Immortal Bard: Shakespeare's timeless legacy at Sydney University
WORDS BY EDWARD FURST
This month, the world marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Born in the late 16th century, Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest practitioner of the English language, and his works have remained a staple of Literature and Drama classes all over the world. This is no less true at Sydney University today.
To celebrate his life, I looked back at Shakespeare’s presence on campus and what the future looks like for fans and students of the Immortal Bard alike. After all, as Shakespeare’s own contemporary Ben Jonson remarked, “Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time”.
The earliest record we have of Shakespeare at the University of Sydney is from 1887 in an advertisement for a reading of Twelfth Night held by the Union.
A few years later the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) was established but, due to the First World War interrupting usual university activities, it was not until 1927 that their next production of Shakespeare is recorded. The play was As You Like It, directed by a prolific figure in SUDS, May Hollinworth. In this period, productions by SUDS generated public interest and were covered by many mainstream newspapers.
A production of Twelfth Night held in 1937 was notable for being the first SUDS production held in the Great Hall. A review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald praising the “architecturally not dissimilar” space to the first recorded performance of the play at Middle Temple Hall in London in 1602. Other plays in this period include As You Like It in 1935 and The Merchant of Venice in 1938, though the number of male students enlisted to fight in the Second World War meant a 1939 production of Macbeth had to be abandoned due to a lack of actors to cast.
In the late 40s and early 50s, SUDS, now under the directorship of Sam Hughes, produced a number of experimental plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Pericles. A controversial production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1950 divided reviewers as Hughes opted for a modern dress performance, complete with cigarette wielding courtiers.
The Herald criticised Hughes alterations and described them as “monotonous and dull”, with a “prevailing spirit of schoolboy nose-thumbing”, while Honi Soit retaliated by praising the production, claiming ‘down-town’ reviewers had approached Shakespeare with rigid preconceptions and that it was a shame that a newspaper with cultural pretensions should make such a “crass fool of itself”.
It was about a decade later that the University experienced its cultural ‘golden age’, with the likes of Clive James, Robert Hughes, Bob Elis, Germaine Greer, and John Bell all arriving. Greer in particular went on to write a doctoral thesis on Shakespeare at Cambridge and later published a number of books and essays on the playwright. John Bell meanwhile performed in student productions whilst at the University and in 1991, after having also spent a period working for the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in England, established the Bell Shakespeare Company, which is today the leading performer of Shakespeare’s plays and Australia’s foremost theatre company.
Bell once wrote that if you “were a serious theatre goer and wanted Shakespeare, Aristophenes, Beckett, Satre, Brecht, or anything ‘experimental’, you had to take in SUDS or the Players”, the latter being a rival dramatic society on campus at the time.
Jess Zlotnick, a member of the SUDS executive, says, “Shakespeare is worth studying but even more worth producing. The language is spectacular and the stories well constructed.”
Earlier this year Zlotnick wrote a play called Lady, responding to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In it, she reworks the gender roles and casts Lady Macbeth as the leading character. Zlotnick says she “wanted to explore her character by delving into a possible backstory for her based on small hints in Macbeth”. Thus she was able to “give Lady Macbeth the justice and complexity she sometimes is deprived of”.
Similarly, in the SUDS major production last year of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the main character’s relationships were reconstructed to be homosexual. Zlotnick, who was designer for that production, says it “did what I think most productions of Shakespeare should do; it took a text and found a new way to make it relevant”.
In terms of the future for Shakespeare at the University, Zlotnick is hopeful that Shakespeare will always be produced. She thinks a growing confidence to critique and recontextualise would be the best thing that could happen for theatre and Shakespeare, and his work will always have a place in theatre so long as students continue to critically engage with the playwright himself.