Statespeare – Studying Shakespeare Suckeths by Nelle Lee (& William Shakespeare). shake&stir theatre co at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 23-24 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
The context for this review needs to be made clear, as follows:
From an educational point of view there are positives and negatives in this show. As a production put on for the general public rather than in a school context, there are different positives and negatives. In Queanbeyan it was presented for the general public without its theatre-in-education purpose being made explicit. At the same time quite a large proportion of the opening night crowd were young and possibly students.
The Q publicity says it is a “fast-paced, hilarious and eye-opening experience for all theatre lovers.” The performance is certainly fast and physical – a positive, though I did hear some middle-aged people comment that they hadn’t been able to pick up all the dialogue. As a later than middle-age person I had the same problem, but it was obvious from the laughter of recognition from the young people that they had no difficulty following every nuance of the latest patois. No-one seemed to lose concentration listening to the Shakespeare and following the action.
It’s on the issues of being “hilarious” and “eye-opening” that the divide between the educational and potentially general audience purposes pops up. The script is clever. It was obvious that the two pairs of teenage drama students (played by Ross Balbuziente who also directed, Nelle Lee, Judy Hainsworth and Nick Skubij) were parallel to Benedick, Beatrice, Claudio and Hero who I had just seen in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. They bicker, joke, play and expose themselves to emotional risks as they try out possible scenes from different Shakespeare plays to present for drama class assessment. Unintended revelations stop the fun but in the end conflicts are resolved and love is confirmed. Out of my ex-drama teacher role, it was all just too predictable.
There were quite hilarious moments, such as the matter of Macbeth’s nipples which Lady Macbeth sexily pinches. There was even a rather shocked laugh when Macbeth pinches her nipple in return. I thought this represented a highlight of reality about the young characters’ relationships. But as a play for an adult general audience, only Jay, written and played by Nelle Lee, approached the kind of complexity and depth of character needed. The other three characters, all played with professional clarity, were too close to the sorts of conventional stereotypes seen in something like High School Musical or Fame. Lachlan is the standard nerd boy, Nerys the standard nerd girl, and Rob the standard girl-mad boy. Jay is much more complicated, rejecting the conventional tall poppies Lachlan and Nerys but showing real originality and maturity in how she plays with the Shakespeare, even though Rob is her man in the end. I think Shakespeare had the same problem in Much Ado – Claudio and Hero never match Beatrice and Benedick – but Statespeare needs much stronger characters and a darker side to work as an adult drama, particularly because the teenagers do perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The acting here is very good, but Shakespeare’s characters stand out as real against even Jay, and especially against Rob, Nerys and Lachlan. Shakespeare is the writer who is an eye-opener, not Nelle Lee, yet.
Back in my ex-drama teacher’s role, I might still question whether school students deserve better characterisation and complexity of relationships (I don’t remember a real Lachlan, Nerys or Rob among my 20 years’ worth of senior drama students). But the educational purpose surely focussed on exposing students, probably in about Year 10, to Shakespeare’s work in a form that they would find enjoyable. This works.
From a Year 10 perspective, the play makes fun of the Year 12 drama students but also shows them growing up. It also shows professional actors playing Shakespeare in a variety of ways which demonstrates very clearly how theatre is action, not just boring old-fashioned words. Even the similarities to High School Musical work here to tune into ordinary students doing Shakespeare in an English class.
The up-to-date dialogue between the characters outside the Shakespeare scenes obviously kept up the interest of the younger members of The Q audience, and, I suspect, the hilarity and the eye-opening among Year 10s would be highly emotional. I can see how easily students would be drawn into talk about Jay, about how the characters’ relationships in real life today are like Shakespeare’s experiences 400 years ago. Probably the key to this talk would be the murder of Desdemona scene, played “straight” with a submissive Desdemona accepting death and then, by Jay, as a woman pissed off by Othello’s cruelty who storms off in a flurry of swearing.
This also opens up for drama students the real work of experimenting with different ways of presenting scenes, not just in Shakespeare but in any drama. The trick at high school is to start where the students are – perhaps at High School Musical – and shift them up towards adulthood. An important point in Statespeare is that the apparently corny drama teacher who does an audience warm-up at the beginning deliberately leaves her students to get on with the work on their own. Of course, in fact, she has already done lots of guiding and setting up expectations, for these Year 12s over perhaps several years, and she knows that to put the less academic (even anti-academic) pair in with the nerds and leave them to discover how to come up with the goods will force the conventional to become more original. Though not many of the Year 10s will recognise this aspect of the play, there is a message there for the teachers who supervise them.
So my conclusion is that shake & stir theatre can justifiably build a reputation performing this entertaining and engaging work for the general public, but I hope this doesn’t mean they reduce their school-based performances where the work is of most value.