Sport For Jove Theatre Company and The Seymour Centre present ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and TWELFTH NIGHT in the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre.
2014 is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. He was christened on April 26th, 1564 in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Since it was the custom to baptise a child three days after birth, Shakespeare's birthday is recognised as April 23, the same day as his burial fifty-two years later. These two productions by the Sport For Jove Company, ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and TWELFTH NIGHT are part of a world wide celebration of that incredible fact.
450 years later and William Shakespeare is the most performed playwright in the world. Did you know that:
…the first film of a Shakespeare play (KING LEAR) was made back in 1899. ... and with 707 films to his name in June 2008, this writer from a small Warwickshire town four centuries ago is far and away the most prolific writer of movies; in 2005 alone, there were sixteen films made of his plays [Ben Crystal -1].
A new film version of ROMEO AND JULIET is at present in the cinemas. Shakespeare our Contemporary Playwright and Screen Writer! Can I count the number of Shakespeare productions being performed in Sydney this year? ...!
In this Shakespearean double-bill, there were some 18 actors taking a curtain call. How rare is that in the Sydney Theatre experience? A company of invisible support artists must boost that figure involved with this enterprise well up into the thirties. The Sport For Jove company are mainly made up of very young artists, augmented by some seasoned actors, led by Damien Ryan, seemingly, all, all inspired by Shakespeare's works. These are remarkable facts and worth noting and celebrating. Supporting. What is even more remarkable is that Sport For Jove is a 'Co-operative' company - which means that none, that is, NONE, of these creators are paid. No-one is paid for the months of preparation, or for the performances. They do this work, they celebrate this author, they provide us with a consistent opportunity to see a Professional standard of production, and a quality of textual experience without any monetary recompense. They do this because they have, are infected by what I call a 'disease' (dis-ease), that requires them to be involved in the creative act for, perhaps, their sanities sake, which ultimately includes, you , the audience. They do it because they have a need to. In the city of Sydney of some three and a half millions this company presents, regularly, work, to maintain a cultural fabric that enhances the reputation of Sydney for nada, zilch, nothing.
For those of you who don't know, actors in this city are paid for rehearsal and performance by the commercial managements (mainly musicals), and by the subsidised Australia Council companies: Sydney Theatre Company (4 Australian actors, at present on public show in PERPLEX at the Wharf 1Theatre - 4!!!), Belvoir St Theatre, Bell Shakespeare, some productions at the Griffin Theatre (5 or 6 a year), some professional Touring Companies, Monkey Baa, and the Ensemble Theatre (who manage to do so, remarkably, without any government subsidy! Amazing!)
All the rest are NOT paid for rehearsal or performance: the Griffin Independent Productions, The Hayes Theatre (yes, those remarkable recent musicals: SWEET CHARITY
, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
, the artists did for free, virtually), The Eternity Theatre, the atyp Wharf Productions, the Tap Gallery, the Reginald Productions, Old 505 Productions, (Tamarama) Rock Surfers Productions, the Sydney Independent Theatre Company at the Old Fitzroy, the New Theatre, the King St Theatre. All the associations that work with these 11 theatre spaces, who consistently present work in this city, that give a variety of live theatre experience for audiences, opportunities for performing artists and writers to develop, are not paid any, or much money to do this.
The reputation of Sydney as a vibrant Performing Arts City is provided by the performing artists, mostly, for NOTHING!! They do it to practice their skills and amongst other reasons, for the opportunity to be seen by the paying, major companies and the other mediums - television and film - as a kind of audition. Although, this, is mostly a fanciful expectation, as the number of responsible representatives from the STC or Belvoir or reputable casting agencies who actually attend these productions to appreciate the work of these artists, is frustratingly, infuriatingly, embarrassingly poor.
I, personally, have produced 3 productions and sponsored a development of a dance work, that involved some three months of preparation and a 3-4 week season each. All the artists involved, after costs, received a total of approximately, $100. 4 months work for $100 each! I know of what I speak.
In 1971, when I graduated from NIDA, the Actor's union had managed to win pay for actors, not only for performance, but also for rehearsal - a professional career was possible. How lucky I was. Today, 43 years later, in 2014, in Sydney, 11 theatres of artistic clout cannot pay, do not pay, for either performance or rehearsal. What is wrong with this picture Australia? Things have got worse for the professional actor not better. What the situation is in other cities in Australia, I do not know- similar, I should imagine.
