Women and Shakespeare

S1:E3:Chris Bush on adapting A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pericles

June 23, 2020 Varsha Panjwani Season 1 Episode 3
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E3:Chris Bush on adapting A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pericles
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Chris Bush's Shakespeare-based community musical plays, Dream and Pericles. We also talk about democratizing Shakespeare through community theatre. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Ms Chris Bush
Producer: Ms Kelly Payne
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Varsha:

Welcome to women Shakespeare. I'm your host, dr. Varsha Panjwani And today I want you to think about what community means to you for an earlier generation. It was something perhaps that they belonged to through accident of birth and place, but in a world where we choose our own communities, it has come to signal differently. I asked a lot of people what belonging to a community meant to them. And they mentioned friendship, shared goals, joint ownership of ideas and values activism. They described communities as nerve centers. It was about showing up for each other. Acceptance, something that keeps you connected to the world around you or keeps you connected to yourself. These communities that they were describing were sometimes in person sometimes online. Sometimes they will very diverse, sometimes not so much, maybe something of longstanding, something of a very short duration, like the people who would clap with you and the people who would kneel by your side. In global lockdown, we have realized how much of our wellbeing is related to our sense of belonging to these communities. A theater that brings together different communities in a shared experience is therefore precious. If communities need their theaters, then in the post COVID-19 world, it is the theaters that need their communities. So please spare a thought for the community theaters and the struggles that they are facing at this time. Do anything you can to help keep them alive. With this plea in mind, I'm thrilled to introduce this month's guest Chris Bush. She has won multiple awards for her plays which range from the latest hit Faustus to small and large scale musicals. But before you start getting any stereotypical ideas, her musicals are delightfully political pieces such as. Tony Blair, the musical and The Asassination of Katie Hopkins. In this episode, however, we will be talking about her large scale community theater adaptations of Shakespeare's. plays The episode was recorded in my classroom and at various points, you will witness the spontaneous burst of enthusiasm from my students, despite the fact that they were trying to be very quiet for this recording. You're very welcome here, Chris.

Chris:

Thanks for having me.

Varsha:

When did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Chris:

I think probably it was a Midsummer night's dream and it would have been at the crucible in Sheffield where I grew up. If I remember correctly, it was, there was a small scale studio sort of really stripped back A Midsummer Nights Dream which was just. Genuinely very funny and very silly and very accessible.

Varsha:

And so from your introduction to Midsummer night's dream at the crucible, you returned to your own Midsummer night's dream at the crucible. I think that's so, so lovely. Tell us a little bit more about your phenomenal, A Midsummer night's dream for the Sheffield. People's theater. That's a different arm.

Chris:

Yes. So the Sheffield people's theater are the community non-professional arm Arm of the, uh, Sheffield theaters, which operate the Crucible and the Lyceum and the studio, and are the biggest producer of theater in the UK, outside of London. They've really been. Leading the way nationally, in terms of large scale community engagement for a number of years now, it's a very sort of open audition process and they do these large scale shows every year on the main stage of the crucible, which seats give or take a thousand people where they will work with a company of non professional actors drawn locally from anywhere between 75 to about 150 people, depending on the scale of the show.

Varsha:

So how many actors did your show have roughly

Chris:

in dream? I think that was slightly sort of the second one that I did in the Sheffield Mysteries I know had 91. I think this was slightly smaller. I think this was about 83, something like that, a slightly smaller than that...a mere 83 It was always one of my big insistances that everyone has a moment where if they weren't there, they'd be missed And that felt Integral to the nature of the show.

Varsha:

Yeah. So at least 83 individual moments, not a challenge at all. I want to go back to the very first time that you gave a lecture to my students and you opened by saying, and I'm going to quote you here. You said, if you ever find yourself in the position of rewriting a Shakespeare text, the first question you might legitimately ask yourself is. Why So I am legitimately, asking you why Shakespeare?

