In 2011, Toby Schmitz starred in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Australia’s greatest Bard authority, John Bell. Time Out reunited the pair to discuss performing at the Globe, living in Stratford, adapting Shakespeare, John Bell’s book On Shakespeare, the Bell Shakespeare 2012 season and more
First published on 13 Oct 2011. Updated on 26 Jul 2012.
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Toby: Hello John.
John: Hello Toby.
Toby: Your new book On Shakespeare is out and it’s a ripping read. I wanted to ask you about the device that you use in it of interviewing Shakespeare’s contemporaries: why?
John: Well the hardest thing was to make it not sound like a school essay. I thought, if I’m going to interview a couple of his contemporaries and get different angles on the man – friends, enemies, publishers – it’ll give me an imaginative way of getting into his world. And so I researched it very thoroughly. And I do invent, of course, some of the dialogue, but substantial pieces of what they actually said are in there cunningly hidden among the invented stuff, so that’s just a way of making it more vital and sort of visceral encounter with Shakespeare.
Toby: And a way, as you say, of hearing his voice, which is a surprisingly hard thing to do.
John: I can’t hear his voice; I can’t hear his voice at all. I can hear the voices around him, because people like Robert Greene and Ben Jonson, you know, they’re very forthright and they said what they meant. Shakespeare – I think he was a watcher; he was a listener in the corner and took notes, you know. Didn’t commit himself, he wasn’t a boisterous companion like Marlowe for instance, he used to go home and write, didn’t go out on the town with the boys.
Toby: Certainly. You speak very evocatively in the book about stepping onto the New Globe theatre stage in 2005 and you learning some things immediately – can you tell us what they were?
John: Yeah, it was a great thrill. We were over there touring and they let us go onto the stage. We had the Comedy of Errors touring to England and the actors were invited to go onto the stage and to stand behind that curtain and walk through onto that space and look out at the Globe Theatre. It was a fantastic experience and I realised for the first time how much the actors had to play to the audience because they’re sitting all up there in galleries around you, they are sitting down there in the pit, and you can’t afford to look at the other actor too much, you’ve got to really keep spreading it out around and keep on the move and play to the whole house, keep them all engaged. It’s quite a challenge that meant that there were no such things as just soliloquies or asides to yourself. Everything was for the audience.
Toby: You say the fourth wall is nonexistent.
John: No fourth wall, no, no, no. There was very close contact. And even though there were 3,000 people in the original Globe, the new one is much smaller – even though there were 3,000 people it’s still very, very intimate. And, of course, they had no fly-paths, no traffic, the voices could carry.
Toby: You speak wonderfully in the book about the time spent in Stratford and the sort of the electric experience you got from just simply being there – I definitely had that the one time I visited – but I wondered if you could talk about what it was like when you first got there, the feeling, and subsequently, as you spent more time there.
John: Yeah, I was so thrilled when I got the job with the Royal Shakespeare, and to move to Stratford and live there, and I spent weeks and months just retracing what I thought were Shakespeare’s steps. There were fields, they’re footpaths now, but you can actually trace his moves. The school he went to is still very much as it was, the church is exactly as it was, so [we’ve] got certain landmarks that, you know, you think he was actually here, he saw what I’m seeing now. And that was quite a marvellous experience.
I’ve been back a number of times since and I’m more disappointed at how much the town’s been ‘cute-ified’ and ‘boutiquey’ this and ‘boutiquey’ that. The public toilets are no longer ‘Men’ and ‘Ladies’, they are ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ – it gets that bad you know – and the car parks keep getting bigger, and more and more tourist buses winding down these little narrow streets. But thank God that he was born there because that means they’ve kept the town as intact as possible. It would have been demolished, I guess, a hundred years ago, and they would have all those Safeways and Woolworths mile to mile.
Toby: And just being there seems to unlock a lot of the rustic elements in the plays. I mean, you see the flowers that he saw and the incredible amount of birds, that he must have been a real bird watcher.
John: Bird watcher, animal watcher, he understood the change of seasons – all these things that are so important to the plays he experienced as a boy playing in the Forest of Arden, which was just on the outside of Stratford, so you get a great sense. And his greatest characters are all rustic characters, they’re either rustic or lowlife pub characters, the characters he knew best. His aristocrats and kings and queens are a bit more conventional, anybody could have written those pretty well, but nobody could have written Bottom or Falstaff or Quince. They’re marvellous. People he saw around him.
Jeffery Dench, Judi’s brother, was in the company when I was there, we shared a dressing room, and one day he said he was out cycling and saw these two old guys cutting hedge with hedge clippers. He stopped for a yarn and he said “What are you doing?” and one guy said “Well I rough hue them and he shapes their ends.” And Jeffrey had this kind of epiphany: Hamlet says that “There is a divinity the shapes our ends, rough hue them however you will” – in other words we can muck our lives around but God will look after us. And so this image, that they are still saying, still using this language 400 years later, Stratford-Warwickshire sort of language.
Toby: Yes, when you get to that anecdote in the book the hairs on my neck stood up for all sorts of reasons, I saw not just Shakespeare chatting to a couple of local hedge cutters but also Hamlet stopping to talk to a couple of hedge cutters somewhere.
John: That’s right, or a gravedigger, or a soldier, or a captain. He’s always asking what are you doing or how long does it take a man to rot in the earth, what are you going to fight for? He’s full of enquiry. I think Shakespeare was, you can’t say Shakespeare was like Hamlet, but there’s so much of Shakespeare in that role, I think, in that character.
Toby: You can hear his voice in that.
John: More than anybody else I can trace, yeah. And the fact that he kept on reworking it and writing it, adding scenes and taking out scenes, I think that meant a lot to him.
