Five landmark productions

By David McInnis

Australian performances of Shakespeare have an enduring history of creativity

The performance of Shakespeare has a long history in Australia, from convict-era productions to theatrical impresario George Selth Coppin’s extravagances of the gold rush period, to the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company which launched at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1920 and toured for a (then) world record 1000 consecutive Shakespeare performances.

In 1953, John Sumner’s founding of the Union Theatre Repertory Company – which subsequently became the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and which is still part of the University of Melbourne – ushered in a period of around 35 major Shakespeare productions over 60 years.

In 1982, the Australian Shakespeare Company was founded, though it really came into its own when it merged with Glenn Elston, whose Shakespeare Under The Stars company (founded 1987) popularised outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Australia.

Choosing just five favourite productions has been tricky, but here goes…

Having co-founded and successfully staged Shakespeare with the Nimrod Theatre Company in Sydney in 1970, actor and director John Bell founded the eponymous Bell Shakespeare company in 1990.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And of course, in amongst these milestone moments there have been a great variety of smaller touring and student companies, fringe festival and one-off productions, films, and other creative interpretations.

Memorable production moments

Choosing just five favourite productions has been tricky, and admittedly I’ve squeezed in references to a couple of extras, but here goes… five landmark Australian productions.

1. Sydney: Beginnings

Believe it or not, a playbill advertising the performance of Henry IV, Part 1 at The Theatre, Sydney on 08 April 1800 still survives! It’s held in the Mitchell Library (part of the State Library of NSW). Printed by Australia’s first government printer, George Hughes, it’s the earliest evidence we have of Shakespeare being performed in Australia – though the phrasing of the playbill (“On Tuesday April 8 1800 will be Presented, The favourite Play, Henry the Fourth”) might suggest previous acquaintance with the play (if it was a “favourite”) and point to an earlier production. (Alternatively it may simply be well known from reading).

Playbill for Henry IV
Playbill for Henry IV performed April 8, 1800 at the Theatre, Sydney. Early theatre playbills printed by G.Hughes, courtesy State Library New South Wales

Even more tantalising is the handwritten note on the back of Australia’s oldest printed document, another playbill, this time for a performance of Jane Shore in 1796. The note reads: “1 Play performed at Norfolk Island, December 1793. Richard 3rd”. Could this be Shakespeare’s Richard III, performed in New South Wales seven years earlier than the 1 Henry IV performance in Sydney?

2. Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Already a perennial favourite, Romeo + Juliet exploded onto screen in Australian director Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 cinematic extravaganza set in ‘Verona Beach’ in California, with dizzying camerawork, lavish costumes and an anthemic soundtrack. Leonardo DiCaprio already had What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries to his name, but it was arguably Claire Danes with her legions of female teen fans (loyal followers of the 1994 TV series, My So-Called Life) that made this film such a teen- and cult-sensation (not to mention a massive commercial success). Lurhmann, described by Rolling Stone magazine as “a wizard in his native Oz” who “relishes knocking cobwebs off classics” succeeded in doing precisely that with Romeo + Juliet.

This film made Hawaiian shirts and Shakespeare cool. Neither feat should go unrecognised.

Claire Danes is surprised as Leonardo DiCaprio takes her hand to kiss in the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet.

3. Bell Shakespeare

The Bell Shakespeare company can be proud of making Shakespeare available to masses of Australians in an accessible, relevant and exciting way (to paraphrase their mission statement). In 1998 the excitement they were cooking up didn’t just bubble over the side of the pan, it flooded the kitchen floor. Enfant terrible director Barrie Kosky created a notorious production of King Lear starring Bell himself as “an orange-dildo-waving Lear”. Excess and obscenity prevailed: a Shirley Temple-esque fool singing the refrain “my heart belongs to daddy”, Lear’s unruly entourage sporting giant phalluses, and Lear himself handing out dildos in what might optimistically have been interpreted as a symbolic statement about patriarchal power. Students studying the play in high school were reportedly advised against seeing the play!

