In Conversation with Riot Act's Whit Hertford on "Versions"5th January 2016
The idea for the “Versions” came out of opportunity and a boiling addiction. The Courtyard asked me to curate a month of programming that coincided with the 400th commemoration of Shakespeare’s life, and because I have a true vice for scrapping away at classical conventions of theatre, it felt like the right fit. So I began to pair what I was already working on for their main space (“Dóttir”) and spoke to a handful of writers and directors in London, friends of mine that have the same desire to reinterpret what are normally handled like corpses or dusty old museum displays - and asked them to join me. I’m from the States and America has a tough time not treating these plays of Shakespeare’s as relics. To me, that’s the antithesis of the objective of theatre, it’s to create pieces that are vibrant and necessary.
How did Romeo & Juliet, Much A Do About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Julia Caesar make the cut for "Versions"?
The plays that the different productions of “Versions” have been based off of came from a mixture of personal preference and current landscapes. A play that examines seven of Shakespeare’s discarded daughter characters is relevant today because: A. it’s never been written in this manner and B. women in various cultures and environments are still treated as inferior, drawing a true parallel between Elizabethan drama and 2016. The other issues “Versions” taps into are that of sexuality, gender identity, modern love, and the varied agenda of politics and the media - all still in orbit in London and other parts of the world today.
You have written and are directing Dottir (5th-31st January), as well as directing Coverage (26th-31st January), what is it about these plays that captured your attention and made you want to tell these stories?
“Dóttir" probably comes from me being raised for a majority of my life by a single-mother, she’s a warrior, and so the importance of a mother figure is in my DNA and rings vital for me. In studying Shakespeare for over 20 years now, noticing that he wrote over 30 female characters that only had very dominating (and often times) abusive fathers or husbands to cling to. I wondered what the fuck that was about? Why did he use that as a model over and over? And why do we as an audience accept that and cheer Othello on when he’s fairly awful to Desdemona? Is it because Shakespeare was just writing from what he saw in the late 16th century of England? Was he a misogynist and wanted to see women tortured emotionally and physically? Or was he such a genius that he reverse-engineered strong women by making them overcome such horrible conditions. I believe it’s the latter. But it was bizarre to me that it's been dissected in a narrative form yet. I also think America, again my frame of reference in large part, reveres and idolises Shakespeare in an odd-way. They treat it as an untouchable entity. Just until recently with Ivo Van Hove’s A View From A Bridge, the UK handled America plays with a similar preciousness. I think what happens is that whatever isn’t that country’s export gets coddled for fear of offending. But the rules are gone when the reverse happens, British theatre has been reinventing Shakespeare since Harvey Granville-Barker took his productions and removed all classic scenery and replaced it with symbolic scenery, as well as enforcing ensemble acting. That was a fairly new concept at the time. Or when Peter Brook and his iconically bizarre and stripped down, “white box” production of Midsummer, revolutionized an approach to the Bard. America has been deconstructing their most classic exports of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, etc. for a long time. It’s now becoming that those strange cultural hesitations are going by the wayside and it needn’t be resorted to just Shakespeare or American drama. I recently adapted and directed Chekhov’s The Seagull retitled “The Misbegotten Hope of the Dirty Bird (or A Meditation on the Proper Use of Firearms in Dramatic Literature)” - and embraced the fact that I feel both the positive and negative critiques of Chekhov are similar to what is liked / disliked about one of my favourite filmmakers, Wes Anderson. So those two storytellers I had an instinct were the perfect match and so I merged the tenets of both genres, and I was really happy with what that production became.
Coverage comes from writer Ashley Pearson. She felt that the reporting of the Caeser story from inside an American newsroom would be the perfect place and crafted a brilliant script that reinvigorates a way to tell this Rome story. Being a liberal from the States, I am frustrated, annoyed and angry at the right-wing rhetoric in my home country found a plenty through FOX news and hate-filled neoconservative biased agendas. So we took it and thought offering a parody of that media construct would invoke an amazing amount of new, dark comedy in Caeser which is normally a very straight-forward play. Linking the two worlds has seemed fateful since day one.
What was your first interaction with Shakespeare's work and how did it make you feel as a creative?
I first was fully introduced to Shakespeare as an undergraduate theatre actor in 1997. I came from a film and TV background, so Shakespeare was foreign and stale to me. Through four years of conservatory training and the irreplaceable mentoring I received from teachers and scholars, my eyes were changed. I now find myself continually going back to these stories, because they are indeed, the greatest things ever written. Complex, relatable, imaginative, challenging. Nothing compares. I’ve now acted in ten of the thirty plays and have directed three of them and find endless new ideas and interest in them.
With over 36 plays, a collection of poems and multitudes of sonnets to his name, which Shakespearean piece of work stands out as your favourite?
My favourites change often, but I find the middle period between Much Ado and ending with Macbeth as his most interesting gathering. It was clearly his sweat spot. Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night and As You Like It all swap turns with my affections. I do really want to take the magic plays of Midsummer and The Tempest and give them a spin that I think would invoke practicality to the sort of frothy elements of those two plays.
If you could describe this season in one sentence what would it be?
How would you like audience members to remember this season and what would you like them to take away from the performances shown throughout the month?
I would like people who have possibly a limited knowledge of Shakespeare to not worry and just come and see. I want those that have an affinity for these root plays to come bringing all of that adoration in a backpack, but to take that off, set it by their seat and allow what they’re seeing wash over them. These are all new plays. Just as Shakespeare was a master thief and re-interpretor of the stories of the Bible and the Greeks, the writers, directors and actors of Riot Act’s season offer a demystification and deconstruction to breathe new oxygen into that which has been treated like a restorative process of painting. For centuries productions have hid flaws with more unnecessary layers. These plays get back to the first drafts by unconventional methods, we ask why and why now? Through that resuscitation and corresponding incision + excavation process the vibrancy and necessity of these plays speaks loud and clear.
5th -31st January 2016
Queen Mab 5th - 10th January 2016
The Beasts 12th - 17th January 2016
Endgame Ariel 19th - 24th January 2016
Coverage 26th - 31st January 2016