Toby: Absolutely. It’d be silly not to talk a little about Much Ado About Nothing, I was in your production of it earlier in the year, and a very fine and fun production it was to do. And you did a very successful and famous production of it in ’75. I was wondering if you could talk about what stayed, what was similar about both experiences, and what it sort of developed or changed?
John: I think the two things I held on to, ’cause I thought they were right, one was that it’s a very good-natured play, it’s very warm-hearted. Yes of course there is a little bit of drama and neo-tragedy, but basically it’s all well resolved. It’s less ambiguous than some of Shakespeare’s other comedies, where there are maybe a lot of loose ends and not everyone’s going to end up very happy. This one I think people do generally – except for poor old Don John – everybody ends up sort of satisfied. It’s a sunny play.
The other thing it’s very, very Italian, Shakespeare was so right to set this in Italy. The passion of the father to the daughter in the church scene where he disowns her, the groom disowns her, it’s so Sicilian that sort of behaviour, it’s very un-English I think. And Shakespeare wasn’t the only one; they all set their plays in Italy. That’s where all the best stories came from. But more than the others, I think he sort of caught the Italian temperament, maybe ’cause he worked with John Florio, who was the translator, or maybe from his mistress, Emilia Bassano – maybe he learned some stuff from her about the Italian temperament, I don’t know.
Toby: A few Italian soldiers down the pub.
John: Yeah maybe, and sailors. The shifting population around South Bank – he’d learn a lot from just sitting and watching and listening.
Toby: When you did that production in ’75 you had an accent, you used an accent for it, which was sort of broad greengrocer’s accent. I thought that was really interesting – why did you do that?
John: Well when I came back from England in 1970, having worked with the Royal Shakespeare all those years, you know, really sort of worked on being very English, when I got back here the whole country was so different. It had changed in the five years that I was away. It was more aggressive, more kind of, you know, ‘it’s time’ sort of feeling and a nationalistic feeling, almost a jingoistic feeling in the air and the minerals boom was at its high and I thought: that sort of English Shakespeare won’t work here, we’ve got to find to find a Shakespeare that belongs to this country and speaks to us in a way, and sounds the way we do.
So one way of crashing through that sort of old-fashioned, English way of acting was to put on Italian accents, greengrocer’s accents, just as a rehearsal technique to get the actors away from being classical. Then came the day I said, let’s drop the accents and they said, no we can’t, the accents are now a part of the characters – they stay.
Toby: The actors insisted.
John: Yeah, they insisted they hang onto them. Now that wouldn’t be necessary because we’re now at ease in playing the classics anyplace with their own voices. We don’t have to apologise anymore for being Australian.
Toby: You currently are sort of negotiating with someone a new translation of Troilus and Cressida, that was really interesting process that Shakespeare can still be sort of adapted and shifted. Why are you doing that for that particular play?
John: Well I’m not committed to doing it, it’s just this guy sent it to me and got my feedback and I thought, this is really interesting and we might well proceed in the future. A lot of Shakespeare doesn’t need translation, it just needs the actors to understand what they are saying and a sensible production and the audience can understand, still, 90 per cent of it. If it’s badly spoken of course they can’t, but if it’s well spoken we understand much more than we think we’d be able to. But there are some plays, like Troilus and Cressida where the language and the ideas are so complex and so knotty and so concise that I think you could do a new translation for most of it and then put it side by side with the original and it doesn’t disallow the original. It’s just as we know with classics like Beowulf or Canterbury Tales, we can enjoy the original and we can enjoy the translation and one doesn’t disqualify the other.
Toby: And there’s always some tinkering to go on, even little phrases in Much Ado, you suggested either snipping or altering ’cause they were just going to be impossible, in fact might make the audience sit back from when you really want to keep them engaged.
John: If it’s a key moment you could understand what they’re saying, like when Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet said “this was a nice quarrel”, he doesn’t mean this was a pleasant quarrel, he means this was a very precise quarrel. So words do change their meaning and can be misleading – but the less tinkering we have to do, the better.
Toby: Absolutely. The new season looks fabulous, I just peeked at the brochure yesterday, very mysterious and sexy. What’s coming up? So everyone knows who hasn’t seen a brochure.
John: Check out our brochure! Macbeth is the first thing up in the Opera House with Peter Evans directing Dan Spielman and Kate Mulvany, it’ll be a very dynamic pair of Macbeths I think, and judging by Peter’s current Julius Caesar it will be a very potent and intelligent piece of production. Then I’m directing TheDuchess of Malfi in the Playhouse, which is a reduced version of six actors, for a rather sprawling play, but a marvellously dramatic Jacobean tragedy.
Toby: And you feel that [John] Webster has his plays just under…
John: Yeah I think that John Webster I would put after Shakespeare’s four great tragedies. I’d put Webster next up there as the great Jacobean dramatist, I mean he’s really, his White Devil and Duchess of Malfi are both fantastically exciting plays. And following that we’ve got Lee Lewis directing a new translation of The School of Wives by Molière, a translation by Justin Fleming, and that’s exciting because we haven’t ever done a Molière before and this particular play was the one that Molière declared himself and said I’m sick of doing comedy de latte, I’ve now written a classic comedy and it’s as good as [Jean] Racine or [Pierre] Corneille’s, lag it or lump it, and that really changed the nature of French theatre. So that’s an exciting piece to do and that’ll be doing a very big tour all over Australia.
Toby: I’m glad that there’s a big, bristling comedy right after…
John: We’ll need a few laughs right after The Duchess of Malfi and Macbeth.
Toby: Thank you. Well done on the book again.
John: Thanks Toby, good to talk to you.
Toby: And you.
On Shakespeare Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99
Special thanks to Toby Schmitz and Bell Shakespeare