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PETER EVANS: BRINGING PERIOD BACK TO SHAKESPEARE

This interview was first published online at thespellofwakinghours in September 2015.

In October 2011, following two enormously strong productions for Bell Shakespeare – John Bell’s exuberant Much Ado About Nothing, and Michael Gow’s theatrically-encyclopaedic Faustus – Peter Evans’ production of Julius Caesar arrived in Sydney at the end of a four-month national tour. Intelligent, concise, and subtly condensed for a cast of ten, Evans’ Caesar was a rare example of a production which eloquently captured the contemporary mood (and political climate) in a raw, poetic and theatrical way. Robust, haunting, and profoundly gripping, it made me sit up and take notice of Evans’ work, and remains one of the cornerstone productions in my theatrical fascination with Shakespeare.

Peter Evans is Bell Shakespeare’s co-artistic director, and is about to take the reins of the company once John Bell concludes work on The Tempest. I sat down with Evans at the end of July for a discussion about playing the classics, his career as a director, the challenges facing a specialist company like Bell Shakespeare in Australia’s theatrical climate, his fascination with Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics, and what might lie ahead from 2016.

Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, Evans studied art history, history, and English at university in Auckland, but knew he wasn’t a good enough actor to have a career as one. While he admits he found university disappointing – “I had a very kind of Brideshead Revisited idea as a kid about what university would be like, that it would be this social place[,] a place of ideas” – it wasn’t until he joined the university’s theatre club that he felt all his artistic interests had “come together in one place.” Whilst there, he directed his first production – John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi – aged nineteen: “I was sounding off about the way I thought things should’ve been done – I was bullet-proof – and so somebody said ‘come and direct this.’” As a result, on the first day of rehearsals Evans believes he knew he’d found his vocation, that this was “the environment [he] felt most at home in.”

Since graduating from NIDA, Evans has spent most of his time as a director following two passions – directing new work, and directing classic texts like Shakespeare, Molière, and Racine, passions which very much inform his work to date with Bell Shakespeare. By his own admission, Evans says he’s spent much of his career working with naturalistic texts, and then using Shakespeare – or the heightened language and form of Shakespeare’s work – to “blow that stuff apart… and deal with form [and] bodies in space in a much more abstract way.”

Does the directing process change then, from newer work to working on older ‘classic’ texts? “I try to focus everything on what [best] fulfils the play – I try to create a process and way of working that [removes] the directing from it.” For a long period in the 2000s, Evans was doing a lot of “new work, particularly naturalistic new work,” and part of his mission was to remove his fingerprints from the play, and “make it really feel like it was the writer and the actor who were primary.”

With Bell Shakespeare however, most of Evans’ work has “had a much stronger directorial angle on it. A lot of the works [have] involved an exploration of a physical language,” one he tries to match Shakespeare’s heightened language with in order to “create a world that looks at the form of the plays,” at the way they move on stage. This interrogation of form – and what different forms can bring to a piece – sits at the core of Evans’ work at Bell Shakespeare. I first noticed it in his Caesar – on a largely bare stage ringed by black office chairs, the cast crossed the stage in a group, either fast or in slow-motion and, upon reaching the edge of the space, would slow down, almost to a stop, and then exit. I later discovered this was brought about through an appropriation of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics, a movement style which grows out of an application of a physical alphabet of movements and actions in response to the text, and seeks to remove the ingrained responses we habitually use without thinking. Not limited to his production of Julius Caesar, Evans has gone on to use the same technique in one form or another in all of his work for Bell Shakespeare since then. I’m interested to know where this came from, as a tool or as an aesthetic kind of visual language. 

“I’ve made a number of shows where I worked with Laban’s technique, as well; I’ve always been interested in a choreographic form, in a physical language. I’ve always found that meeting heightened language was really interesting; I’m interested in a kind of otherworldliness much more than I am in making the works fit into a ‘real space.’ I’m more interested in the way they float on the stage…”

