The debate around whether Shakespeare is still relevant continues. But while the discussion could easily be all academic, the real proof is in taking the Bard off the page and bringing him back to the people – all the people – in performance. And not just as audience, but as participants.
Which brings us to the point of today’s Discussion blog post. While browsing Facebook last week, the video below popped up on my feed (thank you Facebook algorithm), which was fascinating and showed just how useful Shakespeare can be to us humans still – but only if we get to perform his works, rather than just see them, or read them. I won’t go into detail here, just watch the clip above. If you’re anything like me (which, I grant, is a little Shakespeare obsessed), I suspect you’ll find it hard to not be moved by the story. (Here’s the link to the video on Facebook, in case the above embedding doesn’t work).
When watching this video, it reminded me of the season of programs I was lucky enough to work on while employed at the BBC in London. My direct boss, Roly Keating curated a two month season of Shakespeare-themed programming for BBC2 (as part of his role as an Executive Producer for BBC Music & Arts). I was involved in the creation of the booklet made available to the public that went with the season (editing the text written by various experts), as well as being involved in some of the programs broadcast. My favourite program (and that’s a big call, as I loved many of the programs we delivered over that period), was Shakespeare On The Estate – an award-winning documentary that told the story of the fabulous Welsh director, Michael Bogdanov, a former director at the RSC and an advocate for making Shakespeare accessible, going to a housing estate in Birmingham and trying to encourage the residents to attempt Shakespeare in performance. Spoiler – he was successful and it was awesome.
While sadly there aren’t any copies or full segments from that documentary available online (and my copy is on VHS, with no way to digitise it at the moment), I did find the opening segment of this fascinating production embedded in an old BBC2 ident shared on YouTube. This is a great example of what I’m talking about and Michael sums up very well his take on Shakespeare and how to bring it back to the people.
Funnily enough, even though I got to work on this amazing season of Shakespeare programming, I didn’t fully become a convert until attending drama school in London a couple of years later. As a young aspiring actress, who had landed a gig at the BBC in production, I was much more interested in pursuing modern drama and comedy. But, despite that, this documentary stuck with me and I think very much informed part of the reason why Shakespeare Republic was born. Once a convert, you want to convert the world, I guess. But it showed me that maybe there was something to this Shakespeare guy that I was missing. And the eventual understanding and embracing of the work was a true light bulb moment that I can’t help to want to give to others because it was so powerful and life-changing for me. Shakespeare as religion? That’s a topic for another day, methinks.
Shakespeare was definitely a product of his time. A Renaissance man who was just as good at business as the Arts, understood farming, politics, a bit of science and a whole lot about the human condition. As my Shakespeare teacher at drama school, Phil Peacock, said “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d have started writing for serial television and gone very quickly to writing Hollywood blockbusters.” And that’s not far off point – poetry in that era was the equivalent to soap operas and the plays were the Elizabethan equivalent to any movie you can catch at the multiplex today.
The language gets in our way, and rightly so – we don’t speak like that anymore. But, and it’s a big one, our modern English has it’s linguistic ancestry in Shakespeare’s words, so with a bit of effort and some historical knowledge from the time, we can work out what he meant. Once we understand it, then the story becomes clear – but the best way to understand his works is to play them.
Feel free to leave your comments below if you have any thoughts on this kind of work with Shakespeare. I’d be interested to know what you think and/or any experiences you’ve had with coming to terms with the Bard and his works yourself.
‘Till next we speak … see you anon.
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia