Interview with director James Evans

The cast of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: Photo by Clare Hawley

NORPA and TNR present Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

NORPA at Lismore City Hall  |  Tues 24 & Wed 25 September  |  7.30pm  |  13+  |  $25-$59

For 28 years the Bell Shakespeare Company have been presenting dynamic re-imaginings of the old bard’s classics, keeping the work vibrant, relevant, and challenging for both Shakespeare lovers and a whole new generation still stepping into the work. The latest Bell Shakespeare Production is Much Ado About Nothing, being presented at NORPA’s Lismore City Hall 24 & 25 September. The Echo spoke with director James Evans.

James, when did your passion for Shakespeare take hold?

I was in primary school! Year 6. My teacher read us a passage from The Merchant of Venice, the bit where Shylock is appealing to our common humanity: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?’ I was struck by the power of the language then and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

You teach a lot in schools. How do you try to reframe the ‘Shakespeare is boring’ mindset that most kids approach the work with?

When you talk about the life-and-death stakes in Shakespeare’s plays, the plot twists and the extreme drama, kids often forget that it’s supposed to be ‘boring’. I also remind them that Shakespeare didn’t write books, he wrote plays. They were meant to be spoken out loud and acted, not read like a novel. I introduce Shakespeare in bite-size chunks, and never try and get kids to read the whole play from start to finish.

Why has the work of Shakespeare stood the test of time like no other?

More than any other writer, he understood what makes us human – our joy, love, grief, envy, despair… the list goes on. He also understood how to present these emotions and characteristics from every possible perspective. You can never detect Shakespeare’s own ideology in his plays, because he doesn’t judge his characters. He presents human beings as they are and asks us, the audience, to judge.

Shakespeare explores grand themes in grand settings. How do you bring a point of difference and intimacy to such large and often well-trodden stories?

These stories are reinvented not only with each generation but with each production. Whenever you get a new team of artists in the room, they are going to come up with their own way of telling this story. I never start by plonking an interpretation onto the play and trying to shoehorn the text into my ‘vision’. I always start with Shakespeare’s text as the foundation, and the interpretation emerges from the language. The grand settings are just background – the real magic of Shakespeare comes from the characters’ relationships with each other and the audience. That is designed to be incredibly intimate.

Tell me about how you have chosen to stage Much Ado About Nothing.

Our production design is contemporary. The costumes and setting give an air of easy wealth and privilege, out of which much bad behaviour emerges… Also three of the characters who were written for men are played by women in my production. First of all Dogberry and Verges, the police officers, who are the funniest double-act in Shakespeare. We have so many hilarious women performers in this country, it’s not fair that they are excluded from these great roles. And then Antonio, whom I have made a matriarchal figure within the household. The character has a lot to say about the behaviour of young men, and it made sense to me in our modern climate to have a woman delivering those searing speeches.

What is it about this production of Shakespeare that appeals to you?

I love the cast. They are ten masterful storytellers who guide us through this emotional rollercoaster. And I love the pace – the show is full of energy and high-stakes moments of comedy and drama, all told through a modern lens.

What contemporary themes does it have to offer?

In its exploration of gender, it feels like Much Ado is particularly relevant to us today. The way the men talk about women is truly toxic, and that then translates into the horrible mistreatment of one of the female characters on her wedding day. Benedick and Beatrice, who are the quintessential rom-com couple, also have a serious function in the play. Benedick has to decide whether he will continue with his ‘bro’ lifestyle, or if he will step up and be an ally to the women. And Beatrice is the one who has to guide him there.

What should we expect from the show at NORPA at the end of the month?

I’ve edited the text to a tight two hours (plus interval). What emerges is a punchy, emotional, and very funny night in the theatre. Can’t wait for you to see it!

Much Ado About Nothing, presented by Bell Shakespeare at NORPA at Lismore City Hall, 24 & 25 September. Tix $25–59 at   1300 066 772

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