Damien, what’s the importance of giving young people a good education in the Bard?
Shakespeare is one of many examples of the sort of imaginative, deeply humane and entertaining art forms that it is difficult for kids or even adults to come to by themselves. It is most often something that you need someone with a key to just pry open the locks that can make it feel daunting and overwhelming at first – a good teacher, a good production. But the value of it is very real and its potential to inspire young people is genuinely extraordinary.
Probably the thing that appeals to me most, both when I was young and now, is that they are so overflowing with life and passion and imagination and incredible poetry, while also being among the most psychologically detailed observations ever made of what it is to be a human being. Young people can learn so much about life and loyalty and love and family and pressure and violence and forgiveness from ‘experiencing’ these plays, not just reading but jostling with them as performers or audience members.
Is there a 'trick' or special way of effectively teaching Shakespeare to young people?
I have always felt that people respond well when Shakespeare's humanity is demystified for them a bit – when they come into contact with what we know of him as a person, not just this remote 'genius', or indeed just this famous, terribly important word: ‘Shakespeare'.
But even more important is probably not being reverent about it, especially with young people. Don't tell them it’s important or amazing or the best thing ever. Just plunge into the world of it, make them recognise themselves in it – which it is impossible not to – and they will work out for themselves that some of this stuff is incomparably good. When a student 'works out' a sonnet or a speech or even a difficult line and you see the pieces fall into place in their heads, it's thrilling to see their pride swell. Shakespeare is hard at first but should not be feared or dismissed.
What do you hope a high school audience will get out of Hamlet? Apart from enjoying some wicked sword-fighting fairly late in the piece...
I obviously hope that students, and adult audiences, experience some new perspectives and new images within this famous play, particularly for those studying it. However, as much as I hope it is a good chance for them to consider the choices and ideas on the stage in terms of their academic needs, I also hope that they will be swept up in one of the great stories about human beings, and families, ever written, and ever so briefly allow them to forget they are even doing the HSC and engage with the sheer dynamism of a great piece of writing and a wonderful cast.
It really is a complete play, Hamlet: so daring, so funny, so full of variety, so honest and so moving – hopefully! I'd like to find the difficult balance between the play as an exciting revenge tragedy/thriller/ghost story and an inspiring philosophical examination of how we live and how we think, along with a genuine love story.
It's also an opportunity to keep trying to open up to young people – who now have access to such extraordinarily technologically advanced TV and film-making – the unique things the theatre can do. It's great when students see the simple magic in theatre.
I hope it just reaches them in some way and lets them think about friendship and love and how they learn to live in and change the world their parents and elders create for them. Hamlet offers a pretty bleak set of alternatives for a play that is so full of life. It is about something self-destructing to a terrible end and we should feel hurt by the futility of what happens to this brilliant boy and the world he lives in.