[Editor’s note: Bill here. I’m excited to share with you all our first-ever guest column. M McCormick emailed me a couple of weeks back with a capsule review of the event, thinking I might be interested. Interested? Youbetcha. And the capsule whetted my appetite for more, so I asked for more, and she was kind enough to deliver. I don’t know if she’ll contribute again, but for now I’m calling her The Bill / Shakespeare Project’s “East Coast Correspondent”! Thanks, M!]
For the Kennedy Center sponsored IRELAND 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts & Culture Festival, actress Fiona Shaw hosted a panel discussion on Shakespeare’s influence entitled “Imagining a Future – Shakespeare: A Theatrical Conversation with Fiona Shaw.”
Guests included choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who is notable for her death-defying performances including, among others, setting herself on fire. Also present was film and stage director Phyllida Lloyd coming to discuss her series of all-female Shakespeare plays, the most recent being The Taming of the Shrew (a challenge indeed). Rounding out the discussion was hip hop artists, the Q Brothers who re-imagine the well known narratives through rap.
While seemingly disjointed, the panel covered Shakespeare’s past, present and future through the dynamism of his work’s physicality, gender and poetry (respectively).
The core foundation of the intellectual debates was whether or not people “get” Shakespeare. As Ms. Shaw theorized: due to political reasons, The Bard’s work was not popular, or openly read, in Ireland until generations after his work was published. When it did become well-liked in Ireland (approximately the Victorian age) suddenly the work experienced a renewal in popularity first with the Irish, and then throughout the US, eventually leading back to the UK. It also lead to a long tradition of Irish actors performing Shakespeare from young ages, which Shaw attributed to her success.
While each panel member had very different takes on what the art meant to them, they universally agreed that the newest generation of viewers (teenagers, for example) are much more inclined towards Shakespeare than is often portrayed. The advantage of growing up with the internet is a viewership that can more quickly recognize wider varieties of style of movement, directorial thesis and sound. The Q brothers, for example, related a story of being deeply frustrated in their youth (the elder particularly due to a learning disability) which made reading the texts very difficult, but by getting into hip-hop, they began to recognize Shakespearean verse as lyrics and a brave new world of story and emotion made itself evident. They always could read the work, it was a matter of associative understanding. Streb brought this to her field stating that the effect of Shakespeare in his day was to watch a story where people got as close to death as possible, without dying. Asking further, what does that mean to an audience today? Do you need to go above and beyond realistic to make the deaths memorable, or do emotions fill in the gap? Arguably this is different for each person and each audience.
Another theme that kept coming up through the night was the concept of gender in Shakespeare, both historically and today. Phyllida Lloyd began the conversation by discussing her work with ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ and, in her experience, women in theatrical performances, particularly in Shakespeare, speak as if they may never get another chance, which they often don’t. This makes directing a woman playing a male role a complex endeavor. Lloyd’s directorial theory being: as long speeches are rarely spoken by the female characters in Shakespeare, the movement of the actors needs to be choreographed to reflect that. Either for comedic or dramatic effect. She did not share specifics beyond that, and encouraged the audience to go see her plays instead.
Taking up the topic from there, the Q brothers performed the opening act from their Othello which casts the lead as an up-and-coming rapper and Iago as an envious artist who feels he has been dismissed. Borrowing a cadence and anger from a early 2000s Eminem, Iago treats his wife with hateful misogyny. Meanwhile, Desdemona, who is often argued to be more plot device than character, is removed physically from the show, replaced by a haunting Mariah Carey-esque vocal that represents the impossible perfection the men in her life have placed upon her. Both completely present and wholly untouchable.
The conclusion of the panel argued that finding new audiences for Shakespeare is how his works survives, and how it has always survived. It evolves, maybe not through words on paper, but through the audience and how we choose to display it. What that looks like today takes many different forms, and though purists may argue otherwise, the more diverse the presentation, the more diverse the audience. Keeping the words alive for more than just a privileged few.