Queen Mary Theatre Company’s annual Shakespeare festival took place over two evenings in the Pinter Studio, Queen Mary’s largest studio and performance space. The two performances this year included much-loved comedy favourite Twelfth Night, and a new contemporary piece titled Billy Bard.
I think what stood out to me as a highlight of the festival was the theme of making Shakespeare, who “celebrates” his four-hundredth death day this year, accessible for modern audiences, by including modern aspects and thoughts.
The production of Twelfth Night, directed by Georgia Wilkinson and Emily Dempsey, really layered the theme of gender already present in the text by inducing even more self-described ‘gender fuckery’. For example, though Viola was traditionally played by a woman and Sebastian a man, the roles of Orsino, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste were played by females, and Maria and Olivia by males. Additionally, the choice for the cast to all wear identical basic black clothing with a white corset and codpiece not only created a minimalist look for the piece, but emphasised the very close boundary between genders: is there really a line between male and female?
Though keeping the language very much Shakespearean, there were elements of modern pop culture cleverly woven into the performance through music. Adele’s ‘Hello’ was Orsino’s romantic soundtrack in the famous opening scene, LMFAO’s 2011 anthem ‘Sexy and I Know It’ accompanied Malvolio and his yellow stockings in his hip-thrusting, and the finale consisted a of a switch from music from the 1996 film adaptation to Cher’s ‘Believe’, amply tying up all the elements of love and belief within the performance.
The minimal set was also a key choice, and the use of inflatables (e.g. a boom-box, swords, and a massive penis) added some fresh fun to the show.
The second play of the evening, Billy Bard, written and directed by Sebastiao Lopes, is a play which explores the life of teenager Billy, who struggles to express himself. Written in an episodic structure, the play explores Billy’s relationship with different figures in his life, from stern mother and probing psychologist to elusive crush, and his best friend. Whenever Billy, often found stuttering, finds it hard to express himself, he turns to the Bard for words. The dialogue of the scene shifts from the twenty-first century to Elizabethan, and Lopes carefully and intelligently selected scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most famous works (Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet for instance) which fitted with the content of the scene. It was a true delight to see language both old and new telling the same story, and all the actors handled both equally as well.
In terms of the set, it was completely bare. The only ‘props’ to speak of were numerous editions of Shakespeare’s works; used for everything, including an imaginary football. However, the visuals were aided by intricate use of lighting, where the colours corresponded with the scene’s time period. Both dramatic and with comedic moments which touched right at the heart, and a real coming-of –age story, the show really did deserve its standing ovation it received on the Friday night.
Overall, both performances were incredibly enjoyable to watch, and it really showed the whole range of talent (acting, writing, directing, and technical duties) that are on offer here at Queen Mary. Also, though we may be very well-known for our left-wing extreme performance artwork, we can also do Shakespeare bloody well, too.