Debate: Shakespeare Now and Then

The panel discuss Shakespeare with Bailey's Macbeth looming overhead.
The panel discuss Shakespeare with Bailey’s Macbeth looming overhead.

‘Shakespeare’ is an encompassing and weighty word that needs no introduction, yet can all-too often conjure up stuffy images of men in collars and puffy-pants, seriously reciting soliloquies to a drowsy audience. Love it, despise it, or simply do not understand it, Shakespeare undeniably carries with it a complex context of imperialism and colonial baggage, especially here in Africa. Using the pretext of Chris Thurman’s new book, South African Essays on ‘Universal’ Shakespeare, a new light was shone on to the topic by the vibrant and contrasting works and characters of National Arts Festival veterans Brett Bailey and Fred Abrahamse.

The panel discussed the ‘doublet and hose’ traditional interpretations that have dominated the ‘then’ of the past years, and the adaptations that they themselves have created. Here in the ‘now’ and centuries after the texts were written, the ‘universal’ power of Shakespeare shines through. Like “pebbles polished by the waters of time” (Bailey), what remains is themes and character archetypes that everyone can relate to and identify with on some level.

While Bailey’s Macbeth uses the skeleton of the Shakespearean story to serve as “a little key to tell the story of what is going on in the Congo”, Abrahamse’s work has involved staying true to the verse speaking and iambic pentameter of the text to rejuvenate the words for the youth through the existing rhythm of Shakespeare. Abrahamse is clear however that he is “not a purist”, but within the role of a purveyor of stories strives to remain “faithful to the intention of the author” in his adaptations.

Bailey, when questioned on the artistic dichotomy of originality vs appropriation, said: “I am not anxious about it. They are archetypal hangers on which to hang the garments of the day.” The consensus was that when striving to express our own sense of being, any handle or springboard we can grab onto to aid in directing our creativity and message should be considered inspirational and used. To use Bailey’s metaphor, works such as that of Shakespeare may provide a bright light and aura of magnificence, but it is you as the artist that creates the shade that goes around the light – YOU create the colour and pattern that is cast onto the wall for all to see.

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