Frontier Shakespeare and the feeling of ownership

In which I describe a theatre company and production I find fascinating and then go on to consider the conversations around global Shakespeare that emerged in the event at UWA last week. Forgive me for quite a long post. – Pen.

Frontier Shakespeare Image

6 March 2013

Last week we hosted an event at UWA that brought together Shakespeare scholars and practitioners in Western Australia to discuss globalization and the emotional score of cross-cultural performance for actors and audiences under the banner: Frontier Shakespeare. This discussion marked the arrival of Two Gents Productions from London/Harare.

Download the full poster of the event here.

The Two Gents are a London-based theatre company who I first saw perform in Manchester, UK, in 2009. This piece, done by two actors in a small regional theatre to a very small audience, completely blew me away. In the same year, academic writing on this company began appearing and their names were suddenly on the lips of Shakespearean scholars comparing notes at conferences around the country. The vitality of this production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was unlike any other I had seen. Partly, there was a surprise factor. TGoV is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, and whilst it has some extraordinary lyrical passages – and the brilliant scene with the dog which is itself a particularly valuable passage on early modern conceptions of emotion – it is also rather clunky in terms of plot and what you might call ‘characterization’, for want of a less anachronistic term. The story riffs on the very important Renaissance theme of friendship. Two friends from Verona have their friendship tested by travel and amorous encounters. *Spoiler Alert* – Proteus, as his name might strongly suggest, turns out to be fickle and treacherous. He is sent away from Verona, and his love Giulia, by his father, to join his best friend Valentine in Milan. He falls in love with Silvia with a sudden “thunk”. (A wonderful theatrical challenge to stage this coup de foudre). Silvia, however, happens to be his best friend’s betrothed. Proteus betrays Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia to her father, the Duke of Milan, and Valentine is promptly banished. When Silvia goes into the “woods” to find him Proteus follows, fails to woo her and then tries to rape her. Valentine happens to be watching from behind a tree (stage pillar supporting the canopy) and is furious. He is furious for, oh look, at least 11 lines, and then forgives his friend. As a sign of his forgiveness he ‘gives’ him Silvia. Proteus’ true love, Giulia, has of course been present all along, hidden behind the other tree (stage pillar supporting the canopy), disguised as his male servant Sebastian. (Does any of this sound familiar yet?) She returns Proteus’ ring and he is overcome with remorse. The two friends agree to marry the  ‘right’ women. Disclaimer- I may have streamlined this somewhat. I’m sure you are wondering where the dog fits in, so I suggest you read it, or even better go and see the Two Gents production before the Australian tour ends. (See website for details).

Two Gents Productions. 2012.

The Royal Shakespeare Company did a production of this play in 2005, but it is staged very rarely. When it is, the attempt to ‘psychologize’ these characters, or to tell the story through lavish sets and a period concept, tends to over-egg what is a simple, fleet, funny, patchily lyrical, and in terms of gender politics, highly problematic play. The Two Gents approach, then, in which actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu take on all fifteen characters and the dog (they cut one servant), is a dynamic, fast-paced rendering of this story that both exposes its threadbare characterization and clunky plot and scene changes, whilst simultaneously underscoring it with an extraordinary and touching sense of humanity. This is found in the vitality of the friendship that is also the vitality of the working relationship between the two actors on-stage. But it is also found in the detailed care of the scene between Launce and his dog (played by Munyevu). And in the witty, arch, playful, wise and plangent presentation of the female characters Giulia, her maid Lucetta, and Silvia. The production concludes with a tableaux of the two women who have been signed up to marry these friends despite their rough treatment, holding each other in poignant silence.

What is more significant even than these staging choices is the context of the actor / audience relationship in this production. These performances are done with the house lights on. A performance style so unusual that in a blog review of a recent performance in Wollongong the author admitted she had thought this was some technical mistake. [Do read this review by the way, it’s a wonderful evocation of the mastery of the Gents’ production of Hamlet].

