Shake it up: the Bard is back at the International Festival
Dan Jemmett arrives to reclaim Shakespeare as popular and funny with a little help from vaudeville
'My grandfather had a mistress whose name was Ella Shields. She was a cross-dressing vaudeville performer who created the character Burlington Bertie. I have a signed photo she gave to my grandfather. I certainly had her in mind as I re-read Twelfth Night and imagined a version of the play.'
Dan Jemmett's vision for his adaptation of Shakespeare's classic comedy of love and mistaken identity clearly comes from a more personal angle than the predictable interpretations of the Bard. Not only does he split the 18 characters between five actors – with the characters jumping between identities and genders – he situates the action not in the distant past on an island far away, but in a 1970s' seaside resort, complete with a kitsch selection of musical choices and a vintage turntable.
The Shakespeare industry – currently touting 2016 as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death with predictable choices from the canon – has simultaneously promoted Shakespeare as a British icon and turned his lively and populist scripts into symbols of dry, tedious theatre. With Shake, Jemmett's imagination, however, rescues Twelth Night from idolatry.
His relocation to Paris perhaps encourages his iconoclasm. 'I don't think that I would ever have been interested in working on a Shakespeare play before I left the UK,' he says. Now working with the Eat a Crocodile company in Paris, he recognises that French theatre, with its roots in the Greek classics, gives him the opportunity to react against a conservative attitude.
'I think French theatre has remained quite courtly,' he continues. 'The notion that theatre might be "popular" is generally frowned upon by those working in the state-funded sector.' In his time, of course, Shakespeare was determinedly populist. Indeed, even Voltaire, who attempted to challenge the conservatism of French theatre in the 18th century, would criticise 'vulgar' performances by claiming they were 'too English' and Shakespearian.
'It's this tension between the experimental and the popular which has informed my dramaturgical approaches to texts (such as Twelfth Night), working in the French language,' he explains. Since Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's comedies, it is supposed to be accessible and even funny.
'Shakespeare obviously enjoyed his gags, although it is his gags that are often dated and almost impossible to perform for a contemporary audience. For me, in Twelfth Night for example, the comedy lies in the characters and in the situations they find themselves in. It is in the playing around with these elements in rehearsal that the potential for comedy is released.'
Shakespeare's humour, however, does retain a contemporary edge. The messing around with gender identity – a princess disguises herself as male courtier, only to provoke restless longings in her master's beloved – and the extended celebrations of drunken, boisterous behaviour by the punningly named Toby Belch, suggests an anarchic wit that, ultimately, banishes puritan impulses through mockery. By relocating the action to a more familiar location, Jemmett evokes another, very British tradition that is enjoying a renaissance.
'The clown is a mysterious, and essential archetype, and vaudeville – leading to variety and then televised light entertainment – is a particular, historic emanation of that archetype,' he explains, before recalling some more familiar inspirations. 'Laurel and Hardy have been important for me. But then also the Two Ronnies.' Somewhere between the erudite consideration of theatre's histories, and earthy, immediate comedy, Jemmett has discovered a Shakespeare who is often hidden by reverence and respectful interpretations.
Lyceum, until 13 Aug, 7.30pm (also 2.30pm, 12 & 13 Aug), £10–£32.