More typical of Bell Shakespeare was Lee Lewis’s critically acclaimed production of Twelfth Night in 2010, performed in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The performance was framed by silent scenes in which Australians affected by news of the bushfires gathered together and passed the anxious time by reading Shakespeare’s play, gradually inhabiting the roles they read.

Shakespeare’s dark comedy acquired a new gravitas through the melancholy of the topical frame. Australian, contemporary, affective and effective: this is what Bell Shakespeare strives for.

4. Simon Phillips’ The Tempest

To my mind, arguably the most exciting Australian Shakespeare productions have been those that firmly embedded Indigenous issues into their vision.

Noel Tovey directed a ‘dream time’ Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2007 for the Sydney Theatre Company (purportedly Australia’s first all-indigenous Shakespeare performance), and Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis created a superb Indigenous adaptation of King Lear called The Shadow King in 2014, and now touring to the Barbican in London.

But it is the Queensland Theatre Company’s production of The Tempest first staged in 1999 and reprised in 2001 by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Simon Phillips that I continue to be drawn back to.

Famously, The Tempest is the darling of postcolonial critics, who see in the tense relationship between the European magician Prospero and the enslaved islander Caliban a metaphor for race relations in the imperial context. In Phillips’ production, Australia became the island of the play, the red dust covering the stage competing for attention with the Union Jack-blue of the curtain draped at the rear. John Stanton-as- Prospero and the rest of the Neapolitan characters were given First Fleet-aesthetic costumes, and Indigenous actors Margaret Harvey and Glenn Shea played Ariel and Caliban respectively, with the spirits of the isle being played by members of Indigenous dance group Jagera Jarjum.

Caliban with Prospero, The Tempest
Under Simon Phillips’ memorable direction of The Tempest, John Stanton played Prospero and Indigenous actor Glenn Shea, Caliban. MTC 2001, directed by Simon Phillips; John Stanton (Prospero), and Glenn Shea (Caliban). Photograph: Jeff Busby.

This wasn’t a superficial inclusion of indigeneity. Rather, the casting created a productive dialogue between performance styles and cultures. As Sue Tweg noted, QTC/MTC actors strove for “text-anchored meaningful illusion and rehearsal blocking”, but “ceremonial performance by spirits onstage meant that for Jagera Jarjum each ‘performance’ was a nightly ritual”.

Famously, this production ended with a scene of reconciliation – at a time when the then Prime Minister, John Howard, was refusing to apologise to Indigenous Australians. Prospero kneeled and implicitly asked Caliban for forgiveness in a symbolic moment described by reviewers as “cathartic”.

5. Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015)

Most recently, Victorian College of the Arts graduate Justin Kurzel has directed a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘noir-thriller prototype’ Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and VCA alumna Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff.

Kurzel wasn’t the first Australian to direct a film of the play. In 2006, Geoffrey Wright (of Romper Stomper fame) directed Sam Worthington and Victoria Hill in a ‘gangland’ Macbeth set in contemporary Melbourne, where Scottish warlords became seedy drug lords. The film was notorious for its machinegun violence, its sexualised schoolgirl witches, and its broad Australian accents. Macbeth was emphatically a mediocre man in this production, not a glamorous king.

And it divided critics: the NY Times praised Wright’s “laudable and … inventive” interpretation for respecting “the power of killing”.

Kurzel’s version was a different beast altogether. Set in the rugged Scottish highlands in a medieval past, the vast landscape dwarfed its human inhabitants.

The cinematography was gorgeous – though the decision to include Scottish Tourism promotional material in the DVD release may have been slightly misguided, given the slaughter!

Already a short play by Shakespeare’s standards, Kurzel’s film cut significant amounts of dialogue, trimming the play down to less than two hours but, even so, time felt drawn out as the characters agonised over their decisions. The film “makes a virtue of monotony”, emphasising close-ups and micro-expressions, and letting atmosphere and slow motion violence take precedence over language.

Your thoughts?

David McInnis is the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies in the English and Theatre Studies program, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne.

Main image: 20th Century Fox/Getty Images.

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