By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
At a stressful moment when a virus is conspiring to make borders, to divide us from each other, what is live theatre to do? It is, after all, an art devoted by very definition to creating an imaginative connection, directly, with real people. Sharing, on the spot. But there’s this: Ingenuity and inventiveness are a theatre specialty. And though gatherings are on hold (which is vital, but lordie, how we miss them), creativity stops for no mere virus.
Shakespeare himself, actor/ playwright/ theatre impresario par excellence, negotiated his way through periodic outbreaks of the plague. He’s the resident playwright at Malachite Theatre, a trans-Atlantic indie company that specializes in Shakespeare (and divides its time and human resources between Edmonton and London). And Malachite is determined bring its audience an international experience to share — live, or as live as possible.
Wine Wednesdays and Taco Tuesdays may not be happening. But Shakespeare Sundays are gathering momentum, in a weekly series of play readings chosen to follow Shakespeare’s history play cycle, in story order.
Artistic director Benjamin Blyth explains Malachite’s bright idea. Via the free and interactive online platform Zoom, every Sunday — morning here (11 a.m.) and evening in the U.K. — an international cast of artists joins an international gathering of audience members, for another play in the history cycle.
Why the history plays? Says Blyth, “they’re all about privilege, isolationism, greed, nationalism.” You can’t argue with the fit, times being what they are.
Last week’s inaugural offering was the rarely performed Richard II, about a disastrously unqualified leader urged to abdication. “And I was just amazed how well it went,” says Blyth. “It was really an international event, artists and audiences interfacing from the U.K., Canada, U.S., China … places Malachite has toured.” And the reading was followed by a group discussion. “Heartwarming times in iambic pentameter!” as billed.
As he says, “everyone is in the same boat,” and hungry for a shared theatre experience. In a cast of 20-plus (“we don’t have to worry about doubling the parts”), he himself played the Duke of York, and his actor/composer wife Danielle LaRose played the Duchess of York.
This Sunday coming up, it’s Henry IV Part One, a play rich in vivid characters, including the great carousing dissolute John Falstaff and his drinking buddies (Prince Hal among them), and the fierce high-achiever Hotspur. And Blyth is hoping for a cast of upward than 30, depending on who signs up before the parts are assigned Saturday night. Ben Waring, an actor currently living on a boat in Suffolk, England, played Bolingbroke in Richard II, and he reprises his role in Henry IV Part One. “He has a three-month-old baby boy Christopher, who makes an appearance from time to time,” says Blyth.
The Zoom app, already much in use in the business world for meetings, is admirably suited to bringing artists and audiences together, says Blyth. “At home you can turn video or sound (of yourself) On or Off,” depending on whether you prefer just to watch and listen in, or be visible as part of the audience. Your view, adjustable on the app, can be “speaker only, or the gallery view, everyone at once.”
So your preferences and idiosyncrasies as an audience member can be accommodated. Are you the person who always gravitates to the back of any theatre? Under the circumstances do you prefer to stay in your bathrobe? You can turn the video off.
“It works really well for a reading,” says Blyth of the debut edition. “It flattens the distance between actor and audience…. You can join in. Or not. Oddly, it’s more intense, in a way, since you’re invited into people’s homes.” And here’s a bonus for Shakespeare: “you don’t need to cut the play,” to fit the time requirements of the theatre venue.
The post-reading discussion is “in the Q and A style. So if you want to offer something, you can go for it. It’s really good as a way of encouraging active listening.” He laughs. “It’s a very polite medium; everyone gets space to speak, and reflect.”
“It closes distances. It’s great to see people from the north of England next to people from Calgary, and someone in New York…. And to know that this conversation is happening across vast distances.” And there’s something intimate about the whole experience. Blyth laughs. LaRose “made cookies in the middle of Act II, and they appeared later in the play.”
“Now we’re keen to explore what the production possibilities are,” says Blyth, who’s looking at reviving the Malachite Macbeth that ran at Holy Trinity Church in 2019.
“The conversation is a way of building an international community. Breaking down borders that have newly gone up…. We’re a community that comes together to share stories. It’s a way of bridging physical distances without social distancing!”
Here are Blyth’s instructions. “The Zoom link: https://zoom.us/j/9520455493. Please download the zoom app to your computer or phone first, then click the link above to join on Sunday!”