Internet Shakespeare Editions

Australianness in Shakespeare production

The notion of Australian Shakespeare raises questions about identity and appropriation, about the nature of text and of reading text, which the chapters in this volume address from a variety of theoretical and methodological positions. Because Shakespeare has been a cultural icon from the beginning of professional theatre in this country, the way in which he has been read, on the page or the stage, is a useful index of the self-image of Australian readers; or, to put it another way, although even iconic images are unstable in representation and meaning, the act of reading retains its cultural significance. Thus the issue of Australianness, which is crucial to cultural analysis and cannot be separated from cultural context, is current throughout the volume: on Australian, as on other, stages, the style of Shakespearean production is a sign of identity.

In his overview of the relationship between Shakespearean production and Australian culture, Richard Waterhouse pays special attention to the sacralising of the Shakespearean text, a process of claiming Shakespeare for high culture, and this is a point of departure for the many other modes of appropriation discussed in later chapters. Waterhouse argues that, whilst in the second half of the nineteenth century Shakespeare remained a popular playwright in rural Australia, in the capitals he was sacralised as high and low culture were polarised, with a consequent decrease in audiences and in frequency of performance.

Whatever the attitudes of late-nineteenth-century writers to the Shakespearean text, the pictorial mode of Shakespearean production persisted, attesting to a continuing middle-class demand for the kind of Shakespeare where scenery, dancing, music, limelight-seeking actor-managers and a host of 'extras' took precedence over the text. Theatre practitioners have always instinctively known something that literary critics seem to have grasped only under the influence of post-structuralist, and especially reader response, theories: that there is a multiplicity of 'viable' readings of any work of art or performance, and that any reading is a process of adapting to the here and now that depends upon the inherent instability of the text. What is apparent is an abiding middle-class notion of entertainment that overwhelms any sense of Shakespeare as a special case, or indeed of Australia as a special place. Yet even in the earliest professional theatre there was a sense of Shakespeare's importance, as Elizabeth Webby makes clear. Shakespeare's literary and dramatic place was established and his plays were among the most frequently performed; certain speeches were widely known and parodied; Shakespeare's popularity was evident at the booksellers' and in the burlesques and parodies that often preceded productions and depended only on audiences' basic knowledge of plot and outcome. If local audiences were generally more receptive to contemporary plays, melodrama and comedy in particular, cultural capital could nevertheless be extracted from Shakespeare: leading tragic parts were considered proving roles for 'serious' actors and reviewers evinced their assumptions about the 'proper' way of presenting Shakespeare, whereby actors' accent and intonation reflected the class structure of contemporary society.

Writing about the Melbourne stage in the following (1850s and 1860s and in the general cultural context of tragedians' claim to public as well as professional eminence, Harold Love pinpoints Melburnian cultural issues of the day and indicates how even the tragedian's imperialist baggage was subject to colonial appropriation. If the famous 1867 'Hamlet controversy' demonstrated Melbourne's interest in the 'right' interpretation of a role that was more frequently performed there than any other in the 1860s, audiences were self-assured enough to bestow their favour on exponents regardless of their London reputations. Melbourne, riven by religious sectarianism, responded eagerly to the tragedian's shamanistic role as ethical mentor and priest of Shakespeare-worship. The tragedian's mode and message were, of course, essentially patriarchal, but the shortage of women in Melbourne meant that leading ladies in Shakespeare were subjected to an especially relentless male gaze. Janette Gordon-Clark considers the social, theatrical and specifically Australian conditions in the period 1855--88 under which Fanny Cathcart, Louisa Cleveland and the 'home-grown' Essie Jenyns pursued the aspirations and scope of leading lady, tragedienne and female star respectively.

Essie Jenyns was directly influenced by the visiting American actor Louise Pomeroy, and for Douglas McDermott the 1880s is a crucial period for changes in consciousness about national and cultural identity, in which visiting American performers played a partly-ironic role by offering alternative ways of performing Shakespeare to the fairly uniform, if largely provincial, British one. Some thirty per cent of Shakespeare roles on Australian stages in the 1880s were performed by visiting American actors, and if Pomeroy was influential, she also adapted to local expectations, modifying over the course of a year her American accent, which, to some Australian ears, sounded inappropriate in Shakespeare.

