Nothing will come of nothing

Alumni, Headlines — By on October 31, 2012 8:35 am

And what a grand event this will be, bringing together a wealth of creative talent – designers, actors, musicians, technicians – reuniting some of the many theatrical people who have made their start in Outdoor Summer Shakespeare and later made their mark in a much wider world.

New Zealand-born Lisa Harrow played The Player Queen in the first-ever Summer Shakespeare production of Hamlet in 1963, and left soon after for the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, she later played such roles as Olivia in Twelfth Night (with Judi Dench), Desdemona in Othello, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Juliet (to John Hurt’s Romeo), as well as collecting numerous film and TV credits.

King Lear was the first Shakespeare play in which Lisa played a major role. “I was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Auckland Girls’ Grammar,” she told Judy Wilford, conversing with her on Skype and email from her home in Vermont. “I remember sitting on my back steps at home pondering the enormous agony of the play, the appalling acts of cruelty so easily entered into by some and accepted by others, the brutality with which honesty, integrity and decency are silenced – and the utter lack of a happy ending.

“That is the challenge of the play. Is Shakespeare telling it as it really is, or is he offering us a vision of how life would be if we remove grace, forgiveness, compassion, understanding and love – above all love – from the choices we make as a species?” This production, to be performed at the University in March 2013, will be a homage to Professor Sidney (Mus) Musgrove, a muchrespected and long-remembered teacher in the Department of English and the driving force behind Outdoor Summer Shakespeare. It will celebrate the 50-year history of the event, and provide a base of support for the work of the Summer Shakespeare Charitable Trust, formed to build a platform for future development.

Chair of the Trust is prominent New Zealand actor and director Michael Hurst, who is playing the Fool in King Lear and assisting Lisa as codirector. “Three years ago,” says Michael, “Professor Tom Bishop from the Department of English asked if I would be interested in some kind of organisation to ensure the existence and wellbeing of Summer Shakespeare, because it had been flickering in and out of existence – a sputtering flame.

“When I first came to Auckland it had been absolutely the thing you went to – it was outdoors, the productions were varied and they were amazing.

“My first outing with Shakespeare was directing one in 1987: Measure for Measure, then King Lear. I know friends and colleagues who came through Summer Shakespeare; the list is quite impressive.

“So we formed the trust and have been looking to overhaul the system: to make sure it’s robust and can work in what is now a very different environment. We’re really pushing to create a support structure that has some financial basis, to ensure that the productions are run well and are reported on well. Patronage is important because we are a charitable trust and that gives a whole tax incentive so we’ve taken all the next steps and are gaining some really strong support out there.

“We want to make Summer Shakespeare one of those events on the calendar that people really want to go to, because opportunities to see Shakespeare will get fewer and fewer over the years, and people need to cut their teeth on something big.

“My son will probably get to the end of high school and unless he asks for it, he won’t be given any Shakespeare. That’s just crazy. People just don’t see it. Nobody can afford to put it on any longer. I’m saying that this [Shakespearean theatre] is an absolute goldmine of spiritual uplifting.” He laughs. “I’m not religious, just saying it in a human way. But it’s really important we have this in our lives. We can’t afford to just let it go away.”

Emeritus Professor Mac Jackson, textual adviser for the production, sees King Lear as one of the world’s greatest dramas. As an actual play, he says, he ranks Hamlet higher, “but as a dramatic poem Lear is one of the greatest works ever written…. Shakespeare has taken such extravagant risks, pushing the form of drama to its outer limits.”

Mac once saw an interview with actor Sam Neill (former partner of Lisa Harrow) who was asked if he would ever play a classic role like King Lear.

Said Sam: “I couldn’t do it, but my brother could.”

And in this production, Sam’s brother will.

For Emeritus Professor Michael Neill (described by Lisa as “a sort-of brother-in-law”) King Lear will be the first role he has played since the 1970s. He conceived the desire to play the part a few years ago when he found himself “called by the voice of King Lear: The key to Lear is that he is an old man. The key to the part is that it’s all about voice.”

“I’ve never done Lear before,” he adds with a smile. “I’ve never been old enough before” (which echoes what Mac Jackson refers to as “a green room paradox” – that by the time an actor is mature enough to play Lear he no longer has the huge stamina it requires). It was at Michael’s suggestion that King Lear became the chosen play for the 50th anniversary. The production, though not yet planned in detail, is already vivid in Lisa’s mind.

“I Imagine a dark world, where brooding sculptures form iconic images that can be used… to express the strong themes of the play: heraldic symbols, a throne transformed into a hovel, the twisted, dead trees on the blasted heath, gibbets, and a dark world lit by brilliant flashes of colour from the costumes of Ngila Dickson [who did the costumes also for Lord of the Rings].

“I hear throbbing drums and searing horns fighting the constant presence of a wind that howls and I hear Michael’s voice soaring above the storm, pounding the heavens with a rage.” Among other big names involved will be Gareth Farr, who has agreed to create the music; Ian Mune, who is to play Gloucester; and Michael Noonan, (the first manager of the University Bookshop and director of Richard II for Summer Shakespeare in 1969) who will take a cameo role as “the old man”. The designer is to be Jessica Verryt (following in the footsteps of her father John), assisted by well-known sculptors Greer Twiss and Michael Parekowhai. Says Michael Hurst: “This will be a gift of a learning opportunity” – right in the spirit of Summer Shakespeare.

“Before there were drama and music schools there were always people who worked with the younger actors and artists,” adds Lisa. “That’s how you learned to do the craft of acting, painting, dancing.” And that’s what Summer Shakespeare aims for today.

For both Michael and Lisa, King Lear is among the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays, retaining an intense and disturbing relevance to the present day.

“This is a play of disintegration,” says Lisa. “There is almost nobody left at the end. Everybody is destroyed or changed irrevocably. “What I think about when I think about King Lear – because, I guess, of the world that I live in – is that it speaks to the environmental collapse that all of us are living through now as a species, where our hubris and our mindlessness and our greed and our capacity to just take and take and not in any way give – has resulted in a situation where the systems that support us are collapsing. I wanted to think of the play as a metaphor for that. If I could put global warming on the stage and the loss of fish, the loss of species, the loss of Maui dolphins, the lack of food, all of that. “If I could put that on the stage for King Lear I would feel I had done my job right.”

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  1. Noeline Webb says:

    Thank you, Michael. Lear will be wonderful, I’m sure, and I’d love to be part of it – hopefully re-new some friendships made during ‘Wastelands’ in 2011.

    Cheers, Noeline Webb

  2. John says:

    This year’s Summer Shakespeare was one of the best seasons yet.

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