So, the fact that Sport For Jove is able to consistently present production In Sydney at such a scale and tour to several venues - 18 actors taking a bow - with such artistic integrity and a growing, glowing reputation, is a fact that needs to be celebrated and appreciated. That the other 11 theatres and all their guest companies are also toiling for, and achieving artistic opportunities and bench marks of standard, needs, also, to be recognised, appreciated.
Now to my usual scrutineering…
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (1602-04) is a rarely performed Shakespeare. It, along with TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (1602) and MEASURE FOR MEASURE (1604) are known as Shakespeare's Problem Plays. They were all written in the crisis times of the lingering health and ultimate death of Elizabeth I, of the uncertainty concerning the next heir to the English throne, and the many 'adjustments' to the crowning of James IV, from Scotland, as James I of England. Surrounding these three 'problematic' plays Shakespeare had written AS YOU LIKE IT (1600), HAMLET (1600), TWELFTH NIGHT (1599-1601), and on the other side of the trio, OTHELLO (1604), KING LEAR (1606) and MACBETH (1606). Shakespeare was at the heights of his powers, it would seem. So, 'problematic' for whom?
The term "problem plays" has often been attributed to Shakespearean angst. The plays probably were, more prosaically, the result of the playwright's desire to capitalise on the interest in satire, current during those early turbulent years of the seventeen century: ...they are based on a moral ideal which though it exists in theory is consistently ignored in practice. 
Are they an accurate reading of the last of the Elizabethan assurities and the anticipations of the Jacobean strangenesses? Unsure times? In our world of moral trepidations, when a Cardinal of the Church, of our spiritual government, forgoes his moral conscience in pursuit of preserving the monetary treasures of his Domain (where is, Jesus, the scourge of the temple Pharisees, or Martin Luther, when we need them?) Or, when our secular government is infested with rorters of the system of law for personal gain, greed, at the expense of the citizenry, what hopes, faiths, can we have, except ones that are jaded and exhausted with disillusionment to spiritual and ethical bankruptcies (where are our contemporary Australian playwrights?) Hence, perhaps, the importance of these three plays to Shakespeare's audience, sitting squarely in the centre of this social disease, are not so problematic? Nor to us in 2014. Perhaps, the irony of the title of Shakespeare's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL - (the ends justifying the means), the moral shadings and ambiguities of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, and the lubricious world of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, as scrupulous studies of a 'screwed-up' world, adrift without a reliable moral compass, was well within the grasp of their exhausted apprehensions of the world they lived in? As they should be to ours.
The Countess of Rousillon (Sandra Eldridge) farewells her son Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) to the Court of the King of France (Robert Alexander) who is suffering ill health. Attending this farewell is the daughter, Helena (Francesca Savige), of a famous, now dead physician. She is secretly in love with Bertram, and has the favours of the Countess for such a liaison. She avails on the Countess to allow her to follow Bertram, who once she is there, offers the King a cure for his illness. She bargains that if she fails she will willingly die, if she succeeds, he will grant her anything she wishes. She cures the King and claims Bertram as her husband. Shocked, Bertram, unwillingly, is married, but immediately sets out for war and gives her word that she is never to call him husband until she can get a ring from his finger, and show him a child which he has begotten from her body.
I'll send her to my house,
Acquaint my mother with my hate of her,
... ... War is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.
However, Helena follows him, instead, to Florence, where she observes his wooing of a maid, Diana (Eloise Winestock). Then by bribing Diana to consent to a bedding, and to demand Bertram's ring, Helena through a 'bed-trick' replaces Diana, without his knowledge of the deception. Later she confronts him with the evidence of both her tasks fulfilled - the ring and the child - whereupon he 'gladly' accepts her as his wife. This is the main plot. A sub-plot concerns the 'career' of Parolles (George Banders), a follower of Bertram's, a braggart and coward, and of his reveal/discovery during the course of the war - some believe the relationship between Bertram and Parolles is a kind of blurred mirror reflection of that of Prince Hal and Falstaff.
This play of Shakespeare's has, as with all his work, been taken from other sources. ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is based on the ninth novel of the third day of the DECAMERON of Boccaccio, which Shakespeare in all probability got from a faithful translation in Paynter's PALACE OF PLEASURE . There are many other literary precedents of the origins of this story, that Shakespeare may, also, have known. Shakespeare followed closely the main outlines of his sources, but altered many details. This story and its character types are familiar and popular to the Medieval and Elizabethan audiences, and is an example of the Fulfilment of Tasks narrative:
In the first place, they exalt the cleverness and devotion of the woman; the wits of the wife are more than a match for those of the husband, and her purpose is a happy reunion with him.