Audience expectation, as distinct from -- but in relation to -- the expectations of touring actor-managers, is also a crucial issue in cultural terms, and in the nineteenth century it is perhaps the only distinct sign of Australianness in professional productions of Shakespeare, which remained predominantly imported. Until the turn of the twentieth century, touring actor-managers made little attempt to differentiate between the needs of India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. By 1900, however, Alfred Dampier was discriminating between Australian cities in his choice of repertoire, as did Oscar Asche in his three tours between 1909 and 1924. Asche also offered world premieres of some of his Shakespeare productions in Australia, a compliment predicated on worthy theatres and worthy audiences (see Richard Madelaine's chapter). If the chief aspiration of Australians was still to provincial status within the Empire, there were already signs of independent judgment in the audiences of Melbourne and Sydney. Asche was at pains to explain points of interpretation, but there was some local resistance to London authority, and Sydney reviewers were adamant about local audiences' expectations of grand-scale production. By the 1920s, audiences in Melbourne and Sydney were not routinely grateful for the efforts of touring companies, and Laurence Olivier noticed in 1948 that audience enthusiasm was inversely proportionate to the size and sophistication of the city.

If Asche's Australian birth seems to account for his comparative awareness of local conditions, by the time of his final tour in 1922--4 he was certainly out of touch with changing audience expectations. This failure cannot simply be attributed to his being based in London, since his home-based Australian rival at the time, Allan Wilkie, eventually foundered on the same rock (see John Golder's chapter). But financial considerations were an important factor in audience resistance: Wilkie, who had a price advantage over Asche when his production style was simpler, embraced a new kind of pictorialism after the calamitous fire of 1926 destroyed so much of his company's property, and the company ceased to be financially viable at the onset of the Depression. Wilkie, for all his rejection of Asche's style as old-fashioned and anti-textual, exhibited in each phase of his own work many of the habits of the imperialistic nineteenth-century actor-manager, including cutting the text. His scholarly concern for textual authenticity was overshadowed by a paternalism that bowdlerised sexual references and censored violence, producing 'purified' texts for the benefit of the broader community as well as of the schoolchildren to whom he offered reduced ticket-prices.

The connection between school syllabuses and the economics of Shakespeare production is one also discussed by Alan Brissenden, Bill Dunstone and Richard Fotheringham, who all explore the issue of regional identity in the localisation of Shakespeare. Brissenden considers Adelaide, where professional theatre declined with the state economy, but touring companies visited and amateur talent flourished in Shakespeare from the 1920s, nurturing actors and directors who subsequently achieved international, as well as local, professional success (Robert Helpmann, Keith Michell, Ron Haddrick and Edwin Hodgeman among them). The South Australian Theatre Company was founded in 1965 and went on to offer major Shakespeares directed by Jim Sharman, Neil Armfield, John Gaden and Gale Edwards, but amateur theatre has been important in Adelaide in the absence of commercial 'legitimate' theatre, and has been fostered by an intellectual tradition stemming from the state's foundation as well as by the Festival of Arts, business support and the compact nature of the city itself.

The relationship between amateur and professional Shakespeare in Perth is more problematic, in Dunstone's view. Wilson Barrett's tour of 1898, welcomed in Perth as a sign of the city's arrival on the Empire's theatrical circuit, sidelined local amateur theatre, because local people wanted authentic Britishness, and professional productions entrenched the division between British values and colonial culture, rendering amateur theatre the inauthentic 'other'. Shakespearean performances embodied colonial anxieties about historical and racial identity and maintained class thresholds and proprieties, and until the 1950s London remained the arbiter of practice. However, from the early thirties there was a shift towards local 'little' theatres and some emphasis on regional identity, as exemplified in the outdoor productions of Molly Ick, a local actor who had worked with Wilkie and founded the Shakespeare Society.

