Saturday, October 8, 2016

Shakespeare season:

I love it when I’m reading a book, and then I stumble across an interview with the author on the radio, or I catch a film set in the exact location and historical period of the text, or someone loans me a book by another author from the same school of thought as the first. It feels like a holistic education into this author’s world. I’m no longer dipping my toe into their ideas; I’m being dunked completely, and it’s great.

It’s probably the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work, but it feels like serendipity. And for the past few months, my serendipitous Baader-Meinhof encounters were all about Shakespeare. He managed to find his way into everything, and I couldn’t be happier.

In my work as a private tutor, I got to walk with a number of high school students as they met Macbeth and absorbed The Taming of the Shrew. I also worked with some middle grade students as they started on an introduction to Shakespeare, exploring Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. I was careful not to delve too much into Shakespeare’s cheeky sexual allusions – which are kindly oblique for a younger audience – but I was thoroughly impressed with how willing these students were to wrap their minds around Shakespeare’s language, to master the nuances of iambic pentameter.

Here were kids twelve and under, some of them still mastering basic English spelling rules, delighted to read lines together, to be assigned roles as characters in the plays, and to mark up the rhyme schemes of a Shakespearean sonnet. When we discussed how most of the women’s roles were played by men in Shakespearean times, an eight year old piped up, “So that means Viola would’ve been a man acting as a lady acting as a man? How confusing!” Yes, adorable clever cookie, you nailed it.

The Shakespeare love continued in my short commute to work, as I listened to Bolinda’s audiobook of Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl. If you’ve not experienced audiobooks before, you might not realise just how much reading you can power through in a twenty or thirty minute trip. And Vinegar Girl proved to be ideal for pre- and post-work listening, a perfect blend of drama and comedy.

Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series launched in October 2015, reinventions of some of the bard’s greatest works, newly imagined by incredible authors including Margaret Atwood and Tracy Chevalier. Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s take on The Taming of the Shrew, tweaked to tell the story of twenty-something Kate Battista.

Kate is stuck in a job she’s intellectually over-qualified for, does too much chasing around for her absent-minded professorial father, and is frankly concerned about her spoiled and occasionally vacant younger sister, Bunny. That her father and her sister take Kate for granted is a given. What Kate does not expect is her father’s sudden request that Kate fill the role of wife in a hastily-arranged green card marriage to Pyotr, Dr Battista’s soon-to-be-deported research partner.

Vinegar Girl is truly a delight. It manages to strike all the high points and hilarity of Shakespeare’s play, but somehow avoids the ickiness that jars in the original plot. Vinegar Girl also captures what feels like a recent and relevant confusion, the sense of delayed adolescence and the challenge of hitting that magical space between reality and expectations. I did not expect Vinegar Girl to be so relatable, but I found myself first horrified by the proposition Kate is offered, then cheering for her as she claims agency for herself and makes brave and daring decisions. This was a seriously fun book to hear, with a very satisfying conclusion.

Finally, the Shakespeare joy continued when I was able to see Twelfth Night performed locally by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble. My mother and I spent a mesmerised evening thoroughly transported by QSE’s interpretation of this beloved, ridiculous tale of mistaken identity. It was incredibly funny and incredibly musical – fast-paced, uproarious, traditional yet contemporary. And it was a special treat to see theatre-goers of all ages laughing and relishing every Elizabethan moment. The power of Shakespeare is truly alive and kicking.

Tonight, I’m off to see Othello with a friend. Two Shakespeare plays in as many months – what luxury! Tonight’s performance is by the Bell Shakespeare Company, so I know that we’ll be in for a treat. Then, of course, I have Jackie French’s The Diary of William Shakespeare burning a hole in my to-be-read pile. I absolutely must catch up on the other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. And I bought King Lear in Pelican’s gorgeously-redesigned editions. I guess the season of Shakespeare is set to continue for a little while longer…