CAUTION! MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!
What’s not to love about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It talks of love and fairies and dreams coming true. It seems fun and whimsical and even a little bit naughty. But have modern audiences made it a lot more light-hearted than it really is?
The play opens with a court scene, where Hermia is told that if she doesn’t marry the man her father has chosen for her she will either become a nun, isolated from her friends and family or DIE! Those are seriously her options?!??!!!! Then we meet Helena who is absolutely in love with Demetrius (who we find out is actually in love with her best friend Hermia). Oh, and guess what? Not only is Demetrius in love with Hermia but he’s the guy Hermia’s father is making her marry! Uhhh… No wonder Helena is upset. So far not so light and fluffy if you ask me.
The play lightens up a bit when we meet The Mechanicals, but even then the stakes are high. If they upset the Duke with their play they could get hanged!!!!! Hanged…Seriously… What the actual……. !!!!!
We are introduced to the third world of the play, the Fairy world, through the character Puck *cue dramatic instrumental music*. I bet you’re thinking ‘Oh the fairies how cute and sweet and beautiful right?’ WRONG. If there is anything that Harry Potter has taught me, it’s that things that sweet, cute and beautiful may not be what they seem!
While I was reading up on Puck, I was surprised to find the character’s origins in Fae, a type of mythical being or legendary creature in European folklore. A form of spirit, Fae is often described as metaphysical, supernatural or preternatural. Quite dark in reality and not like the fairies we have come to associate the term with at all! Hobgoblins are a another type of spirit I’ve looked at. According to folklore around different parts of England, hobgoblins were consider to be helpful spirits around the house. If annoyed thought, they could turn quite mischievous! In Irish folklore, the hobgoblin was actually considered a demon with head of an ass! In Wales, spirits like Puck were malignant, queer, little figures; long and grotesque with the look of something like a chicken. Gross.
Okay. So Puck has some dark origins but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to be played as dark character, right? Well I don’t know. It was almost as if Shakespeare anticipated our confusion with the character, so (being the helpful playwright he was) he wrote a pretty clear character description of Puck using monologues and soliloquy. While Puck is generally regarded as mischievous at worst, he also seems to get pleasure out of the pain of other characters – borderline cruel if you ask me! And speaking of cruel, Oberon and Titania’s relationship, whats going on there? Oberon is so mean to her!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has all these dark undertones yet in this modern age we have turned it in to something whimsical, sweet and light-hearted. I guess its all down to interpretation, isn’t it? Our own view on fairies and magic has shifted from Shakespeare’s time. Throw a love story in with the story of normal, every day people like you and I and, well, it’s not hard to see the light-heartedness of the play.
The best thing about Shakespeare is that none of his plays are written in black and white. He leaves questions unanswered and writes flawed protagonists. Why? Well, he was writing about the world around him and frankly, life isn’t black and white. Life can be great but it can also be cruel. A lot of questions will never be answered. What is love really? Is there another world out there, other than our own? Is the supernatural real? Can we make our dreams come true through hard work or does luck have a lot to do with it ? One thing I think the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream does give us is the opportunity to look at ourselves and laugh, because there’s one thing that life is definitely not, and that’s boring.
— Abbie x
So, it’s 2016, 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare. It is a requirement in the Australian High School curriculum that one or more of his plays are studied. His plays have been translated and performed in almost every single language on Earth. There will be at least FIVE Shakespeare plays produced in Sydney alone in 2016.
So hang on a second-
This is an English guy who never even knew Australia existed, he wrote in words that are completely foreign to the majority of Australians, why are we still insisting that school students sit down and decipher his work?
Whilst in Brisbane, in the midst of our north coast NSW and QLD tour, I decided to ask myself this question. I searched through several documents and articles writen by literary scholars and professors, and the resounding reason was this:
“He is the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer in the history of the language.”
Now, for me, if I place myself is the shoes of a year 9 student trying to read Macbeth for the first time, this statement isn’t going to mean a whole lot to me. If anything, it would probably turn me away even more, making his literature something reserved for only the scholars and intellectuals of our society. So I dug a little deeper. I came across a website debate of which the topic was ‘Should Shakespeare still be taught in schools?’ The votes were 51% no, 49% yes. I am aware that this is only one online poll with an unknown number of votes, but some of the written answers were quite profound.
“Shakespeare’s language is so old that it is almost the same as making them read Italian or Greek.”
“As a high school student, I personally find works of Shakespeare irrelevant to life today.”
“When in the world would we use his material any where else than a high school exam?”
The overarching response from the students on this poll were that, sure, he is the greatest writer the Western world has ever known- but what if I have little interest in literature? When will I use his work if I am pursuing a trade or one of the many career paths that have nothing to do with drama or art?
These questions arise time and time again in our Q&A sessions after our shows. I know for a fact that I experienced the same problems in high school looking at his work. I think the issue is that it was only after school finished, out in the world that I became aware of how what I had experienced of Shakespeare was relevant to me. When I was in school, obliged to study his work, in a time where the human experiences of the plays were unknown to me, how was it going to be possible for me to engage and enjoy reading his work?