The effect of doing theatre with the lights on cannot be underestimated. The relationship of the audience to the performance is recalibrated instantly and entirely. How you respond, behave, feel, is suddenly part of the performance in a way that is cannot be in a darkened auditorium. There is a different ethical relationship created between actor and audience. (This difference has been described by another performance scholar, Nicholas Ridout (pp.78-79) as the difference between speaking in the agora and speaking in the stoa, in which you had the licence of public speech without its responsibilities, like the darkened theatre auditorium today).

The Two Gents acknowledge and draw on this different relationship. They address the audience directly from time to time, sometimes commenting on the story, or on how the production is going that evening. If they see blank looks they might effect a ‘rewind’ to make sure everyone has understood the unnecessarily dense plot points around letters exchanged and characters doubled and impersonated. Sometimes they will comment on each other’s acting or performance choices. Sometimes they will comment on a hapless audience member yawning. Everyone is on their toes. The mental and physical agility of clearly representing all of these characters in quick succession and effectively telling the story is extraordinary. But the audience agility in decoding, picking up on the signs of character- the glove, the scarf, the musical motif, is also demanding and exciting. What the audience must also explore and play with is the production’s cross-cultural heritage. The actors, as well as the characters, are Zimbabwean and the language switches between English and Shona (even more so now than it did when I first saw it in 2009). The music is almost always Zimbabwean. There has always been a lot of music in the production. This is low-tech, done un-amplified by the actors singing unaccompanied or playing the mbira (a Zimbabwean lamelophone). This Zimbabwean adaptation necessitates a journey that its audiences must go on mediating and assimilating the story and its presentation. All of this offers an early modern performance historian much food for thought. The condition of being in the audience in the early amphitheatres demanded a completely different kind of engagement and work. In place of the crass caricature of an Elizabethan audience that was drunk and rowdy, I think the experience of this production might provide a glimpse of the exhilarating, moving, demanding and sometimes combative nature of the audience experience.

I wanted to use this production as a springboard for a larger conversation about Shakespeare, internationalization, intercultural and cross-cultural performance, heritage and appropriation in the twenty-first century. The quality and nature of theatrical presentation now affects my imaginative scope as a historian for rethinking performance then. Probing and examining assumptions and conventions underpinning thinking about performance now helps me, at least, to better historicize performance practice in other periods.

We invited some of the key practitioners from Western Australia- Kyle Morrison, Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin; Kate Cherry, Artistic Directo of Black Swan State Theatre Company; Paige Newmark, Artistic Director of Shakespeare WA who perform annually in King’s Park, Robert Marshall (Executive Producer of Live Recordings at Shakespeare’s Globe), Emeritus Professor Chris Wortham (UWA,  currently Notre Dame University in Australia), Winthrop Professor Robert White (Chief Investigator at CHE, UWA) and Dr Steve Chinna (Associate Professor, UWA, playwright and director). The conversation we had is available to view here and a writeup of the presentations is available on the CHE website.

Whilst I hadn’t briefed the speakers to talk specifically about ‘emotion’, but to describe their work and engagement with Shakespeare, the event was framed by the work of the Centre. It was striking that each speaker, without exception, found they had something significant to say about the role of ‘emotion’ in the productions they put together or the scholarly work on Shakespeare they did. For some this emotion was about the emotional work and experience of the performer, for others this was about the emotional work of the audience, for others it was a consideration of how emotion might be produced by other cultures in other times, for others still it was a trace or residue of emotion that was inherent in the written text. The complexity of these positions – particularly since the process of putting a production on or reading a text is necessarily one of exchange – prompted further questions:

Is the emotional response of the audience greater when the actor actually experiences the emotions being presented? Or conversely, is the audience’s emotional engagement lessened if performers ‘indulge’ in feeling too much? [This refers back to conversations that also emerged at the Performance Collaboratory organised by Prof Jane Davidson in UWA in November 2012]. How does this emotional presentation and exchange work in performance? Are the emotional meanings that we pick up on in productions today from Africa, to the UK to Australia, the same as each other? Are they the same as they were when the plays were first written?