Chris:

I think it's a two part question in that. Why would you choose Shakespeare above all the other pieces in the world, including new pieces that you might write and then the second part being well, if you are choosing Shakespeare, why aren't you just doing the Shakespeare as written and leaving it alone? Why Shakespeare in a community setting? I think. There's something really interesting about sort of the agency going on and who we entrust with cultural heritage, um, rightly or wrongly Shakespeare is seen as very much at the sort of top of that pyramid He is still exalted as being, you know, t he finest writer of the English language, certainly in, in theater. Um, it's what we all aspire to. And because of that, I think it can be seen as something that's quite elitist and quite inaccessible, and should only be done by the likes of Sir Ian McKellen Dame, Judi, Dench, et cetera, et cetera. And like great that they do it. But also when you take that work and you put it into a community context, I think a lot of it is about demystifying it and about saying no, actually this is as much for you as it is for. Anybody else. So you hand over a building, you hand over these classic canonical works and it's about democratizing Shakespeare through that theater, I guess. And then I think the second part as to why you would then muck around with it is to do with the logistics of what that project wants to serve. So certainly with something like dream and what don't really have a protagonist, you already have a handful of great parts You have your various pairs of lovers and you have your mechanicals and you have whatever. So you've got easily, a dozen or so Good meaty parts. But if you then want to do something that can engage 80 people, rather than 12 speaking, and then a whole, bunch of spear carriers then you need to start thinking more cleverly about how can you rework a text so that it can feel again, democratically spread amongst the company. How can you. Demystify some of the language potentially where relevant, how can you make it feel to specifically speaking to a certain time and place?

Varsha:

I actually want to pick up on some of the things that you said. One is very much who is trusted with Shakespeare and who can own Shakespeare. And that brings in the question of language. So. I mean, we tend to be precious about Shakespeare's language in this country and sometimes fetishize it as well. And at other times it is argued that it is difficult and it puts people off. And, um, especially people who don't have access to libraries and teachers of Shakespeare. But then if we say modernize or simplify the language of Shakespeare, Are we actually saying that these community theater people are not able to articulate Shakespeare? Um, so you see the double bind there. Should we make it more accessible, but in doing so, are we actually saying that these actors cannot speak Shakespeare? And that is why we're. Modernizing it

Chris:

I don't think that it's about saying that they cant but I think it's about going, what's the most effective way to tell this story. And also, I don't think you can set rules about when doing a community adaptation. You should approach your text in such and such way, because obviously all communities are totally different and youll work with community companies who might have been making work for years and years and years, and have a real rich understanding as do The expected audience who might come along to support them. And therefore you could go actually, that even the most knotty and complex bits of language would be fine. You might be working with a company who have a visual medium, never set foot in a theatre before and equally. Most of the audience might be first time. theatre goers And that's not to speak down to them, but I think that then makes logistical choices about how you might approach language differently. Also, I think there's a sort of reverence that we treat Shakespeare with, which actually isn't helpful. I think I approach Shakespeare or any kind of classic text with. A great deal of love and a great deal of irreverence. And I think that's the sort of most useful way for me anyway, to start tackling it because, you know, as a relatively educated woman who sort of knows a little bit about such things. I can go and see a, you know, Shakespeare at the globe or at the RSC or at the national or whatever, being done by the finest actors in this country. And I maybe even with texts, I've read before and huge chunks of language. will still totally wash over me. I get the rough gist by switched off because it came like a wall of text. If I'm finding that in like huge professional productions. I mean, maybe that's just my attention span. Maybe that's my fault and I should try harder, but I don't think it is just me.

Varsha:

Yeah. And thank you for reminding us both that we might not acknowledge, but we also struggle with Shakespeare's language and also that there are many types of community theaters. Some, as you said, would be dealing with these classic texts for a while and some not, but I want to come back to one of the other things you said that you wanted to have a classic text like Shakespeare, but you also wanted. Uh, it to be Sheffield, uh people's story. And I think you did it really beautifully with the setting of your reworking because you put it in, I believe a teaching hospital in Sheffield.

Chris:

Yes. Felt like a really useful setting because illness can be this great leveller that actually a large hospital is a space where. Absolutely anyone from any walk of life could legitimately turn up where you can have Kings and peasants in theory, in the same Accident emergency ward and Northern General is the a name of a teaching hospital in Sheffield which sits upon a Hill? It's absolutely massive. And I would say that almost everyone in the city of half a million people give or take. will have had some interaction with, with that place. At some point you might have been born there. You might have been treated there. You might have visited a friend there, so it has a sort of landmark status within the city that's quite useful. And then specifically in terms of a dream. So it seemed like a really nice. Way of justifying magic love potion was this idea that anyone sock on right. Sort of dose of morphine can fall in love with the first person to walk through the door. And so this became our structural intervention. So yeah, our love potion essentially became very potent painkillers and then we had Oberon and Titania became dr. OBrian and Tatiana who was our head of surgery. head of medicine who are both competing over the best and brightest, new Indian medical student, who was arrived, to train there who they both want to recruit to their specialism, and, and, yeah, and just this any way. So anybody could call to walk through the doors at any given time, felt like a useful. Place to exist. in

Varsha:

So both contributing to the world of the play and the world of the players as well, Could I ask you a little bit more about the fact that you imported a lot of characters from other Shakespeare's plays as well.