It is the story of the Clever Wife (Wench) - it is a popular conceit.
For a modern audience, however, it may be difficult for some not to see Helena as a thief not of love, but of lust, and that the chances of a really happy ending impossible. Some, too, may find Bertram hard to explain psychologically: a man that agrees to marry and then treats that wife with such disdain, and when confronted with the set tasks achieved, is instantly transformed: "His vices take flight from him and the virtues enter." Or, depending on your degree of contemporary cynicism, not?
Damien Ryan, cuts and pastes the text of Shakespeare's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and updates the times to 20th century war zones, it appears design-wise (Antoinette Barboutis), a composite of all wars of that century and of this one, the twenty-first. Mr Ryan, however, more certainly, places the sexual politics/actions of Helena, and the other women of the play, into the raunch culture of our times, and has us observe a robust and determined woman, who, with her female companions, reverse the usual gender role practice, so it is the female sex on the prowl and hunt, predatorily. In extended time interpolations to the original play, this Helena inspects in her 'seraglio', provided by a grateful King, the naked prospects of the 'marriage market place' (literally), doing all but 'handle' the knobs of the merchandise (oh, shucks, why not? - size is important, they tell me!), and to later film on an iphone, the pornographic 'rape' of Bertram in an orgiastic bed of drunkedness and intense naked sexual doings (4 excited women and blindfolded he). Mr Ryan in his program notes asks us "To suck it up boys, it has been women's lot for centuries."
And if things appear far-fetched, he points out that they are just simple reflections of our current reality television "and hugely popular (entertainment) vehicles such as THE BACHELOR"
Mr Ryan, in his elaborate and absorbing program notes, intimates that this was what Shakespeare was doing with the play, ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, in Elizabethan/Jacobean times. But that, I believe, maybe, as likely as far-fetched a contemporary conjecture as the well spring of Simon Stone's HAMLET
, last year, and Mr Bell's extrapolation of Shakespeare's intention, with his production of THE WINTER'S TALE
, last month. This dreaded need (to me), to make Shakespeare our contemporary with up-dated environments of contemporary topicalities, is wearily, becoming boorish and boring. Really, I'm more than a little over it. Accessible theatre doesn't necessarily make unforgettable theatre - just, easy theatre.
Jan Kott from his influential book SHAKESPEARE OUR CONTEMPORARY:
What I have intended is not a forced topicality ... . Shakespeare does not have to be modernised or brought up to date ... what matters is that through Shakespeare's text we ought to get our own modern experience, anxiety and sensibility.
I found Mr Ryan's liberties interesting (though some prudent staging edits could be given - how many circles of training do I need, to get the gist of the idea?) and, certainly, they stayed with me long after watching the performance (- !, indeed, an again, ! ) That the production did not have the magical transcendence of a great Shakespearean production was, and is, a regret, especially after over three hours in the theatre (supposedly beginning at 7.30, I was leaving the building at 10.48) and to come out of the theatre with a familiar and unchanged world view, was a disappointment (although, I have, reflectively concluded, there may have been two genii in the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre: Shakespeare and Mr Ryan, both their inventions, different, though they are, are creatively arresting.)
Of the actors, the stand out performance was that of George Banders, as Parolles (I noticed him in a production of Alex Buzo's ROOTED
, last year). Mr Banders has a clarity of instrument management, intelligence, wit and charisma to burn. Every time he was on stage with responsibility, he lifted the evening into an effortless comprehension of the comedy, the situation and the character of the man.
Mr Alexander, as the King, had all the skills at hand, but to find majesty wearing that "Targette beaney"costume, as the ill King of France (Design by Antoinette Barboutis) would need supernatural talents to surmount. Similarly, James Lugton, deprived of an arm, was less than his usual expressive self, though absolutely reliable. Ms Eldridge was less impressive as the Countess, a famous role, that appeared to be not much more than an agonised matron of a spoilt child, in this reading. Sam Haft, tackling a trio of men, particularly the injured soldier, even though his face was masked in a bandage, and the intelligent presence of Michael Piggott, gave play-focusing performances.