Whilst I am still pondering the first set of questions, these last two seem to me to be straightforwardly answered in the negative. However, the conversation turned frequently to a sense panelists had, or perhaps wanted to have, that these stories and the emotions that were read into them, were somehow ‘universal’. I’m not sure how this can work transculturally or transhistorically, but since one of the most popular ideas in the discussion was about Shakespeare as a set of stories that were widely accessible and permitted a sense of ‘common humanity’, this issue of how universal art and emotion are seems to be a rather urgent one.

However, these are not directly the issues I want to point to arising from this roundtable. These are conversations around crosscultural productions of Shakespeare that have arisen frequently and across the world at various points. What I wanted to raise here was the emphasis that Two Gents director, Arne Pohlmeier, placed on the idea of ‘ownership’, which was picked up on and refracted through subsequent contributions to the discussion. It has an impact on how we might understand those desires for and ideals of accessibility and shared experience. ‘Ownership’, then, was a theme that seemed to permeate this Roundtable.

For Pohlmeier, the key to successful Shakespearean production is ownership. “You have to own Shakespeare if you’re going to do it well” he said. “It has to feel like something important and resonant, fully-digested and fully alive in order for it to be worth doing”. Pohlmeier felt that in cross-cultural performance the “journey of taking ownership is much more visible”. When a white British cast does a production, he added, there is a tacit assumption that they already have ownership. Cross-cultural productions help to destabilise that idea and remind us that these plays, ideas and sentiments are alien to all of us, culturally and historically. These are significant points that will surface and resurface. I am also intrigued by the indication of how ‘ownership’ works physiologically, as a process of ‘internalization’. The metaphor of eating or digesting the play and its ideas is a potent one.

The significance of ‘ownership’ was one that Kyle Morrison, director of Yirra Yaakin was keen to pick up on. In translating the Sonnets into Noongar Morrison had gone through a process of experiencing the parallels in world view and metaphor which had enabled him to develop a sense of kinship with, and ownership of, these works. Reading the plays Morrison had found that they were infused with old legends and myths and drew on spiritual and metaphoric stories told to explain and make sense of situations. This correlated with the ways in which the Dreaming works in Noongar culture. Morrison found that the Noongar stories paralleled some of creation stories and elemental symbolism and metaphor. He said “I like to think of those myths as Western Dreamtime stories”. The parallels the company found in the sonnets provided a way of telling Noongar stories in a new way. Sonnet 45, which was one of the sonnets translated and performed by Yirra Yaakin, (re-produced below) describes the elements of ‘slight air’ and ‘purging fire’ and their roles as messengers of love. This had a particular resonance for Morrison and the company. Both Morrison and the actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu described their powerful emotional responses to experiencing these works in their own language. Morrison said that when he first tried out the translation of the sonnets, which was done by actor Kylie Farmer, he had been extremely moved. The sense of connection in translating and performing these sonnets in Noongar afforded an intense experience of ownership, and Morrison experienced a much greater sense of connection to these works than any other English text he has worked with.

The Artistic Director of Black Swan, Kate Cherry, had begun by describing her earliest memory as a three year old, watching Romeo and Juliet. She stressed that it was her perpetual engagement with performances of Shakespeare from a young age that had afforded her a sense of ownership, and a sense of an ‘Australian’ Shakespeare. I have lots of questions about how a sense of ownership might tie up with memory, repeated action and the public sphere, as well as with language and physiology – how the act of speaking the words affords ownership; how this might increase if you speak them in your ‘own’ language; how the physiological activity of using your body, breathing, proprioception, to ‘perform’ the work might give you yet another (a further?) sense of ownership; how it might make you feel as if you were internalizing the words and stories, and digesting them; how hearing the same words on lots of occasions over time might give you a sense of ownership; or how a single intense experience might afford a different sense of ownership.

