At one time, the Melbourne Theatre Company was doing a Shakespeare at least once a year, and then the Bell Shakespeare company came along and the visiting companies from overseas. There are some plays I've never seen - they tend to stick to a few popular ones. I'm not, at this point, counting the BBC ones, though they were generally very good. I didn't see them all anyway, and wished I hadn't seen Titus Andronicus. I know that the BBC were committed to producing the lot, but what excuse was there for a movie of it a few years ago? Ugh! Murder, rape, cannibalism...okay, all the tragedies had murder of one kind or another and the rape was offstage but really! Then the poor girl has her hands and tongue cut off to keep her from blabbing. I think that one was meant to cash in on the rage for gruesome tragedies at the time and Shakespeare would have been young and not an artiste, just a working writer and actor making a living.
The first Shakespeare play I remember seeing was on a school excursion to the visiting RSC, when we went to see The Winter's Tale. Hermione and Perdita were played as a dual role by Judi Dench, who was not yet a plump little middle aged lady; she would have been a bit old for Perdita, but just right for Hermione. I hadn't read the play then, so saw it as something new and fresh.
The next year I went to see King Lear with some schoolmates on a Friday afternoon; we were studying it for English Literature and had already seen it as a film with Paul Scofield. I vaguely recall that one as a thing set in some barbarian tribe with lots of snow. The MTC production, the first of a number of times I've seen it, had a set that looked like a spaceship with everyone in silver spacesuit-type costumes. I haven't a clue why.
Lear is a play that needs an actor who has grown into the age and dignity for the role. There was a beautiful telemovie production with Laurence Olivier - I think John Hurt was the Fool... Okay, no films, or I'll be here forever...
But I'm glad the wonderful Frank Gallacher, an Australian local actor, lived long enough to play it. His production was done in modern dress and seemed to be set on a farm. He comes back from the hunt in a ute, with his mates, being very loud and vulgar. It was wonderful performance!
The Barrie Kosky production, by the Bell company, was very strange, but anything he directs is. There were human "hunting dogs" and a red and white costume; a friend of mine who was there to review it explained to me that Lear was a Santa Claus figure, there to reward good daughters with gifts... I do hope not, but it wouldn't surprise me in the case of this director. I didn't enjoy it, though there is very little you can do to wreck Shakespeare. The words and stories shine through.
Fortunately, the last time I saw it, it was a very different matter. The amazing Ian Mckellen was Lear and Sylvester McCoy his Fool. It was the first time I ever really got what Cordelia was thinking. Mostly I think, "Oh, come on, Cordelia, give your adoring Daddy a hug and spare everyone a lot of headaches! Would it kill you to hug him?" But this Cordelia - I don't know, but it worked. She gave an awkward laugh and had a hard time expressing her thoughts... It worked. And Sylvester McCoy was captured by the Duke of Cornwall's men and hanged on stage, where he had to hang, utterly still, for nearly the whole intermission. It was based on the line "my poor fool is hanged." Some theories are that he means Cordelia and that the same actor might have played both. In fact, at my university there was a production that did that, with a lucky girl who got to play both roles. Frankly, I can't imagine Sylvester McCoy as Cordelia...
The MTC did a production called Queen Lear, in which the lead was played by a woman, Robyn Nevin. She is one of Australia's top actors and while the idea is weird, I do sometimes think it's just unfair that while Lear is there for mature male actors, there's nothing for older women but the occasional crone, such as Queen Margaret in Richard III, a role that's often left out. You can't even do Gertrude, who isn't all that old. So they let this great actress do the role and very well she did it. It wasn't the only time a company has slipped women into male roles - I've seen Cassius played by a woman in a modern dress Julius Caesar and that was weird, with the characters having to refer to Cassius as "she" and "her" instead if "he" and "him." It was not a bad production, though, with battlefield reports done on news TV.
There's an annual summer Shakespeare in the park at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, with A Midsummer Night's Dream as the regular production. I ended up having to attend that one twice because the first time it started to rain so the performance was cancelled halfway through and we were offered free tickets for another night. The second time was utterly magical. The evening began with the Gardens' resident bat colony flying overhead. There's a lake and the first half was among the trees, the second by the lake. Theseus and Hippolyta were doubled by Oberon and Titania. The actor playing Puck was an acrobat, who trained children for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, a children's circus, so he knew exactly what he was doing; late in the piece he was lit up in the trees on an island in the lake.
Another year they did Twelfth Night, but it just wasn't the same and didn't quite belong in the gardens the way The Dream did.