Chris:

Yeah. So this was like another both fun and sacrilegious big intervention that we made was that we used a Midsummer night's dream as the overarching structure of the play So then we would continually cut to mostly standalone scenes in different rooms, different wards, different parts of the hospital, which would be populated by as many different Shakespearian lovers from different plays as we could fit in. So we had a. Romeo and Juliet being, uh, rushed in having taken an overdose and actually sort of having a happy ending in this version. We had a Antony and Cleopatra who a elderly couple now on their respectively fifth on third marriages who had met on a Nile cruise and enjoying their golden years. Together. We had them. We sort of looked at familial with that as well as Prospero and Miranda moment where Prospero is old and frail and is being taken home and knows that he sort of doesn't have all that long left. Um, and it was a way of peppering in, all these little cameos as a very practical way to give these people better parts. But also I guess, as a way to. draw a Thread between all these different essentially love stories.

Varsha:

So it's a very practical solution, but it also tells us, okay, what might be the difference between say Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet as well. But who do you expect? Uh, the audience for these shows is would they be familiar enough with all the plays of Shakespeare to enjoy playing? Let's see which character, this corresponds to,

Chris:

um, I wanted them to feel almost a bit like Easter eggs in the, if you came in with. No prior knowledge at all, there might be bits that were a bit confusing. It might be the odd moment where you go. I don't really know why we've had the scene for the last five minutes and now we're back in something. I can follow it, but more or less you would, you know, hopefully for the Sunday right here, everything else stands up. Then they were enjoyable moments in and of themselves. And then if you have a sort of little bit of knowledge, then. You might pick up on a few and if you're Shakespearean expert you might see a few more. But again, because I was expecting my audience to be for the most part quite a lot of first-time theatre goers not necessarily with a huge amount of Shakespearean knowledge. We stuck to the better known ones in that scenario as well. So we were looking at, yeah, so starting with dream. Romeo and Juliet sort of enough of Antony and Cleopatra that you only really need to know the names, Antony and Cleopatra. A bit of Rosalind in the forest, a little bit of Beatrice and Benedict, but not doing a Coriolanus not doing a Timon of Athens, not doing a. Merry Wives of Windsor Or anything that felt a little bit obscure really, which was a deliberate choice, not just a gap in my scholarship.

Varsha:

I want to talk about the lyricism. You said that you wanted to imbue it with a different sort of lyricism. And I think you really did, but tell us a little bit more about it.

Chris:

We made the, made the choice for the most part, we weren't going to use verse. We were going to use relatively contemporary naturalistic dialogue, mostly in a Sheffield dialects, which was again to do with the idea of ownership and something that felt right in the mouth of the people who were again saying it. But then again, we wanted to use verse significantly to the point of which people slipped into traditional iambic Pentameter was very clearly. When they were under the influence of the love potion. So suddenly lights would go pink and they would go into this very slightly pat of slightly di dum di dum di dum way of expressing love in a way that felt like a very distinct mode and a choice of going oh Now, I understand that I'm in like the language of. Love and the language of sort of declarative expressions, but then also of trying to draw those lines between the original text and what I was doing with it. Yes. I'll do a little quote from it. So as we will all know in the end of Shakespeare's dream, we get Pucks speech, addressing the audience and apologizing. If we shadows have offended/Think but this and all this mended/ That you have, but slumbered here. While these visions did appear./ And this weak an idle theme,/No more yielding, but a dream and in our version Puck is this impish pharmacologist who has been responsible for spreading a lot of this sorts of mischief. And we have a kind of reveal at the end where it's ...spoilers...that perhaps everything that we've witnessed over the last two hours, which has gone fully sort of much mogic realism at this point and has got quite strange and surreal has only existed in the minds of hippolyta who has fallen asleep in and while waiting to be seen, having injured herself. And so everything has just been sort of imagined around her. So again, our Puck addresses the audience at the final moments of the show, acknowledging this it was all a dream trope and says: if this reveal offends or cheating seems to where you can find the whole night was a dream and all that came before it was make-believe. It never was our purpose to deceive, but as anyone will tell you in our trade, each one of us from all our dreams is made or that we are. And all we yearn to be always begins in slumbering fantasy. In sleep. We like the sparkles, the fires that help us chase our waking heart's desires. I'm so inspired by, on alternate flight. We do by day, those things we drempt by night. So now, as we release you to your beds with tales of love and longing in your heads, I wish you well. And on our evenings theme, good night, my friends and sleep, the chance to dream.