The importance of the post-war years in the development of Australian Shakespeare is emphasised by Penny Gay. John Alden not only represented a local version of the glamour style of the time, but insisted (like Asche and Wilkie before him) that Shakespeare had to entertain as well as instruct. Alden was probably too dependent on the British model for the changing taste, and growing national consciousness, of the times -- his Measure for Measure coincided with the Oliviers' 1948 Old Vic tour -- but the success of his tours gave impetus to the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, which, from 1954 to 1961, was responsible for major productions of Shakespeare, both imported and local.

The new attitudes of the fifties indicated that the criterion of 'authenticity' in Australian Shakespeare performance had shifted away from Britishness. Dunstone sees the movement in Perth as one towards historicised notions of localised 'Elizabethan' performance. The New Fortune Theatre provided a convenient site, but committed directors spread the practice, notably Philip Parsons and two of his students, Rex Cramphorn and, later, Wayne Harrison. As late as the seventies and eighties, their directorial experiments were, in one sense, still battling the vestiges of the pictorialism that had characterised Alden's productions. They insisted on returning to Quarto and Folio texts (in the belief that their punctuation is designed for the actor), and on the fundamental importance of the rehearsal process and of spatial relationships on a 'bare' stage. Mark Minchinton examines Cramphorn's four productions of Measure for Measure between 1973 and 1988, as a key to the work of one of Australia's most innovative directors, who focused on problematic or rarely-produced texts, and preferred to work with small ensembles. Believing that classical texts pose political, ethical and performance questions that necessitate continual revisiting, Cramphorn returned to one of Shakespeare's more challenging texts in cerebral productions of great clarity. Whilst Cramphorn fantasised about making his audiences sit an examination before being allowed to watch, the Elizabethan experiments of Parsons and Harrison for Dramaturgical Services Inc. were more welcoming of their audiences in their aim of creating theatre out of a collaborative act of imagination. John Senczuk writes about the production, between 1987 and 1992, of five Shakespeare texts, some with all-male casts, and about Parsons' preference for daylight performance and for emphasising the confrontational and choreographic patterns of Elizabethan staging.

The DSI experiments had to make some concessions to commercial profitability, on occasion by meeting the requirements of New South Wales high school syllabuses. In Queensland, the conjunction of schoolchildren and performances of Shakespeare has been less happy, as Richard Fotheringham observes in a regional survey which also offers a cultural-economic approach to the slippery cultural artefact that Shakespeare has become. As in Perth, Shakespeare was regarded in Brisbane as a cultural-economic indicator of the city's sophistication; and as in Adelaide, amateur companies demonstrated their 'coming of age' by performing the Bard. From 1886 to 1943 Shakespeare was infrequently performed in Brisbane, with the exception of visits by Wilkie's company (which in the twenties offered a 'Shakespeare Week' for schoolchildren). Alden visited in 1952. Shakespeare was featuring on secondary school syllabuses around Australia by the 1920s, [Note 8] and the Queensland Theatre Company had educational objectives imposed upon it. However, Shakespeare was seldom good box-office, students believing that straightforward productions are boring or incomprehensible unless they involve a nude scene, and reduced-priced student tickets are a financial liability for a theatre company. Whilst in 1923 Wilkie's company gained a rail concession of 50 per cent from the Queensland government (probably the first indirect subsidy for theatre in the Empire), by the end of the century, those companies centrally concerned with Shakespeare, such as the Bell Shakespeare Company and Brisbane's Grin and Tonic, were unsure of long-term subsidies. [Note 9] Yet government subsidy for the arts is now at record levels: the reluctance to pay out for Shakespeare seems to reflect a suspicion that Shakespeare productions are 'neo-colonial', and to indicate that Shakespeare as a cultural artefact has been moved away from the educational and cultural centre.