While working on Paul Galloway’s play Realism at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2009 – “a farce about a theatre company after Meyerhold had been ‘disappeared’” – Evans worked with choreographer Nigel Poulton to create a sequence in which “we told a little bit of Meyerhold’s life in the ‘style of’ Meyerhold. So Nigel worked for about ninety minutes every day with the actors, and we had a whole process built around that.” After the first week of rehearsals, Evans remembers saying ‘we’ve got to do Shakespeare with this,’ but it wasn’t until 2010 when Bell Shakespeare asked him to direct Caesar, that he “went straight to Nigel and said ‘I think this could be a collaboration.’” Their collaboration has continued in “about half the stuff that I do, so it was Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally a schools-only production in 2013, it was restaged as part of Bell Shakespeare’s mainstage season in 2014 as The Dream). While there were traces of Meyerhold’s system in Evans’ productions of Phèdre and As You Like It, it was more from “a continuation of my interest in that stuff, [rather than] the whole process. There’s always that stuff, even if I’m not [conscious of it]… But next year, both productions I’m doing, we’re going to [use Meyerhold], and really go for it, spend most of the year working on it, because I still think there’s a lot to be mined out of it.”

It has other benefits, Evans continues, in terms of ensemble-building and using a collective language around physicality, a sense of chorus “that I find really invigorating… If you are creating a world that’s not just like our world, it’s good to have a set of terms so that you build this new abstract world together. [I’m] kind of intrigued where that can go.”

In mid-2013, around the time Evans directed Phèdre for Bell Shakespeare, he said in an article in The Australian that he had “an enormous amount to learn” from being co-artistic director of the company alongside John Bell. Fast-forward two years, and Evans is now planning his first season as sole artistic director, and I wonder if this has changed at all. Evans pauses for a brief moment, before saying that it’s part of his job as an artist to feel as though he’s still got more to learn. “I think particularly when you’re working on these sorts of plays, the more you learn and the more you understand them, the more you realise how much there is. And that’s what keeps me doing it, what keeps me excited about it.” He continues, saying that he hopes this excitement will carry over to audiences, that the “journey of exploring these plays is one they [feel they] can go on with me,” and he hopes to challenge an audience’s expectations of these plays and what they can be in performance.

As Evans steers Bell Shakespeare through its period of transition from one artistic director to another, I wonder if the challenges of leading a theatre company in Australia are magnified when it comes to Bell Shakespeare and its unique position as Australia’s only mainstage classical theatre company, as well as our only nationally-touring theatre company. Evans, however, believes the “challenges are [no] different than they have been with John [Bell]… I think generally for theatre at the moment, we’re going through another tricky phase, with so much competition and so much good work going on in many ways. We keep talking about exploiting our point of difference – being a classical theatre company – and really coming out for Shakespeare.” Echoing sentiments shared by many theatre-makers currently negotiating the digitisation of experiences, Evans continues, saying “the collective experience with live Shakespeare is something you can’t replicate on your TV – there’s something about it that is a pressure and a difficulty, and in a way, it is one of the strengths as well.”

On a number of occasions, John Bell has remarked upon the box-office risk inherent in staging “lesser known Shakespearean works.” While Evans acknowledges it is “not getting any easier now than it was [ten] years ago,” he still maintains that “the box-office thing is just the box-office thing… [There will always be] plays that people don’t know, or feel they don’t know, or that might be difficult.” To compound the issue, “there’s more going on, there’s more for people to do; there are more ways for people to spend their theatrical money.”

Part of Evans’ solution – even though he admits he doesn’t “really have an answer [at] the moment” – is to “keep building the brand, building people’s trust in the work you do, and then quietly taking them into different areas.” This can be seen in recent years as Bell Shakespeare has staged plays like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Racine’s Phèdre, and Molière’s The School for Wives and Tartuffe (albeit in new versions and adaptations by Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman; Ted Hughes; and Justin Fleming, respectively). Evans also recognizes the benefit of adaptation and conflation, citing Benedict Andrews’ production of War of the Roses for Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Festival in 2009, and Eamon Flack’s As You Like It for Belvoir in 2011 as examples of playing with the text, of taking liberties with what is needed to be able to tell the story – indeed, in the very way the story is told – but believes Bell Shakespeare’s responsibility, as a company, lies in textual fidelity “as much as we can.”

He goes on to cite Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of The Dream as an interesting example of this. Initially presented as a schools’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sydney and Melbourne in 2013, The Dream was presented as part of Bell Shakespeare’s mainstage season in Canberra, Melbourne, and Wollongong in 2014. But, in changing the title from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to simply The Dream in order to “encompass the fact it was ninety minutes and all the rest of it,” Evans believes the new title “actually did it a disservice; I think in some people’s minds, they didn’t think they were going to get the full experience, which I really think that production was.”