Varsha:

I really love how you were playing with Shakespeare's language by using it, but also slightly mocking it as well. So now I want to ask you about something that bothers me about Midsummer Night's Dream a lot, and what I get to really unsettled by to see Titania being manipulated into intimacy with an ass headed bottom by Oberon to me. This moment in a Midsummer night's dream, which is not talked about that much seems like Taming of the Shrew at a Celestial levelDid it bother you? Did you skirt around it? What happened?

Chris:

Yeah, I mean, I think almost it goes beyond that moment in that the structural engine of Midsummer Nights Dream revolves around people being in nonconsensual relationships essentially until they gradually figure themselves out by the end of it. Um, which, yeah, which does feel like a, um, something that needs our attention, our concern, I think so it's about the level of agency that Titania has actually feels like the crucial thing, because I think that there are ways of playing it, which is clearly not the intent of the original. So you are going against it where actually you can play the potion as the excuse. And actually you can play a fully compos mentis Titania who is frustrated with a on and off lover Oberon and actually quite fancies the idea of, Oh yeah, no, I'm definitely under the influence of a love potion. Oh, ive got to go in like, shag this honky donkey, man, you know, which depending on how you set that up and how you play it, you know, can be a more appealing choice from her end than others. We did something slightly different in, in our version in that it was very clear that this was never a, a consummated relationship and it was no more. Yeah, the jeopardy was, was removed, which is, I think something that I massively struggle with it. A lot of, both for Shakespearian comedy and tragedies of sort of plot that revolves around manipulative sex.

Varsha:

I think again..Yeah. So it bothers me that it is approached uncritically so many times, so, but yes, thank you for outlining the various ways around it as well. I want to now turn to your other Shakespeare that you reworked for the national theaters, community theater and wait for it...it was Pericles why Pericles

Chris:

So I broke all my rules about accessible Shakespeare in a community setting I mean, we went, we went around the houses a little bit and actually rather than doing something very well known, we landed on Pericles in a way it's obscurity then became a useful excuse for the level of textual intervention that is required because actually it's not so beloved. It's not so well known. It is a bit of a mess of a text So it's got to like the last. Basically you only really do Pericles for the final scene. Cause it's got a great reunion scene, which is arguably one of the best things that he wrote. And it's beautiful. And there's a lots of nonsense that comes before that. And you know, this quite fun nonsense, but again,

Varsha:

I love it I love it for its Hopping around the whole world.

Chris:

Yes. And this is another of the great reasons why it worked for us, um, is yes, basically for those of you who are less familiar with Pericles is a series of an inexplicable shipwrecks, but this is the entire plot of Pericles He keeps on getting shipwrecked and washed from sort of one city to the other, but basically He has to leave his home because he is being persued by a murderous King travels around various different islands in and around the Mediterranean, which basically means there are four or five, maybe very distinct worlds, which is a, which is great when you're just trying to do huge numbers stuff. Because every time you turn up in a new place, you can experience an entirely different community. And our Pericles very much became a story of home what home means and this idea of home being, not a physical place, but the people who surround you. So we have this dialogue in the end about being home is not the country of your birth or the house you grew up in home is the one who leaves the lights on and wont sleep until they hear the door click, which very much felt like it was the right story for, to do with a huge community ensemble. So we had eight different partner organizations from around London, um, targeting, uh, marginalized and underrepresented groups who really had very, very little experience in the whole of a theater in general. We had groups who worked with people whod experienced homelessness. We had elderly people, at the risk of isolation. Um, we had young carers, we have a real, very, very diverse very, uh, Sort of representing Londson as a whole and kind of London that we don't always see and to tell a story about home and acknowledge that home is something that's quite difficult for a lot of people, but isn't always neat and tidy that does also involve loss and does involve pain felt like a really powerful thing. And again, we can, we have this, um, this refrain that became the lyric in the final song, which was this idea of, I am my own way home. And we had a moment at the end of the show, large group of members of the company would come through and speak this phrase. I am my own way home in their own native languages. And over the course of the company of an excess of 200 people, we must've had dozens and dozens, probably at least I would say 50 different languages spoke within that. So what sort of starts up one by one and then builds up and becomes a source of wall of sound and felt like a real statement of intent of ownership of, um, what the National Theater is for what that project was for in its best days. And God, it doesn't feel like it now, but what it feels like the country could be for coming together In a sense of belonging.