To the two leading ingenues and centralities of this production: Ms Savige, as Helena, did not have the vocal skills or physical disciplines to communicate to us much, other than an enthusiastic energy and approximation of textual information - emotions overriding all her offers - and that she, the actor, loved what she was doing (did I want to fly, invisibly, onto the stage, and hold her head still in an Alexander Technique gentle grip, so that it would stop compensating with its uncontrolled movement, for what her skills could not otherwise tell us, of her obvious intelligence of the role, or not? - I did). Mr Lembke-Hogan seemed to 'play' at the idea of Bertram - a spoilt, psychologically uncouth lout/brat - physically indicating what the text was telling us, not trusting the words of the text, removing any ability for the audience to endow or believe in him - he, tending to over-telegraph, demonstrate, everything. It appeared a deeply contrived (planned) performance, lacking freedom of 'in the moment' thoughts, actions and emotions. If these two figures of Helena and Bertram cannot hold the 'centrality' of the audience's care in the storytelling, to the extent , such that Parolles, in this production, became the focus of our gratification, desire, then, Shakespeare's ALL'S WELLTHAT ENDS WELL can not end well. It loses its balance and power and its capacity to be transcendent.
On another night, I attended a revival of the Sport For Jove production of TWELFTH NIGHT, or What You Will, the great autumnal comedy, the last comedy that Shakespeare wrote. This production is set at a contemporary beach resort for the rich and indolent, (attractive Set Design by Anna Gardiner), populated by spoilt and silly, shallow love sicked fools, bored enough to indulge in cruel and stupid games. Shakespeare's play, in my experience of this production, was reduced to a petulant Aussie piss-take of predictable skittishness and self absorbed narcissism. In making it so accessible, including interpolated contemporary pretences at witticisms, in an effort, perhaps, to present a mirror image of our contemporary world, the now recognisable 'Ryanisms' gradually submerged this great work and its famous set pieces into banalities, and the Shakespearean wisdoms about love, to common-placements. The audience I was with, loved it - then, considering their ages, more than likely, they had never seen the play in production before. I, indeed, had an easy time (I, of course, know the play well, and could add, from memories, what was missing), but lamented the loss of Shakespeare's greatness for the sake of easy accessibility. This inventive, dare I use the modern meaning "innovative" production, reminds me of my response to the Sport For Jove production of HAMLET
Where there is no illusion,
there is no Ilyria - Oscar Wilde.
Abigail Austin gave a wonderful Caesario, which was most of what she had to do, but an emotionally 'bleating' Viola. Robin Goldsworthy, as Malvolio gave some honour to this great role. Michael Piggott gave a beautiful and wistful Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Tyran Parke gave good song to Feste, despite the boring composition of his music (Christopher Harley). All else served the direction well enough, but not interestingly enough, or sometimes, skilfully enough, to bring us to an awakening to the 'wonders' of our contemporary world, or, even Shakespeare's, or the language-wit and wisdoms of Shakespeare. It hardly seemed possible that this play could survive 450 years of playing and hold such a high place in the cannon of theatrical writing if this is all it was - a juvenile comedy of simpletons.
From Stanley Wells 4 essays "Royal Shakespeare - Four Major Productions at Stratford-upon-Avon":
HAMLET, (written around the same time as TWELFTH NIGHT - either, depending on the dating used, just before or just after) is one of the most controversial of Shakespeare's plays. It has been endlessly discussed, and poses major interpretative problems. TWELFTH NIGHT has provoked less dissension. As with many of the comedies, there is general agreement about the broad lines along which the play should be interpreted. Disputes are about matters of balance, emphasis, and degree, especially about the balance between comedy and seriousness. ... the balance in it of romance and realism, of idealized love and drunken revelry, of wise folly and foolish wit, of self-control and relaxation, of love songs and songs of good life.
Mr Ryan's production tips the balance, for my taste, too much towards raucous vulgarities and cynicisms, embraces too far the twelfth night traditions of 'olde', the whirlygigs of the Lord of Misrule, and loses the sense of the season of autumn, of dying (Elizabeth, Gloriana, distressed on her death bed), the loss of sure fortunes, Shakespeare's sense of an ending of something great, special. AS YOU LIKE IT, the other great comedy of this period of writing, also reflects, similarly, the striking balance between life and death, comedy and seriousness. Mr Ryan, in this TWELFTH NIGHT, does not balance his comic eye with a sufficient seriousness. This is a revival production, so what was once fair comment on our world, originally, may now be not - rather dated, now an off-key jangle to our ethically bereft times, and, so, out of currency. Fashion changes so quickly! Holiday is not eternal and "fantasy fights the cold light of day"; to a world beyond a summer holiday, in autumn, (physically and metaphysically), "the rain it raineth every day". Mr Wells goes on to say:
"This text contains an enormous range of emotions and moods and most productions seem to select one - farce, or bitterness or romance - and emphasize it throughout."