As was inevitable with this conversation, we soon turn to what Evans’ plans are for Bell Shakespeare over the next few years. “I’m really interested in exploring period. The company’s done some really interesting period things over the years, but it has fundamentally been a contemporary company. I’m particularly interested in what I would suggest are absolutely contemporary productions but may in fact be set inside a certain period; I’m really interested in what would happen if the costuming happened to be period but everything else about it had a contemporary sensibility. That’s something I’m going to try and explore next year, and try and answer some of those questions.”

Questions such as what is ‘period’? How does it meet these plays? What actually is ‘contemporary’? What does ‘contemporary’ look like? As for the extent of Evans’ experimenting and its ramifications, we might have got a glimpse of it in his production of Tartuffe from 2014, but it’s an exciting prospect. “I’m also really interested in what the live-ness of that experience is, [and] I feel like I’ve been in dialogue with for some time now.” Over the next two or three years, Evans says he will be working on the more popular, “well-known edge” of Shakespeare’s plays, “trying to see how these things work in conversation with people’s expectations of these plays. I’d like to fill their positive expectations of these plays, and also challenge anyone’s negative expectations.”

Shakespeare’s company – The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or The King’s Men as they later became – as much as his work, were configured and fine-tuned to particular spaces like The Theatre and The Globe. “There’s something about the theatricality of Shakespeare – it’s completely three-dimensional – and the pace with which it moves through different ‘rooms’ is so exciting. What is the theatricality of that? That’s something I also want to explore.”

Underneath all of Evans’ questioning of what live Shakespeare – what live theatre – can be, is a determination to approach these four-hundred-year-old plays with a “uniqueness, a diversity of playing, a diversity of the ways in which these plays can be played.” In a company like Bell Shakespeare, “part of our job is to show the diverse ways in which you can explore the plays, [to show that] there isn’t a definitive production of any play, and there’s so much that can be explored and so many ways in which you can explore it.” And it is this exploration which he’s keen to mine in the coming years, keen for “everyone [to] find something for themselves in it.”

I wonder if there are any of Shakespeare’s plays that Evans would like to revisit, have another go at directing. Hamlet and King Lear both make the list, but they’re both “plays I probably won’t do for the next five years.” Twelfth Night is there too – “at some point I really want to do that play, but I don’t really know how; it’s a tricky play – marvellous, but very strange” – as well as Much Ado About Nothing, “but John [Bell] did such a marvellous production of that in 2011, I feel [he] said stuff that I want to say, and I don’t feel the need for the company [to do it for a while] which I think is important too.

“Every play should feel like you need to come back and do [it again]. There’s nothing I haven’t done that I haven’t thought ‘I need to come back and have a crack at it when I’ve got more…’ This really is work that you measure your life against; where you are in life informs how you [interpret a play], and it’s really surprising then what you bring to the work.” It brings to mind a quotation from Virginia Woolf I have above my desk: “To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare’s comments on what we know.”

There are also plays which haven’t been seen on a Sydney mainstage for a while, such as Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra – “I certainly think [that] needs to get done pretty soon” – and it is this last title which makes me quite interested for what Evans might do with it, having seen (and loved) what he did with Caesar. Evans himself has been thinking along the same lines; he cites Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon five-and-a-half-hour Roman Tragedies (seen in Australia as part of the 2014 Adelaide Festival) as an example of how to do the three ‘big’ Roman plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra – in a immediate and contemporary setting. “To be reminded of how good those three plays are together was really interesting… I don’t know how [a production of Anthony and Cleopatra] will form, but I’m sure there are a number of people thinking about it.

There is more that I want to ask Evans but our time is almost up. With the launch of his first solo season as artistic director fast approaching, I wonder what we may be able to expect in 2016. Evans leans in across the table and lowers his voice, as if he’s about to say… But there’s a knock at the door – a conference call is waiting – and the spell is broken. “There’s going to be two big fat popular Shakespeares, and there’s going to be a Molière,” he says by way of conclusion. If the promise is anything to go by – another of Justin Fleming’s new versions of Molière – then we should be in for an exciting year ahead, and a new era in Bell Shakespeare’s commitment to the theatrical diversity of this country.

“I hope that the audience always knows that they’re going to get a very well thought-through and thoughtful production, but that each of them is going to have a new and a fresh kind of look at the work. I think that would be fair.”