Why must we keep performing Shakespeare?

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Between 16-18th February, I am producing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with actors in full Elizabethan garb, with multi-levelled staging and a live band. This is no mean undertaking, even with the dedicated team around me, and often begs the question- not least from my long-suffering parents- why? Why take a text so well-known, and present it in such an over-done and over-complex way, all alongside a full-time degree? The rationale of this decision is rooted in both my personal journey of theatre, and the modern climate of the industry and education system as a whole.

One of the challenges that faces modern theatre, I believe, is its inherent elitism. Going to the theatre, particularly to see “straight” theatre, is something done by the middle-aged and middle class, and the young and the working class are alienated from this art form, both by price, and the expectation of knowledge of the canon. This has been the case for a long time, but has only been exacerbated by both a pandemic, which drained young talent from an underfunded industry, and a cost-of-living crisis, which has driven up prices, and away audiences. Never is this pressure and difficulty in access more evident than in classical texts. In order to combat this, we must begin to ask ourselves: how can we welcome to the theatre those who feel that there is no place for them?

We would choose those National Curriculum texts that were most loved by the British public and return them to the time and place that they were written in, bringing to life texts that can so often seem alien in the classroom

I remember the rare trips to the theatre in my childhood as some of the most thrilling experiences in my younger life. Growing up, theatre was to me both my most exciting form of escapism and my keenest interest and in fact, it was in those well-loved and best-established texts that my passions lay. I was in a privileged position- with parents who kept bookshelves of classic texts in the house, and teachers at my under-funded state school who encouraged my interests, I built a deep-rooted love for the British literary canon, and for the theatrical adaptations of those texts.

However, the aforementioned sense of alienation and elitism was something that I felt myself, beginning to make forays into theatre at university without either regularly-theatre-going parents, the benefits of a classical education, or studying an English degree. Despite this, I still had that passion for those old stories that had built my love of theatre and literature. After working on several projects which adapted these stories into a modern setting, or addressed additional themes, I began to wonder if, even as young early-career students, we were laying the foundations of the culture of elitism which breeds in the theatre-going world.

As part of this production, we are offering free tickets to all school-age children, group discounts to all local groups, and offering the opportunity to come backstage to any class or child

At the start of my final year, I became president of Durham University Classical Theatre. As part of my manifesto, I proposed a season of the best-known and best-loved classical texts. We would choose those National Curriculum texts that were most loved by the British public and return them to the time and place that they were written in, bringing to life texts that can so often seem alien in the classroom. By creating afternoon performances for local groups and schools, and offering free tickets, we hope to begin to break down those barriers which prevent access to theatre for so many. With the rest of my hard-working and dedicated committee, we have already put on the Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, which we returned to its iconic Victorian setting with a dedicated costume and set design team, which began to bring families into the Assembly Rooms Theatre.

We hope to continue this into our production of Twelfth Night. The Globe Theatre is one of my key inspirations this year, offering cheap standing tickets in the tradition of allowing the working classes access to classic theatre. To honour this, we are building a “groundling pit”, with tickets for only £2. We are also hiring professional costumes for all actors, sticking to a traditional setting, and having a live band on stage, bringing to life all those parts of Shakespearean theatre that we all learn about in schools, but are so hard to imagine in a classroom.

As a theatre company, we hope that we can conjure a production that would not be out of place in the seventeenth century, and that we can remove some of those barriers to participation which are so prevalent in theatre

As part of this production, we are offering free tickets to all school-age children, group discounts to all local groups, and offering the opportunity to come backstage to any class or child. We are reaching out to schools to organise whole-class trips to both see the show, and see behind the scenes. We are organising a Saturday afternoon performance to make sure that school-age children can make the show without a late night. 

As a theatre company, we hope that we can conjure a production that would not be out of place in the seventeenth century, and that we can remove some of those barriers to participation which are so prevalent in theatre. However, on a personal level, I can only hope to give the next generation of theatre-goers and dramaturges the same passion and drive that those special trips in my childhood gave me.

Image credit: Eleanor Sumner, DUCT Theatre Company

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