In the space of less than twelve hours I had two delightful performing arts experiences: the first involved seeing a professional theatre company and the other, the very next morning, was watching a group of public school students perform a dance-drama. Both were brilliant.
The performance of The Comedy of Errors was a joint production between Bell Shakespeare and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. I remember studying the play at university. I just did not remember the play as being this delightful.
I have very clear memories of the Shakespeare plays I have seen and taught over the years. Whenever possible, I always tried to take the class to see a live production of the play we were studying (or at least to show a quality screen version*). But I have only vague memories of the ones I have merely read or studied. Of course, the reason is blindingly obvious. Shakespeare never intended his plays to be read silently or even read out aloud in a group, especially by school children in a classroom.
Shakespeare was an actor and playwright, not a novelist or short-story writer. He was writing for theatre, for performance and for highly skilled professional actors. The pages could be discarded once the performance came to life and the play committed to memory. Apart from the ‘prompt’ book based on the working draft or ‘foul papers’, copies of his plays were only printed in full after his death.
To see the performance of The Comedy of Errors was to be reminded again of this truth: wherever possible, Shakespeare is best seen live in a theatre to be appreciated. The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, is real farce with lots of slapstick comedy. You may know the story of the play — two sets of identical twins, each brother separated from his sibling but paired with the other twin’s brother.
Years later all four are reunited in the town of Ephesus but not before an evening of mistaken identities, hilariously absurd coincidences, near-seductions, thieving and bawdy behaviour.
As for mistaken identities, I recalled, on the way home from the theatre, the identical twins, Danny and Johnny, I once taught who decided to trick me. It turned into low farce. Danny hatched the plan. He would truant school for the day. He made Johnny agree that when the roll was to be marked, Johnny would pretend to be Danny and answer for him.
Now I know you have probably already seen the flaw in the plan but, unfortunately for him, Johnny had not and went along with the scheme. When I called Danny’s name out, Johnny followed the plot and replied, “Present, Sir.” When I called out the next name, ‘Johnny’, there was silence and so I marked Johnny absent. Perhaps it was when I said, “Do you know where your brother is, Danny?” that the penny dropped for Johnny who was starting to turn pale.
To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?”
I will not elaborate on the hilarious interview I had with the twins and their mother later that week where we tried to answer Shakespeare’s question.
The performers in The Comedy of Errors were superb. I think we can be pretty confident that the first performing experience most of these professional actors received was probably on a school stage somewhere, perhaps in an early primary school production or later in a secondary drama class.
At least, these were the thoughts going through my head the next morning as I sat in the front row at the opening of the recent NSW Primary Principals’ Association’s Annual Conference. On stage were performers from the NSW Public Schools Primary State Drama Ensemble. The piece they performed was a very sophisticated dance-drama called After the Rain based on a work Distant Rains by the Australian children’s author and illustrator, Shaun Tan.
The piece explored the notion of all the unseen and unpublished poems that people write flying away to form a giant ball floating above us all. The central theme was of the importance of individuals not hiding but celebrating their creativity.
As I watched such confident performers from our public primary schools, I could not help but wonder how many of them might be performing one day in a professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays. If they do, it would be pleasing to think that they might have some room in the program to mention the public school and the teacher who gave them their first experience on stage. And if two of them look alike, I know the perfect play for which they should audition.
*English teachers will know that, some years ago, the BBC produced all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, which I believe are still available on DVD.