Monday, 25 August 2014

Shakespeare's Secret: So long lives this…

By Jane Seeber

You’d expect a writer’s festival audience attending “Shakespeare’s Secret” to enjoy the promised ‘songs, sonnets and soliloquies’, and you’d be right. The real joy was in the performers, though, and it was their revelling in Shakespeare that lifted this night. That, and the rock and roll. . .

Rock n roll, folk, banjo, mandolin, cello,
old Bill Shakespeare and more
Pic. Jane Seeber
. . . and folk, and banjo, and mandolin, and ever so gloriously, Lore Burns’ cello. It’s a tribute to the music that even the speeches Shakespeare wrote to be bad – Benedict’s banal poetry, Claudio’s clumsy eulogy to Hero – could achieve genuine feeling. Richard Piper, Paul Norton and their annoyingly talented company of family and friends have collectively acted, sung or composed – sometimes all three - more of Shakespeare than most of the crowd had seen. And that, at MWF, is saying something.

It wasn’t all music, though. Amidst the red velvet and threadbare flags of Bella Union, we were treated to Helen Morse delivering Ophelia’s demise, not to mention Cleopatra and a sonnet. Ms Morse’s delivery allowed the innuendo of ‘long purples’ and the humanity of Ophelia ‘incapable of her own distress’ to strike you equally anew within seconds of one another.

This is where the heart of the show shines through; the words and what they can do, with instruments or not. Shakespeare knew people and politics, as Sonnet 66 in Russian (with vodka-dry Ukranian side-references) reminds us.

While A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing featured heavily, we also heard from lesser known plays and lesser known parts, including the gloriously and awfully appropriate speech on ‘that smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity’ from King John.

The alchemy of words and music is hard to dissect, though. The eerie, Celtic performance of the lullaby in Midsummer might well have been a spell, and the toe-tapping ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ (Under the Greenwood Tree) must surely be a 50s classic that I just haven’t recognised. Dogberry’s harmonica on what really could be a Bob Dylan classic “I am an Ass”; well - let’s just hope it’s written down.

The audience was actually toe-tapping, not to mention foot-stomping and head-nodding (only once in a sleepy way – and he looked kinda old, let’s face it). I surveyed a neighbour on whether you’d enjoy this show even if you didn’t know some Shakespeare and we decided that if you weren’t sold on the music, you had no heart.

Richard Piper and crew have been doing this for a while now, so you might be lucky enough to catch another incarnation at one of Melbourne’s many festivals. They can close on ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and still sell you. You’ll be humming “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, and when you’re wondering who thee is –the dark lady? Lore Burns and her cello? Dogberry and the ass? – perhaps you should also wonder who has done this to you. I suspect it’s Will, but then, I would, and I’d be underestimating these players.

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