I would encourage students feeling this way to think outside the box. Outside the confines of your English classroom and think deeper about the people Shakespeare is writing about.
He writes Juliet, the 13 year old girl, (A year 8 or 9 student today) obsessed with myths and fables about love, (not dissimilar to learning about love from Twilight) and we get to witness her experience of her first love. We learn the foolishness of Romeo’s haste, and the potential consequences of rashness. The characters in Hamlet explore grief to us, with Hamlet’s inability to grieve, Ophelia’s destruction by grief, and Laertes’ outward rage in dealing with his grief. The Friar and Nurse in Romeo And Juliet demonstrate that age and experience do not equal guaranteed success! Macbeth explores the dangers of ambition, Iago of Othello ironically teaches us to be aware of jealousy, for it ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ I could go on all day, believe me.
Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written to be read. They weren’t written for the classroom. They are words writ to be spoken aloud, performed and observed. So try and engage with the characters as people, not just fiction, and trust that even if you don’t see value to these plays today, one day later in life you will experience circumstances or emotions not dissimilar to those Shakespeare explored. Just turn on the news and you will see the things he wrote about. The US presidential campaign could be compared with Richard the Third. Warring nations and religions are no different to ‘two households, both alike in dignity’. Everyone will experience grief. Perhaps Shakespeare is a reference- a comfort in dark times, an explanation for why people act the way they do, or simply an escape from the ‘slings and arrows’ of everyday life. Once you sift pass the confusing words, (which I assure you isn’t difficult or something to be embarrassed about, actors/ directors are constantly referring to dictionaries or footnotes to understand a scene or a phrase.) you are able to enjoy his plays as stories. He was a storyteller, and a masterful one at that. He wants to ignite our imaginations and present the follies and intricacies of humankind.
I think what I have spoken about here is presented well in this version of the Seven Ages of Man speech. Click the image for this version, by the late Billie Brown. It is a beautiful and emotional performance of a speech simply about human life.
One week down of 4 for Team C in WA and what a week it’s been!
Firstly, we’d like to thank all the schools that have had us so far and send out a thank you in advance to all the school we’re going to visit – our job wouldn’t exist without you guys and it’s actually the best job in the world so it’d be a shame if it didn’t exist !
Now down to business, ahem, Shakespeare. The guy’s a genius – although the Players knew it before, we’re definitely convinced by it now. He would have turned 451 years old last week and the fact that he’s still impacting the lives of people (young and old) is pretty darn impressive!
So to kick off this blog post, here are some things that Team C has learnt about The Bard and his work.
Communicating with the audience
With 3 plays swimming in our heads it was a bit tricky as first to fully let the language take effect. Then, as we’ve settled into the shows and really started playing, this is one thing that I’m particularly having fun with.
Shakespeare writes his work to be spoken and played, to be directed at people and to be responded to. The way I approached it at first was to shy away from the language and try to ‘act’ everything which stifled me.
As the tour has progressed I’ve found that the more the audience is given access to the language, the more the play works on them. For example in an aside or a soliloquy to the audience, if you don’t really communicate with them – the next part of the plot (that the aside or soliloquy foreshadows) falls short. It is often as much of a dialogue with the audience as it is with the other person onstage.
Don’t judge your character
Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, we often quickly make up our minds about what we think of them – the same can be said for characters in a play or novel. It’s a rushed conclusion in real life as it for the characters in a play.
The best thing Shakespeare has done is to not judge his characters – he never paints them in a ‘good’ light or a ‘bad’ light – they just are what they are. Like people. They have their flaws and they have their redeeming qualities. Increasingly, I’ve realised through the tour that that’s what makes his work relevant and playable even so many years after his death. Even though they speak a different version of the English we speak today – they’re just people like us, trying to make meaning of their life and get along in the world in a way they think is best.
There’s definitely still more to mention but I’ll keep it short(ish).
After finishing our first tour break, in which we had a fairly relaxing week at Bell Shakespeare headquarters in Sydney, Team Ariel have officially landed in Darwin. The weather is sweltering and the flora is green. Fresh out of the wet season, Darwin is beautiful and lush; however, several locals have already warned us to BEWARE OF CROCODILES! There are many signs around the area warning not to swim with the ferocious dinosaurs. We hadn’t planned to, but it’s nice to know the dos and don’ts.
We performed two cracking shows at the hospitable Taminmin College in Humpty Doo (the best-named town in Australia) and from that came my QUESTION OF THE DAY:
How would a student living in Darwin get into acting?
There is no ‘correct’ path to follow to pursue acting. No matter whether you live in Sydney, Darwin or anywhere, everyone’s career path is different. It’s important to remember that, and to remember not to compare yourself to anyone else. You can, and will, carve your own path.
I think involving yourself in theatre is a great way to nurture an interest in acting. Going to see theatre is a great way to learn, and develop a critical eye. Also, doing classes inside and outside of school helps too. Do some research online and search for some acting classes in the local area. If acting classes are scarce and there isn’t a lot to get involved in, get a group of friends together that share your passion for acting and put on a play yourselves! Tell your friends and family about it, and get some people to come along. In doing this, you’re cultivating skills in acting, producing, directing, marketing and ensemble building, as well as other skills that are invaluable to an artist. Last of all, make sure you read plays and acting books. Lots of them.
