Review: Statespeare – Shake & Stir and La Boite Theatre @ The Roundhouse

Images: Al Caeiro

Prologue:

This is not a Shakespeare production. It’s a play about the problem of studying Shakespeare’s plays in high school or, as the programme has it, ‘Studying Shakespeare sucketh.’

Statespeare, written by Nelle Lee with material from a range of Shakespeare’s plays, is all about the relevance of the works for kids who are dragged, often kicking and screaming, to study the plays – or bits of the plays – as the syllabus demands. The premise of Statespeare is that the plays are hard, studying them really doth suck and that people who like Shakespeare are most probably drama nerds or losers. At one of yesterday’s schools’ performances I heard an audible gasp from a few quarters in the audience at a line about Drama not counting for an OP score. There were clearly some Drama geeks (old and young) in the house. PS tell me it isn’t so – about Drama not counting for the OP!

For a good 40 or 50 years now – and probably well before that – Australian school kids have been introduced to the plays in the Shakespeare canon via small, touring companies of actors. I remember the Young Elizabethan Players – the ‘Young Lizzies’ – when I was at high school. They were all serious in black before it became de rigeur in theatre circles, and we duly fell in love with at least one of the young male actors in tights – I think they really did wear tights back then. Then came the famed Grin and Tonic 1.0 (recently 2.0) and now there’s Shake & Stir theatre company.

Statespeare:

Shake & Stir are following in their predecessors’ footsteps with Statespeare, a compilation work that takes a look at the relevance of the plays to Gen Whichever We’re Up to Now. Shake & Stir (unlike many of the earlier troupes who played in make-do venues like school halls, libraries and civic centres) brings the kids to the theatre for the full big-room experience of their mainstage productions – an important part of learning about how theatre works. I spoke with a teacher prior to the performance on Thursday. He was excited for many of his Grade 12 group who were seeing a play in a theatre for the first time

Statespeare has been reworked from an earlier version which also played at the Roundhouse a year or so ago. It’s essentially the same play but with up to date (cunningly relevant) pop cultural references.  The story-line is straightforward: a small group of Grade 12 students have been assigned a task that challenges them to prove or disprove the relevance of the plays to their generation. Along the way they find themselves connecting to one another and to their own lives by playing out various scenes. In other words, they discover the relevance as they work together. It’s going to give teachers battling the Shakespeare sucks factor some great jumping off points for work and further discussion.

Speaking of classroom work, Statespeare happens along the way to be an illustrated acting class which deals on the fly with text analysis, paraphrasing, motivation, objectives, the ‘Magic If’, playing actions  – all the good stuff –  and it pushes home the relevance theme gently but insistently. Shakespeare works when you get stuck into it, and when you act it and don’t talk about it. Of course you first need to understand what’s going on. It’s the language, after all, that’s the bugbear (as any teacher will tell you) when it comes to getting students to engage with Shakespeare’s plays. The actors in Statespeare do talk about ‘the text’ but as a means to an end – to acting it out.

Statespeare is also a whole lot of fun with lots of laughs and some terrific transformational moments – like the ones in Glee – where the classroom suddenly changes via lights, sound effects, music and a few costumes and you realise you’ve shifted into another level of awareness where theatricality works its magic. The students – who now know the lines (it’s a mystery) – act out scenes from the plays and make sense of some pretty difficult text. When the power of the scenes is released Statespeare really does take off.

Sure, it’s corny in places – part of its charm – the couple of teachers portrayed in Statespeare are out of touch, genially comic figures, whilst the students themselves are types: the nerd, the prissy one, the jock, and the vulnerable but seemingly tough girl. All have their individual problems: the school formal figures prominently along with dating, status, home troubles – enough in the teen soap opera B plot to keep things moving along and the young audience involved. It’s a clever piece which certainly engaged the students around me for the 85 minutes or so of the performance. Whilst it feels a bit long by about 10-15 minutes, Statespeare does very well what it sets out to do.

It’s high energy performance, well-constructed with breathing time and a sprinkling of gags, naughty words and comic turns that keep the young audience focussed. The team of four 20-something actors clad in school uniforms (Nelle Lee, Nick Skubij, Judy Hainsworth and Ross Balbuziente) are well cast – all look about 16 – which, I imagine, is around the target age for the show. Theirs is a nicely tuned ensemble performance and they really do know how to turn a line of verse into action. By the way, I was delighted that Nelle Lee’s clown figure, Miss Pingle (the class drama teacher and a delightfully dotty creation) is far more believable in this version of the show. Speaking of the key theme though – did the team lose the opportunity to hit on a very relevant contemporary matter, that of sexual equality and gender equity? A bit of cross-gender casting would also open up a slice of theatre history – too soon, do you think?

Epilogue:

A huge congratulations to Nelle Lee who will be presented with USQ’S 2011 Young Alumnus of the Year and the university’s Faculty of Arts Prize in a special ceremony in Toowoomba in a week or so. Congratulations also to the entire enterprise that is Shake and Stir. The company is heading off with Statespeare on a 4 month national tour soon. Shake & Stir is truly a success story that ought to be congratulated and recognised far more widely for doing what they do without a $ of government subsidy. This is an almost unheard of successful commercial arts enterprise. Huzzah!

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One thought on “Review: Statespeare – Shake & Stir and La Boite Theatre @ The Roundhouse”

  1. I so loved this show when I first saw it. I am in awe of Nelle for her work and commitment and to the whole of the Shake and Stir company for their drive, smarts, talent and joy. They rock!

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