So I’m newly interested in the idea of ‘ownership’ as something that could be understood as a ‘feeling’, ‘emotion’ or ‘passion’. I’m interested in its agential role, as discussed by directors Arne Pohlmeier and Kyle Morrison, but I’m also interested in its politics. If I were to look into a history of a ‘sense’ of ownership this might propose itself as linked to the emergence of Capitalism. This is a historical field with scholarly precedent for analyzing the structures and workings of such a feeling. But the ‘sense’ of ownership emerging in these conversations is not monetary, land-based or straightforwardly transactional, and I wonder what other histories might be uncovered around the desire for and sense of ownership.

‘Ownership’ is something that I had discussed in a very different sphere in writing my PhD. I had been told by various people at different times that taking ‘ownership’ of my work and my scholarly expertise in the research I was doing was a rite of passage. At a certain point, it was said to me, you become the expert in the area you are writing on. It becomes ‘your’ area of expertise. A sense of ‘ownership’ is a powerful feeling that can clearly be liberating and enabling, but it is also potentially divisive and isolating, furthermore it necessitates responsibility. Ownership has consequences for creativity, and a sense of intellectual freedom, but also for geopolitics. A sense of ownership is enmeshed in a set of power relations and an ethics of exchange. It is something that we navigate pragmatically (in terms of IP and censorship laws and plagiarism in academia) as well as emotionally perhaps, in terms of territory and expertise claims, on a daily basis.

The desire to provide or offer ‘accessibility’, articulated particularly by directors Paige Newmark and Kate Cherry, I suspect is implicated in this politics of ‘ownership’. The desire to share ‘Shakespeare’ with the people, to bring an experience of the plays to people who may not otherwise have access, suggests that the person doing the sharing occupies a position as a gatekeeper. Perhaps this is a tacit assumption of ownership, in the first place, where access is effectively something that is theirs to bestow. This is not to undermine a hope or desire to share ‘Shakespeare’, but to point up the hidden politics of ownership that operate around a figure or body of works that today hold a particular cultural (and colonial) caché. With ownership goes responsibility. I am really interested in hearing what other complex histories of ‘ownership’, ‘access’ and ‘responsibility’ are being encountered in people’s work.

In the meantime I reproduce here two of the cited texts:


The other two, slight air and purging fire,

Are both with thee, wherever I abide;

The first my thought, the other my desire,

These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone

In tender embassy of love to thee,

My life, being made of four, with two alone

Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured

By those swift messengers return’d from thee,

Who even but now come back again, assured

Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,

I send them back again and straight grow sad.


[I hope to make the Noongar Sonnet 45 available at some point with the permission of Kyle Morrison, Kylie Farmer and Yirra Yaakin]


Two Gentlemen of Verona II.3

Launce: Nay, ’twill be this hour ere I have done weeping; 
all the kind of the Launces have this very fault. I 
have received my proportion, like the prodigious son, and am going with Sir Proteus to the Imperial’s 
court. I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured 
dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father 
wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat 
wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed 
one tear: he is a stone, a very pebble stone, and 
has no more pity in him than a dog: a Jew would have 
wept to have seen our parting; why, my grandam, 
having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my parting. Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it. This 
shoe is my father: no, this left shoe is my father: 
no, no, this left shoe is my mother: nay, that 
cannot be so neither: yes, it is so, it is so, it 
hath the worser sole. This shoe, with the hole in it, is my mother, and this my father; a vengeance 
on’t! there ’tis: now, sit, this staff is my 
sister, for, look you, she is as white as a lily and 
as small as a wand: this hat is Nan, our maid: I 
am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog—Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself; ay, so, 
so. Now come I to my father; Father, your blessing: 
now should not the shoe speak a word for weeping: 
now should I kiss my father; well, he weeps on. Now 
come I to my mother: O, that she could speak now like a wood woman! Well, I kiss her; why, there 
’tis; here’s my mother’s breath up and down. Now 
come I to my sister; mark the moan she makes. Now 
the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a 
word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.

Posted by Penelope Woods

5 thoughts

  1. A terrific and thought-provoking post Pen. I was struck too by the circulation of ‘ownership’, somehow the anxious ‘other’ of universalism in our discussion. I’m not sure how to think about ownership as an emotion (despite my tendency to turn everything into an emotion these days), but I do think ownership supplies a really interesting mechanism for considering emotion historically, particularly emotion as social process which is the form you and I both seem to return to.

