To celebrate Shakespeare’s official birthday, director and producer Yvonne Murphy has shared with us some thoughts on Shakespeare and the latest Omidaze (Oh My Days!) production of Romeo and Juliet, coming to Cardiff later this month. In 2008 Yvonne founded Omidaze Productions, which now has a reputation for exciting Shakespeare theatre and generally shaking things up a bit.
What is special about the Romeo and Juliet production this year?
When the referendum happened last year I watched and listened to our country fracture. British society is at a crucial point in its history and I believe we need space and time to have a proper conversation about what kind of society we want to live in. We are a generation away from the Second World War after which we reshaped our society for the better. I would like to think we are enlightened enough that we can make the necessary fundamental steps, which are now needed without conflict as a catalyst.
I struggled post the referendum to know what I should do next. I felt silenced and fearful. I questioned the role and direction of theatre and the arts generally and what Shakespeare had to do with anything anymore. I went a long way away to come back round to Romeo and Juliet. A story of society. A morality tale of how a broken and dysfunctional society puts at risk the futures and lives of our young people. If Romeo and Juliet had felt empowered, felt able to influence those in power and listened to, then they may have made better and more informed choices. We ignore our young people at our peril. It is all of our responsibility to ensure there is no conflict on our streets and our society is a place which values equality, knowledge, tolerance and understanding. And above all it must be a society in which no one feels fear for themselves and those they love.
What is distinctive about putting on productions of Shakespeare in Wales?
Shakespeare takes time to do well. I have fought for that time. Unless the actors understand the verse structure and every syllable of what they are saying how can they hope to communicate it to an audience? Especially a non-traditional theatre audience who are not used to hearing the language? A four-week rehearsal period is not an artistic decision, it is an economic one and one which needs to change if we are to produce classics of quality. I feel very privileged that the Arts Council of Wales and all our partners felt able to invest in Omidaze to do this work in this way.
Wales is a small nation and one which I think would benefit from less catergorisation of art forms and more breaking of boundaries – I am interested in melding artforms. I am interested in what entices audiences across class, ability, race, gender and age into a circus tent and what creates barriers to the same people for theatre. In all my shows I attempt to blend and break boundaries of different artforms, (circus, stand-up comedy, dance, visual art) to allow as many people as possible a route into the work.
I also made a conscious decision to cast as diverse a cast as possible. If I want to reach a non-traditional audience for Shakespeare then the people on stage must reflect the people on the streets of Wales and Britain. Much work is needed to increase and diversify our casting pool in Wales and then create enough strong quality work and development opportunities to keep talented actors and creatives here.
Omidaze is not just about putting on a show: you are also involved in educational projects. Do Shakespeare’s plays offer room for ‘inspiring change’ or are you always reacting against them?
I am never reacting against the text. The text is my absolute starting point and what I begin and end with. It is a story which needs to be told. I do not come with a concept which I want to squeeze the play inside. I read and read a text and let it resonate within me and find the story which I feel strongly needs to be told right now.
I am however reacting against how Shakespeare is often done. My starting point for the trilogy was to ask who is Shakespeare for and where and how can it be staged, by who and for who and why?
Shakespeare is a gateway art. It opens doors, raises expectation and ambition levels and it belongs to all of us. It is a gift which we must share because to close that door is to shut off a light to people.
I was deeply concerned by the lack of gender equality in the theatre industry and I knew Shakespeare was a good starting point to raise awareness around that discussion. However, conversation of equality cannot and should not be confined to gender. Equality is all about power sharing. There are no villains. Just years and years of doing things a certain way and years of lists being created of people to use whether that is a lighting designer, production manager, voice coach or actor. It takes time, energy and conscious effort to change those lists and so that is what I decided to do. In my own small way.
The educational aspect of Omidaze is at our very core. It is not an add on. We rehearse live in schools in front of young people to break open the process. We create workshops to accompany the work and invite young people from disadvantaged areas into our dress rehearsals. We open the doors to young people looking for work experience and we hold Q&As whenever we can. Theatre and the arts in general are in a state of emergency. If we only see arts subjects in schools as vocational and then see a career in the arts as too precarious for anyone not from a stable financial background the voices and work will not represent modern Britain. The arts and culture belong to everyone. We must value them and their impact and create a strong society with them at its core. Whoever heard someone tell a child to only study Maths or Science if they want to be a Mathematician or a Scientist?
As Churchill so famously supposedly said (or is it an urban myth?) when asked if the money ring-fenced for art and culture should be put into the war effort – ‘Then what are we fighting for?’
Yvonne blogs at omidaze.wordpress.com
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
27 April – 14 May, 2017
If you would like to contribute Shakespeare-related news or reflections, please get in touch with me (Johann Gregory).