Mr Ryan has tended to that, a monotone of farcical observations, and it would have been more pleasing to see Mr Ryan attempt to sound all the notes that are there, more generously, with a better balance.
In my blog on THE WINTER'S TALE
, I have rhapsodised of the tour of The Royal Shakespeare Company to Sydney in 1970. One of the productions was of John Barton's TWELFTH NIGHT. It has become one of the legendary productions of this play. What Mr Barton managed, was to balance (mingle) the romantic seriousness with comedy and throughout the production preserve this fusion of tones. It had a Chekhovian quality. The climax of that production was the silent moment of confrontation and recognition of the twins, Sebastian and Viola, at the almost end of the play, both up to that point believing the other drowned. It was a 'burning' experience, still is, in my memory, like being in the presence of a cosmic miracle - we, all, the cast and the audience, were cast into a rapt wonder.
"O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind, and salt waters fresh in love!"
Shakespeare's breadth of artistry, in Mr Barton's guidance, reached beyond this world and took us to an acknowledgment that truly, there are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in our philosophy. It hardly was intimated, recognised, in this Sport For Jove production, at this point, or elsewhere.
This is the essential ingredient that in the Sport For Jove productions of Shakespeare directed (mostly) by Mr Ryan, that seems to be absent. It is definitely what I missed in his HAMLET, and certainly in this TWELFTH NIGHT, and in a play I know, though, not as well, his ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL. The all embracing universalities of Shakespeare's vision and its effect in realising in his writings, the magic of the "music" of the spheres (universe), in Shakespeare's plays, is conspicuously dim or absent. Is there an ignorance of it? Is it the lack of belief in it? Is it, if known, a belief system rejected by this generation of young artists? Or, is there a basic fear of going there in 2014? Speculating of it? It is too daggy. I reckon, if this "music" be the food of love, one can begin to understand the 450 year history and popularity of this inestimable writer. Not just that Shakespeare is contemporaneously 'sexy' or "funny -ha, ha.'
Now, earlier, I dared to suggest that maybe Mr Ryan is a 'genius' and, certainly, I believe that, to some measure, his co-production of THE LIBERTINE
attests to something of the kind to me. His now famous, recent CYRANO DE BERGERAC, which I did not see [no car!] seems to gel that. If invention of action and imaginative settings, for the plays of Shakespeare, of being a figure of inspiration that attracts so many of these other artists to his work, especially young ones, is a kind of genius, then, he is one. And, especially, if he can increase the capacity of his actors to deliver verse with a sensitivity to its full potential range of meaning, both intellectual and emotional, maybe, critically, it will be even more evident. If he and Sport For Jove can transcend beyond the populist con-temporising of Shakespeare's plays for easy cultural accessibility and take his audience to that other level of this writing, what 'wonder' might we have - maybe, a True Genius ?! "Damo" (Ryan) standing alongside John (Barton) or Trevor (Nunn) or Peter (Brook) ?! We shall see soon enough, when he has the full professional support of the Bell Shakespeare for his up-coming HENRY V.
Exiting from one of the great contemporary theatre companies, after The Globe's production of TWELFE NIGHT (and RICHARD III, on another night), 15 months ago, I walked out of the Apollo Theatre onto Shaftsbury Avenue, into the teeming noise of London's West End, and I looked about me, in a state of ecstasy, and through all that 'noise' heard the earth sigh as it turned in its course. Their Shakespeare toils had raised my soul to something beyond myself and this clattering world.
Exiting the Seymour Centre, on either night of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and TWELFTH NIGHT, I walked to the corner of Cleveland Street and City Road and looked and heard the noise of the mechanisms of my pragmatic world rushing about me, for my bus ride home. Neither of the Sport For Jove productions of Shakespeare's great worlds, took me beyond my own petty self or ordinary world. I was definitely earthed-held. A pity. Fortunately, I arrived home, and co-incidently, was given a birthday present of the DVD of The Globe's TWELFE NIGHT.
Sport For Jove - a company, worth struggling with. Thanks.
- Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal, Icon Books - 2008
- The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein, Penguin Books -1993
- Shakespeare's Problem Comedies by William Witherle Lawrence, Penguin Shakespeare Library - 1931
- Royal Shakespeare. By Stanley Wells, Manchester University Press - 1977