University of Queensland
Goodbye Shakespeare? Generating relevance via the resistant performances of implied stage directions
My presentation will address the questions “What do we hold onto? What do we let go?” by considering the role of Shakespeare on the contemporary Australian stage.
Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays still regularly appear on professional and amateur stages, including in Australia. However, as our culture and language continue to move further away from and resemble less and less those of Elizabethan England, the question of whether we can and should bring Shakespeare’s body of work with us into the twenty-first century grows more pertinent. Certain of his plays contain anachronisms, or depict behaviours and beliefs, that are outmoded and make it difficult to achieve contemporary relevance. For example, Much Ado About Nothing, a light-hearted comedy in its own time, contains a storyline of the abuse, shaming and public humiliation of a woman that present difficulties for directors and performers working in a post-“Me Too” world.
In response to this problem, theatre directors have employed various dramaturgical and creative strategies, such as cutting scenes or lines, adding new text, and used inventive staging practises to reframe the text. In recent years, a trend has developed of deliberately drawing attention to and engaging with anachronisms or issues in the text, rather than excising or “solving” them. By disobeying stage directions embedded in the dialogue of the play, directors overtly challenge, resist or subvert the text’s implied meaning. In my presentation, I discuss the potential benefits of the subversion of implied stage directions via an analysis of recent performances of Much Ado About Nothing. I draw on ideas taken from Tim Fitzpatrick (2011) and Hans-Thies Lehmann (2006) to demonstrate how the subversion of embedded directions allows a performance to enter into dialogue with the play rather than to simply reproduce it in an accessible way. This practice releases us from the need to prove Shakespeare’s inherent relevance, and instead allows us to engage with him in a critical and creative way that is more fruitful for twenty-first-century audiences.
Caitlin West is a theatre practitioner and PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. She is conducting her research on Shakespeare and his relevance in contemporary Australia, a subject area in which she also completed a Master’s dissertation in 2017. Caitlin has written, directed and performed in numerous independent theatre productions. Her work has been staged in venues around Australia, including Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. In 2016 she directed an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew for Montague Basement, and in 2017 she undertook a directorial secondment for the Bell Shakespeare Company.
Fitzpatrick, T. (2011). Playwright, Space, and Place in Early Modern Performance: Shakespeare and Company. Farnham: Ashgate.
Lehman, H. (2006). Postdramatic Theatre (K. Jürs-Munby, Trans.). New York: Routledge.