One West Yorkshire theatre company is using Shakespeare to bridge cultures and generations. Director Mary Coaten explains how.
Of our 30 members, our youngest is two and the youngest at heart is 65. We welcome all-comers and have no audition process. We also don’t charge attendance and have, to date, self-funded all our projects. For the past four years we’ve been mentored by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its ‘Open Stages’ project.
We’re so passionate about theatre-making that, as part of our development of Troilus and Cressida in 2014, we went to Athens and Istanbul to research Trojan and Greek mythology, including a visit to the Troy exhibition at the archaeological museum in Istanbul. This resulted in a weekend-long site-specific theatrical festival involving camps of Trojan and Greek warriors.
Since this time our ambitions have increased and this year 20 members of the company went to Bucharest where, together with several local families in a variety of different languages, we created a very shortened version of Romeo and Juliet in Magazinul Cocor, a city-centre shopping centre.
Playing with text, imagery, meaning and movement cross-culturally like this was very revealing. The ‘seven ages of man’ speech by Jacques in As You Like It was fun to have explored in the gardens of a castle, surrounded by a great and ancient forest, teeming with wildlife including bears and wolves. It could have easily been the Forest of Arden as it was in the 16th century.
Through improvisatory theatre games and movement exercises, we can engage children and adults completely new to the stories and to the making of theatre in non-traditional ways in non-traditional venues.
Our visit to Athens and Istanbul had us hooked. We wanted more of it so we applied, and were awarded, funds by the British Shakespeare Association, to help us bring over our new fledgling intergenerational theatre group that we’d founded in Bucharest.
“For us, some of the most interesting elements of our work and approach has been to give youngsters the opportunity to find ways their own life experiences, their own playful ideas and responses, can find a home in a Shakespeare play.”
Over the last few months, a number of refugees from Iran and Afghanistan and attendees from our local St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax began to express interest in taking part. Since then we have got to know each other through shared game-playing, food, song, music and dance and we now have a small core of people exploring Shakespeare’s text and songs in Farsi and English.
They’ll be joining us in a “Shakespeare Without Borders” production of As You Like It this August in Stratford, transforming the Forest of Arden with a vibrant mix of cultures and languages including Romanian, Iranian, Afghani, English and Irish Gaelic.
Through our work with them we have been able to hear beautiful Iranian songs of exile and reconciliation, of love and beauty from people exiled from their own land. We have heard Shakespeare translated into modern day Farsi; we have listened to and found music and songs that will accompany the the play and, from our Romanian company, we have also heard songs about the beauty of the Romanian countryside, country weddings and traditional Romanian dress, which they will wear during the production. This all takes on a real poignancy when set against the backdrop of the Forest and a play all about exile and reconciliation.
The following lines, spoken by one of our members from Iran, playing Duke Senior, are all the more poignant given the circumstances our new members find themselves in, and are testimony to the universality of the theme of exile and reconciliation in Shakespeare’s work.
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
As You Like It, Act II, Scene I
We are working internationally and across borders of language, race and cultural identity on themes of great relevance to society right now. For us, some of the most interesting elements of our work and approach has been to give youngsters the opportunity to find ways that their own life experiences, their own playful ideas and responses, can find a home in a Shakespeare play.
We can indeed have Luke Skywalker visiting the chapel where Romeo and Juliet are lying dead together; we can have children who just want to be sheep or a little dog in the background. Our ability to say yes to this, our ethos to build confidence in small ways, seems to give confidence to them to want to continue performing, play after play.
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