Theatre has always been an indispensable part of human lives, be it Chinese Xiqu, Italian Commedia, Japanese Kabuki, Indian Koodiyattam or English Theatre. It is a visual construction with costumes, lighting and sound along with artistic interpretation of play texts, cultivating a sense of shared purpose among performers and audiences. British theatre, in particular, has a long and rich history of influential works of art, much of which, we owe to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright in the English language and one of the most revered sonneteer and dramatic poet England has ever seen. He is deified in the English-speaking populace as “man of the theatre” and this bardolatry further glorifies his works--38 of which are plays including Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar and Hamlet among other masterpieces. But a lot has changed since the Shakespearean era when both men and women’s roles were played by men.
Theatre Director Simon Godwin interacting with the audience at the event
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, British Council in collaboration with Wuhan University organized an interactive discussion with British theatre director Simon Godwin at the WHU College of Foreign Languages and Literature on December 11th. The Burberry-Award-winning director warmly greeted the audience in Chinese. He began in an effortlessly jaunty demeanor. “Today, I want to talk a little bit about 3 major things—I want to talk a little bit about the beginnings of theatre in the UK and the beginnings of my life working in the theatre. I want to talk a little bit about the community of the UK and how different theatre is involved in different cities across the country and finally I want to talk a little bit about what the point of theatre is, why go and see a play or why put on a play.” He then drew references from a 15th century popular medieval play “Everyman” and added, “Play essentially teaches the audience to be as good and charitable as they can be.”
Mr. Godwin pointed out that Shakespeare and his group of friends decided to create the very first theatre that we have and named it ‘the Globe’--a universal theatre for a universal audience. He also told the audience how plays were no longer there to teach people things, but to entertain. Talking about his acting in the BBC TV series “Five children and it”, he added, “It was a very happy time for me at thirteen. I have never had more money in my life than I had at that age.” He then talked about his days at Cambridge University and his first job at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. He also worked at Bristol Old Vic where he directed a variety of plays including Faith Healer, Krapp’s last tape and Far Away before moving onto The Royal Court London. Emphasizing the success of the play “Look back in anger”, he said, “It was for the first time that people with working-class accents who were not rich, who were poor, were put on the stages. As for the audience, it was also their first time to see a new set of stories not just about rich people but about ordinary people.” He also mentioned the movement “kitchen sink drama”. It was called so because the sets were so detailed one could even have a kitchen sink on the set. At the Royal Court, he staged modern plays about sexuality (The acid test), technology (Routes) and journalism (NSFW).
He also talked about reconstruction of the Globe and about casting Paapa Essiedu, a British actor with roots in West Africa, to play Hamlet. He pointed out, “Despite Britain being a very multicultural country, The Royal Shakespeare Company had never had a black actor to play Hamlet.” He shared the income-- which was a staggering £180 million,of the National Theater, where he is credited for plays like Man and Superman, The beaux Stratagem and Strange Interlude. Its NT live initiative in which plays are broadcasted live in cinemas across the country and the globe. With its aim to reach incredibly diverse audiences, the British theatre has truly gone from local to global.
Mr. Orlando Edwards, the Consul of Cultural and Education Section of the British Consulate-General Wuhan, who accompanied Simon Godwin to the event, informed that “What Simon’s doing is part of a yearlong program of events around the world to celebrate or rather commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. That’s why Simon is here. I spotted an opportunity which persuaded my colleagues to get a brilliant director in this brilliant city of brilliant students.”
At the end, he received several rounds of questions from the audience. His invaluable insight into British theatre was most certainly fulfilling and enlightening to all Chinese theatergoers.
Excerpts from the Q&A discussion with Mr. Godwin
Q: Nowadays musicals are adapted from Shakespeare’s plays. Would it pass on the legacy of Shakespeare’s work by introducing it to popular culture? Do you think things in theatre work differently in America?
A: It is useful to remember Shakespeare himself adapted old stories. I think Shakespeare would be delighted to have his stories adapted by the following generations. The reason the British government invested so much money in theatre is because theatre is a tool to bring communities together. Europe and America are very concerned about the growth of what we call “the Alt-right” (far-right) — extreme conservative politicians. I personally find the American system of non-subsidy worrying, whereas I really value government support for culture because it helps to create an atmosphere of collaboration and hopefully togetherness instead of separation.
Q: Why did you choose a black actor to play Hamlet? Have you ever thought of a lady playing hamlet?
A: Theatre is a tool for social integration. The taxpayers pay for theatre in Britain, which means every single person in Britain is paying for the theatre. If anyone in the whole country is saying that theatre is not for him or her, theatre has failed. It’s important because there are many black people in Britain, to say that you are paying for theatre as well, so you should be in the theatre. It should be relevant to you not just to the posh white people; which going back to the Royal Court, their world mission was to say—no we smash that, we say theatre is for all.
Another great point is that in Britain, as in China and as in the world, there are many women. Over the years women have gone bored of seeing plays only about men. In London right now is a playwright performance “Twelfth Night” in which the character Malvolio is going to be played by a lady, becoming Molvolioer. I think it’s a big new wave of women playing men’s part.
Q: What advantages do movies have over theatres?
A: Why theatre is so precious today is because it is a flesh and blood art form. It is a non-technological art form. By which I mean most of you, and me as well, our primary relationship is with our telephones; the great thing about theatre is that it’s about reconnecting with this human being standing in front of you-- flesh and blood. And we are going to see a play no longer from the tiny digital screen but in a place performed by a real living breathing human animal.
Q: What suggestion do you have for students who want to pursue a career in theatre?
A: When it comes to such personal questions, I remember when I met a very famous director Peter Brooke and said to him, “Mr. Brook, I want to become an actor. Should I go to university or should I go to drama school?” He had a long pause, looked me in the eye and said, “My advice to you is don’t take advice from people like me”. When it comes to your life choices, you just have to follow your heart.
Q: How do we earn a profit from stage play?
A: Because I work in, what we call, a subsidized government sector, I am the least well-informed person in the world to answer this question. The government protects the theatre where I work from any commercial risks.
Q: What are your expectations of our upcoming theatre performance?
A: When I directed Hamlet, we had 9 weeks of rehearsal. But my time working with students of Wuhan University and other universities all put together was something like one day. I have a personal motto in English which is “something is always possible”. So, we will try.
Q: Have you thought of adapting Chinese traditional stories into your stage plays?
A: The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company is actively searching for plays, new and old, that we can create to serve, meet and celebrate the Chinese audience. But the Chinese acting population in Britain is very small. I don’t need to give you ideas but there are potential parts for Chinese actors and actresses in England as we do more Chinese theatre.
Q: What does the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet mean?
A: Let me remind you of the lines:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
On one level you have these questions, do you do or not do. Do you take action or do you let things be. On another level, somebody asks himself in a very depressed space, in great grief at the death of his father.
Do I kill myself or do I live?
This question has many levels simultaneously to it. Yes, it’s about life and suicide. But also, for everybody in the audience and for all of us, sitting here today, it’s about do I manifest myself to the world or do I sit back and not do. Do I live or not live? That is the question.
(Edited by Fang Siyuan, Wu Siying, Edmund Wai Man Lai & Hu Sijia)