Perhaps the actor-director whose name today most readily spells Shakespeare in the Australian public mind is John Bell, and in the concluding chapter Adrian Kiernander directly addresses the issue of Australianness in the context of Bell's work over amore than thirty years. For Kiernander, the origins of the Australianness of the Bell Shakespeare are to be found at the early Nimrod Theatre Company, which Bell and Ken Horler founded in 1970 and where Richard Wherrett also worked. There, Bell was moving, particularly in several of the popular comedies, towards larrikin productions, with his characteristic blend of 'energy, colour and a certain felicitous vulgarity'. [Note 10]

The question of Australianness in terms of style of production is, of course, broader in both historical and regional terms. Cramphorn insisted on the Australianness of all original productions done in Australia by and for Australians, and this is a good starting-point. But what does 'by Australians' mean? If work by or featuring indigenous Australians were to be our sole criterion, this history would be brief indeed. Aboriginal Australians have good reasons to be suspicious of the 'ideological work' Shakespeare can be 'made to perform'. [Note 11] On Saturday 27 August 1864, four of the so-called 'last few' Tasmanian Aborigines were taken to the second Hobart performance of Charles Dillon's Hamlet at the Theatre Royal. If we couple this fact, recently uncovered by Rose Gaby, [Note 12] with the likelihood that a volume of Shakespeare's works travelled on board the Endeavour on Cook's first voyage, [Note 13] we may be tempted to argue that the Bard, as icon of the supreme literary achievement of a superior civilisation, has been pressed into the service of a rapacious form of colonisation. [Note 14] Yet the modes of appropriation are multifarious, [Note 15] and in more recent times, Aboriginal actors have found their own uses for Shakespeare. Kelton Pell, Stephen Albert and John Moore played in Twelfth Night (Black Swan, 1991), Gary Cooper was a member of the Bell Company in 1993 and 1994, and Kevin Smith played Caliban in Neil Armfield's post-colonial reading of The Tempest (Belvoir Street, 1994), [Note 16] more recently, Deborah Mailman played Cordelia in Barrie Kosky's Lear (Bell Company, 1998) and Rosalind in Armfield's As You Like It (Belvoir Street, 1999). But the first (and, we believe, to date the only) all-indigenous production of a Shakespeare play was Noël Tovey's A Midsummer Night's Dream, offered as part of Sydney's Festival of the Dreaming in 1997. [Note 17]

The issue of performance as appropriation brings us to the question of how 'for Australians' is to be interpreted. If Alfred Dampier and Oscar Asche were obliged to pay some attention to local needs in their choice of repertoire, [Note 18] and Asche offered world premieres of some of his Shakespeare productions here, Asche still played the London card if local audience members questioned points of interpretation or presentation. Catering for specifically Australian tastes and attitudes scarcely became possible until Australian society claimed post-colonial status: one index of this is the way in which the composition of locally-based Shakespeare touring companies (a phenomenon in themselves) became more Australian. Wilkie, as manager of a 'home-grown' company, resented the invasion of touring companies from abroad like Asche's, but there is a significant difference between the composition of his company and Alden's, all but one of whose members were born here. Just as telling is the difference in composition between Alden's company and Bell's, where the membership has been more fluid and -- equally reflective of current social mix and social attitudes -- has included not only Aboriginal actors but those from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.

Kevin Smith in 1997 Dream
Kevin Smith, who played the Gravedigger in Neil Armfield's 1994 Hamlet and Caliban in his 1995 Tempest, is seen here as Pyramus/Bottom, in Noel Tovey's all-Aboriginal Dream (1997), a production which, with the aid of animation techniques, journeyed back in time from classical Athens to a Dreamtime of ruffs and farthingales. (photo: Tracey Schramm)

In the 1950s, when Alden's Shakespeare tours gave some stimulus to the formation of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the connection between Shakespeare and a putative national theatre prompted questions as to whether Shakespeare could be Australian and whether regional individuality should (or indeed could) be sacrificed to national identity. The focus changed when the national company issue had been resolved, or rather dissolved, and Australian society had begun to grapple with its growing anxiety about the cultural cringe. Penny Gay points to 1964 and John Bell's performance of Henry V in a tent at the Adelaide Festival as the beginnings of a sustained effort towards independent Australian Shakespeare. But, as Bill Dunstone contends, the question of imperial and colonial appropriations of Shakespeare in terms of Australian spaces has been here from the beginning, and has re-surfaced in the outdoor productions which remain part of the Australian Shakespeare scene. In conscious terms, Australian space probably did not become an issue until after the Second World War, but outdoor performance remains connected to the search for identity because outdoor Shakespeare seems to be doubly Australian: a tribute to the climate and to the notion of Shakespeare as 'laid-back' entertainment. Wilkie, in the gardens of Government House, Perth, and the grounds of Sydney Girls' High School, combined notions of entertainment and education with that of outdoor performance in a manner consistent with his imperial cringe; but in the fifties Alden was reflecting the changing national consciousness by exhibiting a more casual approach in his tendency towards broad comedy. Now all the cities have their Shakespeares by the sea or in the park, a recent (and obviously post-colonial) one being the Caribbean Tempest in Sydney's Botanic Gardens in 2000.