    Ownership invokes various forms of property in the self (something that preoccupies me), and the shape and force of that ‘property’ varies historically and culturally from status, to virtue, to material goods, to citizenship. It is fascinating to think about the various emotions that might attach to and help constitute those different forms of subjectivity – a necessary historicisation of emotion and emotional expression right off the bat. But ‘ownership’ also connotes forms of ‘self-possession’ which gives rise to questions of knowledge and self-reflexivity, fascinating issues of ‘authenticity’: genuine or deceptive expression of emotion, and questions ranging from characterisation to possession (of self, of language, of history of texts). I think you have found a really interesting tussle of ideas here for the early modern and beyond!

    1. Ok, so admittedly I have objects on the brain this week with “Feeling Things” coming up on Thursday, but the implications of “ownership” with material culture is exactly what I thought of, too, Katrina.

      The other thing I’m wondering about, as a completely different association, is patriotism and nationhood. Not just land, or even the idea of land, but of land as owned and administrated politically. What about national ownership of a text? A performance? A playwright? The 2012 Global Shakespeare’s festival had that whole “Shakespeare: Britain’s greatest cultural export!” line, which tie sin neatly with your comments on consumerism. But if we think of the nation come into being in the early modern period, with new and even more nuanced meanings under ’empire’, there’s something else to tease out in your comparison of 16th England and 21st century Zimbabwe or Australia. Of course, all this is already implicit in your post (which I loved reading, by the way!) but if it’s hard to connect ‘ownership’ with ’emotion’ (and I can speak from personal experience) ‘patriotism’ and ’emotion’ might be a way in!

  2. Fantastic post, Pen, and really thought-provoking. Like everyone else I was most struck by Arne’s “ownership”, and for me it’s particularly in the context of settler cultures whose (European-descended) populations have to negotiate a strange situation in which Shakespeare is both their ‘inheritance’ and a ‘foreign’ text in a number of ways. The idea of nationhood and identity has been a familiar theme as I try and work this out in New Zealand through my PhD: it’s only as I’m coming to the end, as it happens, that I realise my thesis is starting to cohere around the idea that for many of the writers I study their taking ‘ownership’ of Shakespeare is more in service of forging cross-cultural connections than it is of ratifying their own national identity.

    I was also really struck by the comments of Morrison from Yirra Yaakin about how ‘resonant’ he found the metaphors of the sonnets in relation to Noongar. It echoes very closely the comments made by Maori writers who have translated the sonnets into te reo Maori, and their ‘discovery’ of potent metaphorical equivalences which seem to posit the sonnets as having some kind of ‘universal’ currency. And I can’t help wondering what is going to happen in near future with such ‘discoveries of sameness’ (or as you so carefully pointed out, the desire for such discoveries) – are we seeing a distinctive shift beyond the elaboration of local difference, in some contexts?

    I’m not really in the realm of the emotions per se, but several of the writers I look at also experience a kind of urgently emotional reaction to the reading/studying/producing of Shakespeare (most often articulated through autobiography, or journal): I’m currently wondering quite what to do with this, and what kind of place it should have in my thesis.

    So this conversation is a fascinating one! Thanks so much for your publication of the event.

  3. Penelope, this is a fascinating post, and I’m drawn to this idea of ‘ownership’ connected to passion/emotion.

    In studying medieval suicide, I find that the idea of who controls one’s life is at the heart of the cultural and legal sanctions on self-inflicted death. The perceived ‘ownership’ of one’s life by God and/or the Crown necessitated yielding control to these forces, so that to take one’s own life flouted medieval norms of ‘ownership’. Suicide, therefore, was not only a horrific event, but a sin and a crime. I think, perhaps, that thinking through emotions related to self-inflicted death in terms of ‘ownership’ can help to disentangle medieval/modern understandings of and reactions to suicide.

    Thank you for this food for thought– and for the excellent review of The Two Gents company and their work in Australia.

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