Contemporary Shakespeares: New interpretations and dramaturgy

By Mary Luckhurst

Shakespeare stagecrafting is a continually evolving art and science at the centre of which stands the creative genius of the dramaturg

Shakespeare and his plays are a central part of England’s cultural heritage industry and have been since the height of the Empire. In the nineteenth century reading and playing Shakespeare were deployed as an imperial strategy to ‘cultivate’ the colonised and encourage the dominance of the English language.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has realised that, to prevent its own fossilisation, its very future depends on the progressive input of dramaturgs, actors and directors from other cultures who reinterpret and adapt Shakespeare’s stories with a vivid political, visual and multi-lingual freshness.

The Culture Secretary of the English Government has just announced a joint initiative with China to pay for the translation of all Shakespeare’s works into Mandarin as well as 14 canonical Chinese plays into English.

In a globalised 21st century, attitudes have had to change.

Theory and practice of dramatic composition – a new academic discipline I wrote the first cultural history of European dramaturgy in 2000 and did not expect to found the contemporary academic discipline of dramaturgy. When the book appeared in its Spanish translation, I received a copy in the post and was stunned to see a picture of Shakespeare’s head in the process of decapitation from his body on the cover. I hadn’t thought of the book as challenging Shakespeare particularly, but the Spanish publishers saw it as a challenge to old orthodoxies – and in many ways it is.

The functions of the dramaturg have always existed but the title has not. They have always provoked controversy and conspiracy theory because many perceive them as a threat to the hierarchy of performance making. A good dramaturg certainly challenges and interrogates but only with the aim of collaborating to make the best work possible.

The dramaturg in Brecht In Eastern Europe the dramaturg is a central figure in theatre production, and West German theatre is unthinkable without them. From the 1920s to the 1940s Bertolt Brecht trained his actors and directors in dramaturgy and understood it as the ability to conceptualise and physicalise a text in relation to its social and political meanings.

Brecht’s dramaturgs were as interested in Shakespeare’s underclasses – the –servants, the nurses, foot soldiers and clowns – as they were in the monarchs and politicians and adapted plays such as Coriolanus for their revolutionary potential.

For Brecht the dramaturg was someone with an ability to adapt and structure a story that could have appeal and political meaning for the working classes – something that would very much have appealed to Shakespeare.

Dramaturgy – a multifaceted role Broadly speaking, a dramaturg is a particular kind of specialist who may be employed for their research, literary, visual, digital, translation, design, choreographic, narrative or other skills depending on the project. The role of the dramaturg is to create a conceptually cohesive theatrical narrative which can contain all the elements of a specific theatre production and convey the intended meaning to audiences. A dramaturg works closely with a director and is often observing rehearsals and articulating aspects of the production to the cast and crew.

Some dramaturgs are also literary managers – company employees who advise on repertoire, commission, and search and develop new talent. They can also have a brief to be the reflective thinkers behind a company’s evolving identity.

A primary function of the dramaturg is to be an articulator of the creative process whether in the writing, adaptation, choreography, acting and directing. This is the strength of the Victorian College of the Arts and both the excellence of its theatre practices and its highly articulate critical vocabularies were what brought me to Australia to take up my role as Professor of Artistic Research and Creative Practice.

At the VCA, postgraduates in dramaturgy might already be professional dramaturgs or literary managers who want to reflect on what they do but students also come from other disciplines and lines of work and want to reflect on what their own skills base could bring to a performance.

Contemporary role models in Australian Shakespearean theatre John Bell has been a model dramaturg in relation to Shakespeare, interpreting and adapting his work for younger Australian audiences in ways that are both accessible and captivating.

Wesley Enoch has brought indigenous politics to Shakespeare and talked of the profound impact on audiences that the presence Aboriginal actors can have in a Shakespearean play. When Jack Charles performed Lear at the Malthouse, the division of the kingdom had immediate resonances in relation to land rights, genocide and discrimination. And Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, a feminist rewriting of Othello, at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2015 gave a powerful and moving political voice to a black maidservant.

Mary Luckhurst’s book is: Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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