Clues such as these are of some help, but the task of defining national style remains notoriously difficult. It has, and has not, much to do with the use of an Australian accent in Shakespeare. It has in terms of the unself-consciousness of speaking thus as an act, or in terms of a more conscious appropriation of an English cultural artefact. But Australian Shakespeare is not merely a matter of accent, and localisation needs to be more broadly defined if the concept is also to make sense historically. If 'authenticity' in Shakespeare production is to be found in cultural localisation, then there were also 'authentic' Australian Shakespeares in the nineteenth century. Even when Australians saw themselves as colonial or provincial British people, they expected their localised cultural needs to be met by the style of Shakespeare production they were offered. This was particularly true of Melbourne and Sydney audiences, more assured of their identity and of their cultural 'rights'. The 'cringe', which notoriously marked the identity-transition towards independent nationhood, had such origins, and was always passive-aggressive. What we now think of as our post-colonial approach appears to be more 'laid-back', a term that is always likely to feature in any assessment of where we are now, and may amount to a casually-subversive attitude. The broader definition of an Australian style is probably best managed in such terms, which may mean an absence of self-consciousness, or perhaps a determination to appear unself-conscious.

Political and social awareness cannot be entirely separated, and it is not surprising that in the Australian Federation, where those accused of crime, though not actors, have to be extradited from one state to another, there is no national theatre. Given that national theatres are a mixed blessing, it is difficult to say whether regional identity is therefore more or less of an issue. But it is certainly an issue, in terms of the existence of state companies as well as in the comparative absence of touring at the beginning of the this century. Of course directors and actors still travel, as do individual members of their audiences, and productions. There has been regular traffic between Melbourne and Sydney, for example: Neil Armfield's Belvoir Street Hamlet (1994) went to the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1995, and in 1997 Simon Phillips' Comedy of Errors went to the Sydney Theatre Company from Melbourne. Glenn Elston's Botanic Gardens productions have been to Sydney each summer throughout the nineties. The Bell Company, however, is a much more obvious exception to the rule of stasis. It also mounts joint productions with state companies, and has of late imported European directors to work with local actors, an expensive exercise mainly subsidised by city festivals. Notable among such enterprises are Steven Berkoff's Coriolanus in 1996 and Michael Bogdanov's Troilus + Cressida in 2000, the latter advertised as having 'nudity and graphic sexual scenes', strategies guaranteed to arouse interest, especially perhaps among Brisbane school students, in a rarely performed play. It is nonetheless difficult to imagine what further incentives might be offered for King John or Timon of Athens.

The Berkoff and Bogdanov productions may have been attempts by the national touring company to sidestep Australian regional differences, and it is instructive to compare their reception in different places. Even between the major cities there are issues of Australian identity, because directorial styles are assessed by audiences and reviewers for their local compatibility. As his Lear demonstrated, Barrie Kosky is not welcome in his native Melbourne, and in Brisbane his name spells refund, but he is comfortable in, and to, Sydney. In earlier days Melbourne and Sydney were at the centre of the Australian theatrical world, but there is a question now as to whether they remain so in the same sense. The matter of regional Shakespearean styles might be compared with the development of regional accents in Australia: they are discernible, but their development has been both altered and inhibited by the availability, through the media and high technology, of foreign models. It may be true that in the case of Shakespeare the American influence is still less strong than the British, despite some Australians' association of the funds and the future with the United States. And the traffic is no longer all one way: possibly in the future a distinctively Australian style will be seen to have an international market in Shakespeare as well as in wearable fashion.

previous next