After the shows we decided we would go and check out one of the most hotly anticipated sights in Darwin, the Litchfield National Park. We were told this was the spot. It has waterfalls and walking trails, ponds, and native flora and fauna as far as the eye can see. On the way there, we saw a sight we hadn’t seen ever in our lives. We found a ‘130km/ph’ speed sign. I didn’t know these existed, and neither did the guys, so naturally we stopped to get some evidence, before doing some legal speeding.
After driving really fast for a while, we turned off the main road and approached Litchfield Park. The soil that flanked the road, as we drove, was as red as you could hope to see in the Australian outback. It wasn’t until we saw that that we realised how far from home we were, and special it was to be there. Before we knew it, we had arrived at Buley Rockhole.
After we had spend a good while swimming and jumping off whatever high rocks we could find, we packed up our gear and started the hour and a half journey back to Darwin city, but not before Cameron and I spotted a rather large and fascinating Goanna crawling along the rocks. The little guy (not actually that little) shuffled across our towels and shoes before having a quick sip of water and heading back up the rocks. It was quite the sight.
What an incredible week we have ahead in Darwin! Watch this space for more updates as we make our way across the country!
— Sam P (Team Ariel)
The Players are officially on the road! While Team A has been travelling north, Team C have spent the past few weeks touring Sydney schools in western Sydney then winding their way down south. It’s early days, but I reckon we’ve already picked up a few pearls of wisdom about touring.
1. When checking into a new place, each team member will have different priorities. Respect them all equally. In our case, Jake hits the gym, Amy explores the sofa/cushion situation, Shiv sources food and I get the bath running ASAP.
2. Make friends with the locals. From the lady who runs the candle store to the waiter serving your brekky to the guitarist providing mood music for your tense pool game, these guys know where to find the best coffee/ Vietnamese food/ snorkeling spots/ second-hand bookstores. Plus, they know all the town goss.
3. It is always, always a good idea to do karaoke at the pub.
4. Speaking of music, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Dire Straits are the ideal accompaniments to driving through the rolling green hills of Kiama.
Run the Jewels is good too.
5. Some schools will offer you tea, coffee and biscuits. This will make you happy. Then you’ll go to Jamberoo Public School and be presented with a carton of free-range eggs from their very own chooks, wrapped in fancy gold paper. This will make you happy times one thousand and cause an impromptu photo shoot of the team holding eggs in various ways. It will end when one of you puts one in your mouth and accidentally bites into it.
6. Car snacks are essential. The key is to provide an equal variety of savoury and sweet. In an emergency, an ice cream from the servo works well.
7. Getting momentarily lost can be a n ice thing, so don’t panic. If you’re lucky, the unexpected detour down Swamp Road will provide ample cow sightings and you’ll even have to stop to let a family of fluffy baby ducks and their mum cross the road. Cute!
8. Pack lightly. Ask yourself: do you really need to bring three heavy books? Maybe two pairs of shoes is enough, you’re not going to go running anyway, who are you kidding?
9. Do bring small things that can make your room feel cosy. A little candle and some fluffy socks can make a big difference.
10. Pinch yourself every day – especially on those sweaty three-show days where everyone’s a bit tired and you keep catching your fingers in the road cases. Never take it for granted how lucky you are to have such an incredible job.
— Lucy (Team C)
I was with a bunch of friends from ballet class, celebrating the end of our exams. We were all dressed up and off to the theatre to see The West Australian Balletʼs Romeo & Juliet. It was my first experience of Shakespeare.
To be honest, I can barely remember the costumes the ballerinas wore, nor can I tell you what the set looked like and I only know the story because being so famous – itʼs almost impossible to not know the ending. But I can remember the music, clear as day. The stirring strength and formality of the Capulet ball, the soft, sweet lullaby-like pas de deux of the balcony scene. It told the story more clearly than many productions, full of text and fabulous sets, that I have seen since. Surprisingly it seems the talking can get in the way sometimes. Music I think, has the incredible ability to reach in and touch us at our core, the centre of what makes us human, and move us in ways we canʼt really describe. Itʼs such a wonderful means of storytelling. The proof I suppose is that thatʼs what I remember, over ten years later.
It is one of the things I love most about Shakespeare – how much his work has gone on to inspire other works of art. Not just in music but paintings, poetry, sculpture – the list is endless really. Itʼs also not necessarily in really distinct, obvious ways. It doesnʼt have to be really olden-day portraits and stuffy classical music. It has filtered down to pop songs, rappers, disney movies (The Lion King is a loose version of Hamlet! Gah!) – itʼs in the words and phrases we use in everyday speech – all can be traced back to Will. His work is not just 37 plays, 2 poems and a book of sonnets. Its the way these stories and characters have woven themselves into our culture, inspiring and creating even as we recently celebrated his 450th birthday. That, I think, is his most important legacy.
I thought Iʼd attach a link to the London Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovskyʼs Romeo & Juliet Overture. Have a listen – hopefully youʼll get an idea of what Iʼve been banging on about. Either way, Iʼm always keen to hear your thoughts 🙂