Ronan Phelan talks to No More Workhorse about the national tour of his latest show for Rough Magic, Much Ado About Nothing.
Date and Times –
12th-13th November – The Everyman, Cork
15th November – Theatre Royal, Waterford
18th November – An Grianán, Letterkenny
20th November – Backstage Theatre, Longford
22th November – Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick
How did you react to Shakespeare in school? Did you always love his work?
Shakespeare didn’t make that much of an impression on me until university. I read Romeo and Juliet and King Lear at school, which largely involved translating Elizabethan English into contemporary language. Until I was 18 Shakespeare represented exercises in memorising essays on Themes, Imagery, and Narrative Structure. When I got to university, we took a different approach. We discovered that there was no hyperbole in the language; the images used by the characters were not merely decorative. They were the specific and necessary means of expression of how they were feeling at that moment in time. They were essential and urgent. I also remember vividly studying the famous flirtation scene between Romeo and Juliet and realising for the first time that they were enticing each other not only through the content of the line but also through the poetic form (in this case the form of the sonnet). It was a revelation to me that the use of language could be so deft, accurate, and playful, all at once.
This seems to be another young cast, much like Rough Magic’s productions in Kilkenny last year. Do you think the Seeds project has helped this decision?
Yes, this is a young cast, but that is a reflection of the concept for the production rather than a dictum of Rough Magic or a remit from Kilkenny. Much Ado at its most basic tells the story of a group of young soldiers who are still single, newly returned from a military campaign to Messina with the aim of getting drunk and hooking up with women. So casting young seemed appropriate!
It is true though that several members of the cast have previously appeared in Rough Magic SEEDS productions. Clare Barrett and Peter Corboy both featured in my showcase production of Assassins in 2013, for instance. This is one of the ways that Rough Magic continues to regenerate and is one of the secrets of its longevity. Rough Magic has always been plugged in to emerging artists, keen to identify the most exciting actors and theatre-makers as they emerge and through the SEEDS programme have had the opportunity to develop significant and long-standing relationships with them from the very beginning of their careers.
I have a number of friends who say that Shakespeare shouldn’t be tampered with. That Shakespeare knew best and his plays should be presented as he intended. What would your answer be to this?
Shakespeare is a remarkable playwright. Working on one of his plays now, almost five hundred years after it was written, and as hackneyed as it may sound, I am constantly surprised by the continuing relevance of his examination of the experience of being human. Without doubt, we are dealing with a remarkably empathetic and curious playwright whose powers of observation, and whose love of the tragic mess that is our lives, ensures that his work continues to stimulate and inspire.
However, Shakespeare was a man of the theatre, and very much a man of the world in which he lived. I don’t believe that if he were around today he would insist that his plays were performed in sixteenth-century costume in a circular wooden theatre. I believe that if he had access to the myriad technologies and the advanced craftsmanship of theatre today, he would utilise them to the full. Yes, not every new interpretation of a Shakespearean play is going to work, but the fact that directors are continually drawn to re-interpret his plays is a sign of their vitality and resilience.
About for this production?
I’d argue that, of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing is the one with the most contemporary resonance. It’s a play about gender roles and expectations, yes, but it’s also a play about love, and more importantly, it’s a play that takes love seriously. Ultimately, Much Ado About Nothing is set in a man’s world. Traditionally, Hero and Beatrice are the only female characters of note. Men may have held all official positions of power when the play was written, in 1598, but that’s not necessarily the case nowadays. So I wanted more women in the play and better parts for them. And of course, it is just as plausible for a woman to be the head of a family as a man – particularly in Ireland. So I decided to take the step of switching the gender of one of the main characters, the older figure in the play, father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice. In our production, Leonato becomes Leonata, played by Clare Barrett.
Leonata is the matriarch of the play, but she’s not necessarily a feminist hero. Leonata is a complex character. She lives in a misogynistic world, and she colludes in it too. Although she loves her daughter, she wants her to fulfil the expectations of the men in the play. She desperately wants her to get married, and when her daughter’s character is slandered, her mother sides with the men. There’s a complexity here, but it’s the complexity of real-life; that all of us can subscribe to an ideology that oppresses us.
Rough Magic’s Much Ado About Nothing tours to 6 theatre venues this month – for full tour details see – https://www.roughmagic.ie/archive/much-ado-about-nothing/