Just in time for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (who is looking pretty good for someone who hit their quadricentennial without even breaking a sweat), theatre company Sport For Jove will be staging Twelfth Night at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre. We speak with director Damien Ryan about the Great Bard’s enduring appeal, and the timeliness of the production in Australia’s current political land- and sea-scape.

Sport For Jove is an award-winning repertory theatre that, since 2009, has already staged more Shakespeare than you can shake a stick at. It’s safe to say at this point that Wild Dog Will (as Shakespeare likely did not prefer to be called) has forever entrenched himself at the forefront of Western literature, but with his plays being performed with such regularity, the difficulties in staging a fresh production must be rather significant.

“It’s certainly a fun challenge,” Damien admits. “I think it’s critical in any production to instill some original concepts. When you really turn a classic play on its head there’s the worry that you might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it can produce a wonderful effect in an audience who thinks they know exactly what to expect. You have to stay true to what the play is trying to do, but you at least try to open a few new doors.”

I have seen firsthand the bristling protectiveness of certain audiences towards Shakespeare, where any deviation from original dialogue or plot is met with undisguised disdain. Conversely, many productions have become lost in well-intentioned but baffling reimagining (a version of Othello where the characters were depicted as birds springs to mind). The line between is remarkably fine.

“There’s a need to not overestimate an audience’s knowledge of the play by bringing a production that is so different, so out of shape that there’s nothing familiar for them to latch onto. And that seems to happen a little bit in this country, I feel. Certain productions assume a degree of knowledge of Shakespeare just as they will assume a degree of boredom in the plays. There’s some need to try and turn them into something better than they are. People often ask, is Shakespeare still relevant? And of course he’s still relevant! He talks about what it means to be a father, a daughter, a lover, a sister, a brother, a king. His plays address really fundamental, eternal ideas.”

One of the more timely ideas addressed in this production is the plight of asylum seekers, a character type that appears throughout Shakespeare more often than you would think. Great comedy is often laced with an edge of political commentary (just think of Monty Python), andTwelfth Nightis no exception.

Twelfth Nightis obviously a very famous play that’s been done many times, part of what you might call his shipwreck stories. It’s actually quite a political production in a way, with the current asylum seeker debate. Shakespeare clearly had a lot of empathy for such people, he wrote several beautiful passages about what it is to wash up, seeking asylum. In every one of these shipwrecks stories you have someone being terribly lost. Families who are ripped apart. What he does in each of those stories is to produce a miracle that by the end has been able to bring these people back together. It’s particularly interesting inTwelfth Night. It’s set in a land where they live in quite an affluent culture, they spend their time concerned with celebrity and very Western problems, and into it washes this distraught pair of twins who have lost everything; their father, each other. It really struck me as a play that reminds us of Australia’s current asylum situation, so there’s a slight political element that exists there now. It’s almost like Shakespeare dared to tap a couple of these poor souls and show us a little of their lives, their story, and it’s quite close to this country today.”

Twelfth Night is on fromWednesday March 5 to Sunday March 8 at Riverside Theatre, Paramatta.

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