Never have the words “all the world’s a stage” felt more apt. Thanks to initiatives such as The Show Must Go Online, global audiences are getting the chance to connect with Shakespeare in a way they never have before. When faced with the closure of theatres across the world, it seemed unfathomable that brand new productions could be mounted – let alone involving people living thousands of miles apart – but here we are, nine Shakespeares & two Pop Shakespeares down the line, and only growing in imagination.
I have to admit that this post was prompted by a recent New York Times article; wonderfully constructed, a great headline (“Is This a Livestream I See Before Me?” – WINNER), and a pretty comprehensive overview of the state of play as far as current access to Shakespeare goes, but with one glaring omission: The Show Must Go Online! Although I’m not exactly impartial when it comes to this project, having got to know director Rob Myles through Merely Theatre & other Shakespeare work before all this came along, you can’t escape the facts – this project was put together faster than you could say “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”, and the team have also provided support to others looking to do a similar thing.
It’s also completely live, so as close to a theatrical production as is currently possible; unlike going to the theatre, however, it’s completely free to watch (unless you want to provide patronage) and will theoretically remain online forever – so it will be a really useful long-term resource, especially since they are planning on producing every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. Some of the longer works are cut down out of necessity (each production tends to have a maximum running time of about 2.5 hours), but they are all full & completely new productions each time, utilising the technology & all involved to create an engaging experience. They also freely invite questions from the audience for discussion in the interval and after the performance, meaning you can gain fascinating insights into every facet of each production (from interpretation of the text to prop-making). And the hits don’t lie: in just under two months they’ve passed 100,000 views across all productions.
I wax lyrical every week about the technological & prop-based developments that we see from production to production, but what should also be mentioned is that this is a truly global project. Though based in the UK, casting is open to anyone with internet access & enthusiasm no matter what time zone – and there have been some quite stunning results so far. Without the constraints of funding, board approval, or even physical access to a performance space, the team are able to strive for a 50/50 gender split on a regular basis, as well as cast actors from underrepresented groups. So far over 200 actors & creatives have been involved, with illustrious stages such as the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe & the RSC on their collective credits – not to mention some Broadway representation.
Ben Jonson famously said of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” 400 years down the line, we surely have to reinterpret those words to reflect our status as global citizens. The Bard’s words have indeed proven to speak to us centuries later, so why shouldn’t the whole world benefit from his work?
The reactions of international audience members are there for all to see in the live chat and social media feeds – but what is it like for those taking part? I spoke to a pair of actors based thousands of miles apart who have both performed in The Show Must Go Online productions in recent weeks.
Sally McLean is based in Australia and has taken part in two productions thus far, playing Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew and Mayor/Vaughan/Tyrrel in Richard III. With performances beginning at 7pm BST, all the way over in Melbourne that means a pre-4am wake-up call…
What was it like performing Shakespeare in the early hours of the morning?
It would be seen as a challenge being awake, sensible and show-ready at 4am in the morning to any rational person, I’ll admit! But I just treated it as an adventure and embraced it. Being in Australia with the company being based in the UK, I knew what I was signing up for, plus the world is currently in a level of weird that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, so performing Shakespeare at 4am in the morning seems strangely appropriate for the current climate! And the energy that Rob, Sarah and all my fellow cast give so generously in both the rehearsals and the performance itself has made the time of day I’m performing irrelevant. When it’s our five minute call, it’s exactly like being in the wings waiting to go on and the time of day fades into insignificance. I’m super-prepared ‘backstage’ beforehand for the actual show itself; all the same nerves kick in pre-show and I’ve noticed that time stops for me when working on the shows – it all becomes about who I’m interacting with, what my character needs to say, and do I have my props & costumes lined up correctly! After I came ‘off stage’ from playing Katharina in The Taming of The Shrew in particular, I felt like I’d run a marathon – exactly how I’d feel performing it at 8pm on stage normally so, oddly, it hasn’t felt that different to performing during ‘normal’ theatre hours. The theatre is its own world anyway, and working with The Show Must Go Online recreates that experience perfectly for me! I love Shakespeare, so getting up at 4am because I’ve been given the chance to perform his works with a talented, global company presents no problem and is an absolute no-brainer as far as I’m concerned!
