Friday, July 19

Only the mediocre could dream of banning the bard

I am a classically trained actor, earning my diploma at Unitec Performing Arts School after an, at times grueling 2-year course, graduating in 1997. Raised in impoverished South Auckland, I was then a disillusioned glam rock guitarist with a shattered heart and a worsening alcohol problem. It was this bleak juncture that led me to the thespian path. By day, I tore tickets at the now-defunct St James Theatre; by night, I devoured three or four VHS tapes, mesmerized by the intense performances of Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Robert De Niro. I dreamed of transforming myself in the way these actors could, arriving on set with the same shocking dedication De Niro showed in “Raging Bull.” Alas, today I have a paunch, but no cameras seen interested.

I had missed the initial audition for Unitec. Yet, fate intervened. Local theatre luminary Raymond Hawthorne promised to pull some strings, and soon I was auditioning before artistic director Murray Hutchinson and voice tutor Linda Cartwright. With little time to prepare, I chose a Harold Pinter monologue, betting that any memory lapse could be disguised as a Pinteresque pause. For my second piece, I reluctantly tackled Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was foreign to my upbringing in South Auckland. My ambitions lay with characters like Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” or Terry Malloy from “On The Waterfront.” Early American cinema fascinated me, and I was obsessed with method actors like Marlon Brando and John Garfield. However, the classical curriculum at Unitec demanded a thorough engagement with Shakespeare, much to my initial chagrin.

What ultimately made Shakespeare accessible was the dedication of our tutors, seasoned actors who understood the bard intimately. Shakespeare’s works demanded a grandeur which in turn demanded breath, which required rigorous physical training. Our daily regimen included two hours of voice exercises to enhance resonance and clarity, turning us into vocal athletes.

But I soon realized that to truly honor Shakespeare’s text, I had to expand not just physically but spiritually. Often, I arrived hours before my peers to practice various speeches and sonnets. I was drawn to the complex characters of Macbeth and Othello. My portrayal of Macbeth in my second-year production marked a turning point in my acting and also in my life. After an extended run, Murray remarked, “You weren’t an actor before Macbeth, but you are an actor now.” And yet, this was not the greatest gift performing Shakespeare gave me. It deepened my soul, increasing my capacity for empathy and understanding. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said “Search for G-d, find man, and search for man, find G-d”. I searched for craft with Shakespeare and likewise left with a far deeper understanding of humanity.

Performing Shakespeare was akin to surfing; his words were waves. A technically proficient actor rides these waves, making the language resonate with the audience effortlessly. Though I’ve transitioned into writing, which offers a similar immersion into characters, I still miss the singular experience of acting Shakespeare. It’s an art form apart from all others, a unique challenge and joy.

Yet, despite Shakespeare’s unparalleled brilliance, some educators dismiss him as inaccessible or irrelevant. This view, to me, is a tragic underestimation of both the teacher’s potential and the student’s capabilities.

Shakespeare’s unparalleled artistry offers timeless insights into the human condition, prefiguring modern psychology and capturing the depths of human nature with uncanny accuracy. For instance, Macbeth’s descent mirrors the maniacal defiance of dictators throughout history, eerily prefiguring the final days of leaders like Hitler.

Denying students access to such greatness is not only a disservice, but a tragedy and the fact Shakespeare’s presence warrants an argument explains much as to the sorry state of our education system. Shakespeare’s works not only refine interpretive skills but also provide a historical continuum, illustrating that human emotions and conflicts remain largely unchanged over centuries. His characters’ struggles and triumphs will always reflect our own.

Unlocking meaning and tips for performing of Shakespeare is easy when you know what to look for. Take for example this piece of text from Othello – The Moor of Venice (Act 3, Scene 3).

Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. 

Othello’s jealousy and rage are like a body of water – compulsive – unforgiving and uncompromising to anything in its path. So, how best to perform it? Like this unstoppable sea. Recite from Like through to Hellespont in a single, sustained breath (we tend to have no problem filling our lungs when enraged).What a rich afternoon would be spent as students try to outdo each other to prove who has the greatest lung capacity! And who can best sell rage!

Regrettably, some educators propagate mediocrity, preferring contemporary, facile literature over the challenging richness of Shakespeare. This trend not only impoverishes our curriculum but also underestimates students’ intellectual capacities. Greatness, such as that embodied in Shakespeare, is an essential part of education. It challenges, inspires, and elevates.

To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds of his ethnicity is equally absurd. Such arguments are intellectually vacuous, unworthy of serious consideration. Shakespeare’s contributions to literature and our understanding of human nature transcend such reductive critiques. He is, unequivocally, the greatest writer in the English language—a fact, not an opinion. We shouldn’t give an ear to this reactionary garbage.

My fervent admiration for Shakespeare is matched by my faith in young minds’ capacity to engage with his work. Students are naturally drawn to the magic of his storytelling. If educators feel inadequate in teaching Shakespeare, they should seek to improve their skills rather than deprive students of this literary treasure. There are ample resources and experts (actors of a certain generation) willing to aid in this endeavor, ensuring that both teachers and students can experience the profound impact of Shakespeare’s work.

In conclusion, the magic of Shakespeare lies not just in the stories he tells but in the eternal truths he uncovers. His works challenge us, enrich our understanding, and remind us of our shared humanity. As an actor turned writer, I cherish the profound impact Shakespeare has had on my life and advocate for his rightful place at the heart of our education system.