By Joe Prestwich
When I’m not improvising, I spend a lot of my time watching, thinking, and writing about German theatre. That’s odd, you might think, and you’d probably be right. But I’ve learnt so much from my experiences seeing theatre in Germany and in the German-language, and I am particularly fascinated by those rare examples of German-language productions making their way over to Britain.
Some of my earliest experiences of German theatre were productions of Shakespeare. In 2012, as part of the London Olympic Games’ Cultural Olympiad, the Globe Theatre hosted 37 productions of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different languages – this being the number of plays Shakespeare is credited as writing. As part of this “Globe to Globe” festival, I saw a production of Timon of Athens (Timon aus Athen) by the Bremer Shakespeare Company. And what a revelation.
Sex in pop-up tents. Women frying steaks over on-stage barbecues. A naked Timon running around the stage showing us his … acting chops. Shakespeare’s words were forsaken for something that felt more anarchic, performative, and really live. It felt like anything could happen at any moment. The company reshaped the play to speak directly to the 2008 financial crisis. I was thrilled.
Fast forward four years and I am sat in the Royal Court Theatre at Sloane Square watching a production of Ophelias Zimmer (Ophelias Room), by British director Katie Mitchell. This work has stuck with me for many years. It represents almost the direct opposite of the Bremer show. It re-tells the plot of Hamlet entirely from Ophelia’s perspective, using the information Shakespeare gives us in his text to construct her daily routine. This includes going for walks, going to dinner, receiving flowers and (here comes the modern twist) tapes from Hamlet expressing his feelings for her. These consist mainly of long monologues (go figure), or expletive-ridden insults. It is a play built around the idea of repetition. Ophelia repeats the same actions day after day after day after day after day. And we witness it all. Her routine is broken only by men, intruding into her world and trying to control her. Some critics found this technique “boring”, and maybe it was. But that was part of the point. Ophelia’s life as a woman probably was boring. And if she seems boring, it’s because Shakespeare (as interpreted through Mitchell) made it so. Or, at least, it makes us think twice about women in Shakespeare, and the roles women are given in productions of Shakespeare’s texts. Is Hamlet just really an opportunity for male actors to show the world how good they are? Can we work to change the perception of Shakespeare being a male-dominated domain? I left the theatre shook – and eager to see more productions that not only present Shakespeare in new ways, but also question the very traditions surrounding Shakespeare in performance.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of companies and theatres across the UK doing just that. Just returning to the Globe Theatre under Michelle Terry’s artistic directorship provides an excellent example of how diverse casts and ensembles can be constructed in a setting steeped in tradition. I guess the point I want to make here though, is that there is so much to learn when we see theatre in different languages, and that emerges from performance traditions that differ to those in typically associated with theatre in Britain. We try and do this in ShakeItUp through our international work. We’ve taken part in theatre festivals in Germany and Italy, and each time we were given opportunities to take part in workshops led by artists from all across Europe. We’ve let this work seep into our own rehearsals over the years, and hopefully once international travel is a more viable option, we’ll be bringing our brand of theatre to countries beyond the UK again soon.
With the growth of theatre streaming over the past 12 months, international theatre is more accessible than ever. I thought I knew Shakespeare – until I saw a naked actor yelling his words at me. I’d recommend the experience to everyone!
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!