Shakespeare and the overlooked power of collective laughter
September 7, 2017
In our politically turbulent times, it is easy to see the rich texts of Shakespeare primarily as a means of combating the big issues society faces. The fertile nature of his plays’ loves, losses, and conflicts are often seized upon for innovative contemporary conversions or topical political allegories to further noble agendas. Notably, Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy put both women and prison hierarchy centre stage.
This is not an argument against the birth of these creations. I myself have created several instalments of Whispers of the Week, a topical theatre piece that combines scenes from across Shakespeare’s plays with news headlines of the week of performance, an exciting project that I am in no hurry to abandon. However, whilst many productions of this ilk do make the Bard’s work more accessible by narrowing the gap between the world of the play and the everyday world of the audience, this is not the only way to facilitate contemplation of present day society.
Society improves when people are more invested in it and people are more invested in things they feel close to, and that’s a feeling that our globalised world seems to have rendered an increasingly fleeting emotion. As a medium, theatre is perfectly positioned to connect individuals due its live nature–strangers are responding to the same event in real-time side-by-side with their unique insights. These perspectives do not need to be discussed or aired in a post-show discussion format in order for the audience to have gained a better insight into one another. In fact, the potential differences in opinion are irrelevant, what matters is that similarities are involuntarily highlighted in any moment when there is a collective laugh. In that moment, everyone is united in something and that is powerful.
Of course, stand-up comedy can achieve the same effect, but there is something especially significant about Shakespeare-induced laughter. Whilst turning classics such as Romeo and Juliet on their head is almost a cliché in the industry, it does not mean to say that there aren’t audiences who still find spending an evening filled with the most straightforward Shakespeare production an intimidating prospect. To laugh at Shakespeare can be to realise you can access language you thought you couldn’t and, when faced with the next complex societal idea, could give you the confidence to unravel the editorial line of news reports rather than writing the task off as above your head.
Shakespeare is inextricably high-brow despite his work being nothing of the sort at its inception. There is a reason why he littered his work with bawdy humour, not to throw a bone to those who have found his narratives hard to follow, but to settle and unite the crowd behind the journey that characters would undertake. It is important that productions that seek to bring the Bard to new audiences trust the inherent accessibility of the plays and do not feel compelled to spell-out a message in order for audience members to take something valuable away from their experience.
One of the reasons I work in theatre is because I believe in its power to effect positive social change. But in order to inspire individuals to create a society that we are all proud to be a part of, theatre doesn’t have to make people directly evaluate the issues of the day or rush to the nearest protest. If it simply allows people to enjoy themselves and share in inhibition-free laughter with strangers, and to leave that little bit more connected and invested in the world, then it has done an important job.
Filed under: Theatre & Dance