Varsha:

I love it because again, like, um, Sheffield, this was so much about the play. It is enriching the play itself because of course Pericles goes around and learns from these different communities, but it is also in a sense so much about London, where we have such a shifting population and so many languages being spoken as well. When you do these. So do you sit with the text or once you've read it, you forget it and come back to it.

Chris:

I feel like I probably, yeah. I probably sit with it to begin with and then put it aside and then do most of my drafting. And then, I mean, it was gonna cause again, cause they were different because dream was very much was a, was a bigger intervention in the, all the language was new and we had all these other characters where as, Pericles um, was over in the original text Cause there was a sort of, there was a lot of haggling kind of went on with the National Theatre you know, uh, absolutely fine way of sorts of going. How much of the Shakespeare in terms of the actual language, the actual words do I need to use or where you start to repurpose the language and a slightly more piecemeal ways. Theres a moment where has to leave his baby Marina behind. Not at all justified reasons in the original, again, it needs some work on his motivation but he leaves it behind. And we had this moment where he sort of sings her a lullaby before he goes, which started with hush. Now my Marina, my mistress, no tears, a terrible child bed. has thou had my dear A blusterous birth under sulfurous skies, rumbled a thunderous lullaby, and it becomes this lovely lullaby and all those individual snippets of phrases of language. So hush now my Marina and my mistress No tears, terrible child-bed, blusterous birth sulfurous sky. These are all phrases that exist with mostly within. I think that exact scene when he's talking to a nurse and saying, you take her now and leaves her behind, but it was a way of pulling all those things together and going, okay, I can take the most beautiful phrases from this and try and get them into a lyric, which felt like another way of serving the language.

Varsha:

So do you think that music and songs work naturally with Shakespeare?

Chris:

I think so. I mean, I'm just sort of all for putting songs in anything, to be fair so

Varsha:

working on Bollywood and Shakespeare, I'm totally with you on that.

Chris:

Why not get in the dance routine. We had cheerleaders and we had a scar band of pirates we had all sorts in Pericles It was great. I mean, for a start the music is all about emotional connections that you can do so much more with, with, you know, four bars of music to convey emotion than you can in a whole soliloquy. Obviously you've got a verse structure there already so that can really lend itself to the music. And again, I think it just gives you another texture.

Varsha:

Right. And so with everything that you've talked about, I keep coming back to this really compelling essay and it's by professor Douglas Lanier Shakespearean Rhizomatics Adaptation, Ethics and Value, and he argues very strongly against this hierarchy that privileges Shakespeare's. Original text, whatever original might mean above the adaptations.

Chris:

I think for me the critical thing is just that there's space for all of it, actually. So it's not about saying every Shakespeare needs to be fundamentally rewritten in order to make it accessible for a new audience. I don't think that's the case. There is value in doing doublet and hose and coldpiece Shakespeare that says all the words in the right order if that's your bag, it's just about saying that's not the right way to do it. That was just a way to do it as it is the version that turns it on its head and does something very different in terms of its approach to the language, but also in terms of its approach to its politics, its characterization setting or anything else.

Varsha:

So what you're saying is that there's space for all of it, but definitely the hierarchy needs to be reevaluated.

Chris:

I'd say, say.

Varsha:

Thank you so much. That was Chris Bush talking about A Midsummer Night's dream, Pericles, and about democratizing Shakespeare and the pleasures of sharing cultural heritages through community theater. Next month, we have a real treat for you a guest ho has been one of the key figures in bringing practitioners and academics into closer contact in the UK, we are really excited that she's the brand new vice president of the Shakespeare Association of America. She is,

Farah:

Hello this is Farah Karim-Cooper and you're listening to women and Shakespeare.

Varsha:

So dear listeners adieu adieu adieu remember to tune in to Women Shakespeare streaming at Apple and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com until then keep shattering those glass ceilings.