I've seen the Peter Brook Dream on stage. That one was hugely famous at the time. Fairies swung from trapezes and "You Spotted Snakes" was sung accompanied by a sitar. The fairies swung glowing tubes which made a noise - I confess I bought one in the foyer at intermission! These days I only buy a programme and, if available, a CD of the score of big productions. Maybe a mug if I really, really love it. You can listen to the CD and drink from the mug, but what on earth are you going to do with a glowing tube? But I was a young uni student at the time and just couldn't resist.
Hamlet is another one I've seen many times, but the first time was performed by the Old Vic when it was in Melbourne. I went with a friend and we paid $16, in those days quite a lot, for front row seats and sat there feeling very decadent. Hamlet was played by a young Derek Jacobi. Ooh, I was lucky!
I've only seen A Comedy Of Errors once, performed by the Bell company. It was done in modern dress and because Ephesus, the setting, is in modern Turkey, you saw a lot if exotic Turkish streets and people wearing fezes and such. A very funny and delightful production. Pity that one isn't performed more often.
Romeo And Juliet is performed so often that I'm afraid I'm getting a little tired of it. I've seen everything from a Renaissance-costumed production to one in which Juliet makes her first appearance bopping away to an iPod. All very well, but if they're in twenty-first century dress, surely Juliet could have phoned Romeo to warn him? Or even Friar Lawrence?
I've seen The Taming Of The Shrew set on Australua's Gold Coast; when Bianca's latest suitor turns up, the father whips out his iPad to take note of what he's offering. I've also seen it set in 1950s Australia. Hugo Weaving and Pamela Rabe, the stars, also did Much Ado About Nothing, in which Beatrice, opening herself a deck chair in the garden, gets trapped in it when she overhears Hero and the girls talking about Benedick's love for her. Pamela Rabe, an expat Canadian, is a tall woman who fully matched Hugo Weaving, both as Kate and Beatrice.
Another Much Ado I saw was performed in Regency costume, very Pride And Prejudice! When you think of it, the storyline is not that different, although all Bingley does is run off without having proposed, not shame Jane at the altar. And he's talked into it.
The Bell production was set in a circus!
Pericles, Prince Of Tyre was performed twice by the MTC. I particularly remember the first time, in which the not-very-wealthy company made jewellery by painting bottle tops gold. It's a play I'm fond of.
I've seen The Merchant Of Venice a number of times, but my favourite is the Cameri Theatre production in Tel Aviv. That was directed by a guest director from the RSC. It was translated into Hebrew by one of the country's top poets and it really did feel like Shakespeare, even in a different language.
You know how it's listed as a comedy despite the serious bits? I think in Shakespeare that mostly just means a play that doesn't end with a pile of bodies. Anyway, this one really was very funny. Not that Shylock wasn't taken seriously - in one scene, he's shown walking past clutching his faithless daughter's hair ribbon while those arseholes Salerio and Solanio are laughing at his troubles.
But the points really were made humorously. In the first scene, set at an outdoor cafe, Antonio's friends eat his lunch and wander off leaving him to pay the bill which the waiter hands him. In some ways, he is "paying the bill" for everyone the whole play through - and is left alone on stage at the end when the happy couples go off to bed. He slowly drops the letter with the good news in it and lowers his head into his hands - and you know then that his love for Bassanio was more than just for a friend. It's not the only one I've seen that suggests this, but it was the best and subtlest; the Bell company performance opened in a male bath house. How unsubtle can you get?
But oh, the casket scene! The Prince of Aragon was dressed as a matador; Portia rolled her eyes. And the Prince of Morocco was an Othello send-up - in fact, I saw that actor play Othello the next week. In Hebrew, of course. My Hebrew was never the best, but watching a familiar play in the language helped me.
Oh, and for some reason Lancelot Gobbo spoke with an Italian accent - in Hebrew.
I've seen Twelfth Night in Hebrew too. Feste had one-man-band equipment for his songs. Modern dress, of course. I was sitting at a cafe in Dizengoff Street refreshing my memory of the play when someone saw me and came over to chat about Shakespeare - the first time I've done it in Hebrew!
The Tempest is one I've seen many times. My favourite was one with John Bell as Prospero. In that one, Australia was the island and Ariel and Caliban were both enslaved indigenous Australians. Ariel, upon being freed, throws off her European clothes and joins a circle of indigenous women spirits. Caliban flings down his chains and spits at Prospero.
Another one I liked very much had Frank Gallacher as Caliban. Prospero realises that Caliban has been, in some ways, a part of himself that he must embrace - and they hug each other.
So, these are a few performances of Shakespeare I've seen and loved over the years - what memories do you have?