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Shakespeare Notes
from a Small Island
Ann Blake
  "Looking before and after? Shakespeare: a Performance Appraisal? was the theme of the recent Seventh Biennial Conference of the Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association. Participants from New Zealand, from all over Australia, from Poland, Germany, Canada, the RSA and the USA met to give and hear papers on this deliberately wide-ranging topic in February 2002 in Launceston. 

  One outstanding success of the event was the venue: the old railway yards and workshops, now reclaimed and inventively transformed. These vast industrial buildings, in various stages of picturesque dereliction and set on an open, impressive site alongside the river Esk, now provide the School of Visual and Performing Arts of the University of Tasmania with new facilities, including workshops, studios and an intimate, flexible theatre. Alongside is a splendid public exhibition space, complete with café, and a museum of immigration, admirable for its strong local flavour. Best of all is a superb industrial museum, preserving the great railway workshop, and evoking through a variety of means, including well presented information and startling sound effects, the noise, heat, and hard labour of this working environ-ment. The conference had been from the first conceived as the inaugural event in the rehoused Academy of the Arts and when the time came ANZSA delegates were delighted to be associated with the opening of such a successful project. The city of Launceston now has a civic focus for the arts, and a tourist attraction of distinction, on a site that gives proper recognition to the working lives of its people, from father to son to grandson. 

  In an impressive paper the distinguished Würzburg scholar Werner Habicht took up the topic of ?Looking Before and After? in a discussion of interpretations of Shakespeare in Germany. These illustrated a dual perception of the historical Shakespeare - both the ?time-lessness? of Shakespearean drama and, on other occasions, the Shakespeare who is rooted in his own time and who, especially in moments of cultural and social change, is felt to provide a parallel to or commentary on contemporary events. This paper found evidence in performances and commentaries and also in historical novels and fictional biographies. Many other papers focused on particular roles, plays in performance, and individual films. For instance, Bob White, from the University of Western Australia, spoke of the legacy of Othello to film makers who produce the ?jealousy thriller?, and Sue Tweg discussed ?post-colonially sensitive? productions of The Tempest in Melbourne in 2001. As for films, one speaker argued that Shakespeare in Love reinstated Shakespeare as a mainstream figure, while another considered the audience?s appetite for violence as entertainment as revealed by revivals of Titus Andronicus, including Taymor?s film version. As is usual, whatever the conference topic, some speakers gave themselves a freer range and spoke on such distantly related matters as the authorship controversy, friendship and service in Hamlet, and the ?rival poet? sonnets. This last paper by Mac Jackson from Auckland concisely suggested a date close to 1600 for this group of sonnets, and linked their concern with poetic competition to the appearance of Francis Meres? piece of comparative literary criticism, Palladis Tamia (1598). Further, Jackson pointed to verbal echoes of Meres, in the use of rare words and classical references, in the group of sonnets, and in plays written at this time. For example, ?mellifluous? appears in Meres and in Shakespeare for the first and only time in Twelfth Night. Jackson concluded by suggesting that the rival poet was to be understood as a poetic construction rather than as representing one actual person, and that Marlowe, Chapman and Jonson may all have contributed to the figure in Shakespeare?s poems. This was for me the most stimulating paper of all. 

  Thanks to the efforts of the conference convenor, Michael Edgar, an actor turned academic, both teaching Shakespeare and live performances were prominent in the events of this meeting. Laurence Wright of Rhodes University gave a keynote address on Shakespeare in South Africa past and present, from the original colonial theatre to a recent multi-language Julius Caesar. On the issue of teaching Shakespeare he took up the persistent question of whether Shakespeare was too hard for students whose own command of English was not advanced. His listeners will remember him insisting that everyone had the right to have a chance to ?do? Shakespeare. Whatever a student got out of it, he or she had then joined the ranks of those who had had this experience. From his own practice in a variety of teaching settings, he spoke of the need to be willing to get away from the text?s complexities, and to find a way into the play through the action. And he illustrated this point with photos of students approaching Romeo and Juliet through duelling. Other papers and a forum on teaching practice ensured that the discussion of this area of Shakespeare study was at this conference especially lively and worthwhile. 

  Michael Edgar also starred, there is no other word for it, in the American musical show, Stand up Shakespeare, presented one evening as entertainment for the public and for conference members in the new Inveresk Theatre. On the previous night a cast of mostly recent graduates presented that rarity, Timon of Athens. This modern dress production was distinguished by its inventiveness, its polish and vigour, if not always by a clear understanding of the lines by individual actors. And of course, the audience needed them to speak with understanding, since even they were not familiar with this particular play. A more academic exploration of performance was represented by ?The Othello Project?, which had been designed from the start as a ?performance as research project?. First came introductory papers by director Julian Meyrick, and Meredith Rogers who had designed the set. Then for an hour an audience was able to see the result of three performers? work on scenes in Othello, with the text cut, pasted, moved around, and with roles exchanged, shared, and intensely ?workshopped? over many months. The question of performing violence on stage, in Shakespeare and in the work of contemporary playwrights, had again surfaced for these performers. The murder of Desdemona, and our dread of its staging, figured prominently in the whole event. The actors, now ?performing? a private research project for an audience, achieved some intensely moving moments in terms of performance and stage images that will long linger in the memory. Those thoroughly familiar with the play text, inevitably intrigued by the inventiveness of the rearrangements and repetition of the speeches, were left with questions about what it was that was being communicated to them. This was an extreme demonstration of the audience being each one his or her own playwright. One was left with the realization that what the actors had discovered about the play, and about performing it today, was not necessarily going to be communicable through their performance alone. 

  This conference - for a variety of reasons, the participants speculated - had a smaller attendance than ANZSA meetings in the immediately previous years. But the result was a happy one, an intimate, friendly meeting with much free and lively discussion, bringing together, as was the hope of the Association?s founders, scholars, university teachers, secondary teachers, theatre practitioners, performers and directors, undergraduate Shakespeare enthusiasts from other walks of life who were none of the above. If this whets your appetite for the next conference, please note that this will be in 2004 at the Australian National University in Canberra. You will be most welcome. Anyone interested in attending may join the Association by contacting the Treasurer, Sue Tweg.
For regularly updated information, see the ANZSA web site: www.idun.itsc.adfa.edu.au/ANZSA/anzsa.html

From Vol.2  No.4: June 2002 of "The Melbourne Shakespearean"

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