake this investigation was practice-led research, with the central practice being theatre directing. The questions the research posed were: can Australian directors in the 21st century navigate and reshape Shakespeare's works in productions that give actors and audiences ownership over Shakespeare? And, what role can irreverence play in this quest for ownership? In order to answer these questions, a strong reference point was required, to understand what Shakespeare, with no strings attached to tradition and scholarly reverence, looked and felt like. Taiwan became an ideal reference point, as the country is a site for unrestrained and strongly localised performances of the Shakespearean tradition. The company at the forefront of such Taiwanese productions is Contemporary Legend Theatre (CLT). Wu Hsing-kuo, the Artistic Director of CLT, creates jingju (Beijing opera) adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, the most renowned of which is his solo King Lear, titled Li Er zaici.

The intention of the practice-led research was to use the ideas gathered from an interview with Wu and through watching a performance of Li Er zaici, to form an approach to directing Shakespeare in Australia today, which was free from the restrictions commonly encountered by Australians. The practical project involved trialling this approach in a series of workshops and rehearsals with eight actors over eight weeks, which ultimately resulted in a performance of an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

Wu’s approach generated a sense of ownership over Shakespeare amongst the actors and widened their dominant, narrow concept of Shakespeare performances in Australia to incorporate a wealth of new possibilities. Yet, from this practical experiment, the strength and depth of the inhibiting ideologies surrounding Shakespeare in Australia was made apparent, as even when consciously seeking to remove them, they formed unconscious impediments. Despite the initial intention, a sense of veneration towards Shakespeare’s text entered the rehearsal process for Romeo and Juliet. This practice-led research revealed that as Australians we have an almost inescapable attachment to Shakespeare’s text, which ultimately begs the contrary question: in order to stage an irreverent and owned production of Shakespeare in Australia, how much of Shakespeare and his traditions must we abandon?

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