Taking the Bard to the digital stage

By Gabrielle Murphy

400 years after his death, University of Melbourne teaching keeps the Shakespearean tradition alive for young scholars

Last year, David McInnis began collaborating with the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company (MUSC) to produce a suite of videos for a blended-learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. “Gone are the days of strict formalism and exclusive attention to semantics and wordplay,” says Dr McInnis, the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies in the University of Melbourne’s English and Theatre Studies program.

“We continue to love Shakespeare’s linguistic playfulness, but we recognise that his plays were designed to be performed as well as read, and that certain meanings only emerge through embodiment in time and space.”

The Melbourne University Shakespeare Company produces two Shakespeare plays each year. The teaching project piggybacks on the season program, and asks the directors to create three alternative versions of a single scene to showcase the diversity of approaches possible and the artistic decisions that inform a production.

Alternatively, the directors can opt to select three particularly provocative scenes from their production for videos that will be used in the classroom. “The Faculty of Arts e-Teaching Unit was then brought in to work on the pilot version,” says Dr McInnis, the first play being Hamlet.

“Casting Rachel Shrives as a female Hamlet had implications for the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship”

WHY START WITH HAMLET?

MUSC produced Hamlet in 2014, while the director, Felicia King, who is now studying for her Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University, was completing her honours thesis on the play. “The opportunity to work with one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and iconic tragedies was too good to resist,” says Dr McInnis, as was the impetus to explore famous standout scene from the MUSC production, when we discover that Ophelia has gone mad.

  • Transcript

    I will not speak with her.

    She is importunate. Indeed distract her moods will needs be pitied.

    What would she have?

    Her speech is nothing. If the unshaped use of it doth move the hearers to collection. They aim at it and botch the words up fit to their own thoughts which as for winks and nods and gestures yield them indeed would make one think there might be thought for nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

    It were good she were spoken with for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds. That's her coming.

    [Woman humming]

    Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?

    Why how now, Ophelia?

    [Singing] How should I your true love know from another one? By his cockle hat and staff and his sandal shoon.

    Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?

    Say you? Nay, pray you, mark. [Singing] She is dead and gone, lady, She is dead and gone. At her head a grass-green turf, at her heels a stone.

    Alas, look here, my lord.

    [Singing] Larded with sweet flowers which bewept to the grave did go with true-love showers.

    How do you, pretty lady?

    Well, God 'ild you. They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not What we may be.

    Conceit upon her mother.

    Indeed, la, without an oath, I'll make end on it. [Singing] By Gis and by Saint Charity, alack and fie for shame! Young men will do it, if they come to it by cock they are to blame. Quoth she desired to love me, you promised me to wed. So would I'd done, by yonder sun, and thou hadst not come to my bed.

    How long hath she been thus?

    I hope all will be well. We must be patient. But I cannot choose but weep to think they should lay her in the cold ground. My brother shall know of it. So I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my Coach. Come.

Despite the production’s textual fidelity, Felicia King’s was an emphatically contemporary Hamlet, with the Ghost appearing as a ‘digitised glitch’, Skype used for surveillance of an unsuspecting Hamlet, and gender-blind casting.

“Casting Rachel Shrives as a female Hamlet had implications for the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship,” says Dr McInnis. “And the old patriarch Polonius, played by Sara Tabitha Catchpole, gave us an overbearing maternal figure for Ophelia.”

“The production was not only entertaining, but had tremendous pedagogical potential.”

TAKING A MODERN APPROACH TO TEACHING CLASSIC SHAKESPEARE

The aim of the approach taken by Dr McInnis is to create essential teaching materials for a blended-learning approach to Theatre Studies. A suite of three 5-minute videos of live performances is filmed, showcasing a diversity of performance techniques that can be used to generate new interpretations of classic works of drama.

“The production was not only entertaining, but had tremendous pedagogical potential.”

“The production was not only entertaining, but had tremendous pedagogical potential.” The students in ENGL20033 Shakespeare in Performance are therefore introduced to Shakespeare’s works as performance texts rather than literary classics from the onset.

“Assessment is also performance-based,” says Dr McInnis, “and students present a 5-minute scene, where they are evaluated on their interpretation rather than their acting skills.”

This exercise allows for important insights into the process of adaptation from page to stage, and into the way actors and directors generate interpretations of the text through performance. Dr McInnis asks students to consider the most distinctive features of the videos and how these production choices affect the meaning of the scene: what dimensions of the text they emphasise, what subtexts are activated?

Importantly, the performance choices lead back to discussion of the text itself: students identify aspects of the production they find particularly striking (or even jarring), and ask how this affects their understanding of the playtext itself.

The next play to be filmed will be the 2015 production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Fiona Spitzkowsky.

“This production’s emphasis on the darker elements of the play – rather than slapstick comedy – includes the very uncomfortable use of domestic violence,” says Dr McInnis. “This will be enhanced through the use of a 360-degree camera to create an immersive, virtual experience that implicates the audience in the shocking spectacle they witness.”

Image: Main image, Ben Fon

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