Reshaping Shakespeare on the student stage

By Gillian Aeria and Katherine Smith

From as early as 1901, University of Melbourne students have been performing Shakespeare at the Union House Theatre.

It’s hard to know how students would have interpreted Shakespeare back then, but from the mid-1970s there was a noticeable trend worldwide toward modernising Shakespeare’s settings so they would resonate more easily with contemporary audiences, and so they could present commentary on multiple political events.

A 1977 production of Richard III (RIII) and a 1980 interpretation of Richard II (RII) by Union House Theatre were considered radical at the time because both productions were played promenade-style, meaning the audience moved with the cast through the entire theatre, and action was not confined only to the stage.

Alumnus Peter King who designed the show and played the part of Richard in RIII says the intent was to create a “situationist spectacle”.

Situationism was an avant-garde, Marxist, anti-authoritarian cultural movement of the early twentieth century which used the concept of spectacle to raise awareness of political issues.

To facilitate this spectacle, the entire stage, including backstage and wings were painted “a painful gloss white” denoting the access-all-areas approach that was being taken,” King explains.

This proved problematic because with no assigned audience seats the actors “had to do some serious clambering over crowds to enact intimacies or find other performers.”

Eventually red paint had to be used to mark out areas the audience was not to enter.

Mark Williams – who went on to complete his Honours thesis on the performance history of Richard II and ultimately his doctorate at Oxford on seventeenth-century dramaturgy – played Richard in RII and co-directed it with King.

Mark Williams (standing) as Richard II in the 1980 production by Union House Theatre.

An audience unseated

Williams recalls how that production took ‘spectacle’ staging one step further by introducing timber platforms to cover the audience’s seats.

“By using the entire auditorium as a stage the directors were better able to articulate the political alliances and schisms that divided characters in those stories.”

It should prove to be one of the most adventurous, enormous and successful productions of this University … The result is a creative, energised, hard-fisted assault which leaves one trembling with excitement.

King says because there were no seats, the audience took up watching positions instinctively, thereby becoming unwitting members of crowds, battles, depositions and witnesses to murder during the play.

“With the action taking place around the peripheries of the expanded space, voids opened and yawned in the centre of the theatre”.

And in line with the contemporary tendency to modernise context, RIII was played as a post-World War One allegory, while the creators of 1980’s RII production (many of whom had produced and/or performed in ‘77’s RIII, chose to stay with the political milieu of the second world war, this time staging RII as taking place in the pre-war era, and referencing the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII. Kingship was marked by a cravat, and queenship by a fur stole.

RIII received a “rave review” in 1977’s October/November edition of the student production Farrago, the reviewer writing: “It is very difficult to review [it] without raving…[it] should prove to be one of the most adventurous, enormous and successful productions of this University … The result is a creative, energised, hard-fisted assault which leaves one trembling with excitement.”

These days Melbourne University’s Shakespeare Company has taken up the challenge of re-working and radicalising Shakespeare’s plays.

Founded in 2005, this student-directed theatre group dedicated to all things Shakespeare performs at least one production a year. Callouts for auditions and notifications are communicated en masse via their Facebook page.

Hamlet goes sci-fi

Alex Talamo who directed Hamlet in 2011 wanted to explore the relationship between Shakespearean theatre and sci-fi film gore as both employ exaggerated styles of performance. She drew inspiration from classic 1980s transformative films like The Fly and Re-animator for their sci-fi horror appeal.

Hamlet’s script was rewritten while maintaining all of Shakespeare’s original words, to parallel the story of Jekyll and Hyde. Talamo says that Jack Richardson, the student who wrote the script “wanted to exploit the visceral nature of Hamlet’s deteriorating sanity”.

“The text itself suggest a Hamlet torn between two opposing forces wildly oscillating between action and inaction, and the Jekyll and Hyde metaphor offered the opportunity to consider this in its most extreme version,” she says.

To highlight the spectacular elements of 1980s science fiction, Talamo used a live glam-rock band to create “an extreme, heightened experience for the audience, the way only a rock concert with blaring lights and a lead singer in tight glitter pants can.”

Talamo’s background in physical theatre led her to explore the choreography of the play, and set the performance in the ‘Great Denmark Hospital’.

“I worked to create the sense of a busy hospital hallway, with people constantly entering and exiting making an appropriate metaphor of Hamlet’s mind: a maze of lies, calculations and machinations.

“Cast members would explode through double swinging doors and band members would double as bandaged characters fuelling the frenzy of an emergency room teeming blood and injury,” she explains.

Special effects and sci-fi gore featured in the Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of Hamlet.

There was no shying away from special effects either, notably around the death scenes.

“The most complicated one involved a buzz saw that was used to cut Claudius’s forehead, exposing brain and spraying about ten litres of UV blood across the stage from a spinning steel gurney”.

The aesthetic was difficult to pull off and required a sophisticated and careful collaboration between set, lighting, sound, costume, props and special effects.

“For such an ambitious student theatre production, the cast really rose to all the choreographic and special effect challenges involved,” she says.

Tilly Lunken’s Onomatopoeia blog described this Hamlet as a meld of “schlock-horror with glam-rock in a grotesque hospital setting…[and had] the kind of energy that reenergises a source text that is hundreds of years old into an entirely new institution”.

A scene from the Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of Hamlet
A scene from the Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of Hamlet

Of power and violence

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death the Company put on Henry IV Part 1. Henry IV is the second play in Shakespeare’s series of historical plays about British monarchs, and depicts Prince Harry’s rise to the throne amid a civil war that threatens his family’s reign.

Director of the play James Christensen believes Shakespeare’s historical plays are often neglected for being rooted too distantly in the past and being seen as less relevant in contemporary society.

“In my experience of reading and engaging with these texts, they explore as profound an emotional and thematic scope as any of the more regularly performed plays,” he says.

Like RIII and RII, a perennial theme is the exploration of power. In Henry IV Part 1, Christensen sought to study the “‘performance’ of power, and how it’s maintained, as well as the ways in which violence is conceived and used to serve political ends.”

Student theatre often mirrors issues in public discussion and Henry IV Part 1 is no different. Following his directorial instinct, Christensen wanted “to reimagine what the figure of the ‘monarch’, and the extreme political structures represented in Henry IV, might mean for a contemporary student community.”

Characters were no longer gender specific and Kate Weston was cast as Princess Hal rather than a Prince, and Adelaide Greig as Queen Henry.

Patricia Di Risio’s review for Stage Whispers found that “the presence of women in central roles brought the psychological relationship between power, violence and valour to the forefront.”

The “brokering of power and the volatile nature of political alliances [was] no less ruthless or bloodthirsty and brought with it a different perspective to hyperbolic masculinity and what it means to rule with an iron fist.

“I anticipated her character to be particularly resonant with university students representing the balance between revelry and responsibility,” he says.

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