Matthew Rhodes is over in the other direction, based in Canada, and has so far taken part in Titus Andronicus – the bloodiest & goriest production imaginable, giving the already violent play a modern twist with a Tarantino theme…
The innovation has been amazing to see week after week, and the stunts in Titus were a particular highlight. When you signed up did you imagine it could end up being that elaborate?
Rob put out the idea early on of a Tarantino-inspired Titus when we applied for casting I believe. I had read it previously in an English class so I knew it would fit really well. The vision immediately got into my brain. I was definitely intimidated, but when I found out that I had been cast, I knew we had to go all out. I covered my bedroom in tarps and would rehearse all the blood splatters that I had in the play (I will never forget the taste of that blood in my mouth). One time, I even shot some of the blood on my ceiling! Sadly my bits didn’t all work out in the show but I was so proud of how the performance turned out. It’s even better than I expected it would be!
What was your favourite thing about being part of an international cast?
SM: My favourite thing about being part of an international ensemble like this is the people I have had the privilege to meet and work with that I might never have crossed paths with otherwise. I have found another family of artists through this work and it makes me quite emotional thinking about it, to be honest. The purpose and collective joy that is engendered by the entire team for each show and for Shakespeare in general is contagious (pardon the pun!) and has given me such strength and joy during this time of lockdown. The fact that we are all pretty much in the same situation, wherever we are based, adds to that sense of community and shared experience – we connect on several levels as a result. I have formed fast and true bonds with several of my fellow cast members that I know I will treasure for the rest of my career. And Rob and Sarah – words cannot express how much love and respect I have for both of them and what they have created. They were the first to do Shakespeare in this way online and that legacy is something they should be forever praised and lauded for.
MR: My least favourite part was waking up at 4.30am for some of my rehearsals! But my favourite part was, even in our own spaces, in completely different cities (I was the only one from Canada), that sense of ensemble we still got. We had a lot of fun with each other and played really well. And just a sense that, at that exact moment, there were 20 or so other actors I was about to join in telling the story. It makes the world feel a lot smaller and gives you the sense of stepping onstage. Also, Charlie (Demetrius) and I just had a lot of fun (as much fun as one can) in the 2ish hours we rehearsed and played together, so super happy about that! Great guy!
Do you think it’s important for this to be a global project?
SM: I’m very biased, as if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be part of it, but I think that the global nature of The Show Must Go Online is vital to what Rob is aiming to create. Shakespeare is universal. His work has been translated into over 100 languages (including Klingon!) with more being added every year. Shakespeare’s work speaks to all of us, no matter where we are based or our background, due to his extraordinary ability to capture the essence of what it is to be human. Rob intends to stage Shakespeare’s entire canon through this project and – as my fellow ensemble member Dominic Brewer has pointed out – it will be the only YouTube channel of Shakespeare’s complete works online and the only one in the world, presented in a fun, accessible and innovative way, which becomes an invaluable global resource. And look at my fellow ensemble members! Actors with RSC, the Globe, Broadway, West End credits – not to mention a crazy amount of commercial film and TV on their resumés – these folks are top drawer talent! It is an honour and a privilege to share this hybrid stage/screen with them all and I love that we have such a range of accents performing the works, that there is gender neutral casting, that underrepresented groups in theatre are being included – this is what Shakespeare should be all about. He is global, and Rob and TSMGO have captured the essence of that fact beautifully by casting as they do. Shout out to Sydney Aldridge as well who has a MAMMOTH task every week casting each show and does such a great job each time. In short, Shakespeare is epic and global, and it is totally appropriate and brilliant that The Show Must Go Online is as well – on so many levels.
MR: I am so glad that this is a global project. I am also fortunate enough to be an associate producer with TSMGO, and I think I’m the only one on the producing team in North America. It’s a project that’s brought out by collaboration across the world. I can discover new artists I might never have known about! But most of all, with the performers and with the cast, it’s fantastic to feel like we’re living in a shared space again. I feel in the moment with everyone, and that’s incredible when we’re a country and an ocean apart. We’re living in a time, more than ever, with COVID, the Climate Crisis, and lots of other big problems, that calls for solidarity and trust across borders. I think this project is a great example of how theatre (inhabiting a shared space in a shared time with performers and audience) inherently creates community. And that community can make us feel closer, more trusting, and more caring of each other. I think TSMGO is exactly what the world needs right now. I know it’s what I need.