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Splitting Atoms

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

Each line in Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite – if we can split it open.

The above quote is from director Peter Brook. It has been coming to mind quite a bit over the last week. We have just begun our Shakespeare term at Barking Gecko, featuring our annual, interactive Living Lecture Series. This year our Living Lecture is based on Romeo And Juliet, a play packed with explosive potential from first line to last. A play so rich it has inspired countless imitations over 400 years, surely the most surreal of which is pictured above: Tim Burton’s love story between a land mass and the sea!

Living Lectures are now in their second year. We again have an ensemble of extraordinary artists attempting to split theatrical atoms – Amy Mathews, Ben Mortley, Taryn Ryan and Will O’Mahony. In an action-packed two hours the actors bring vivid and surprising performances to extracts from the play, as we unpack the story’s origins, interpretation and big ideas. It’s a fast paced session, with little time to draw breath, much like the play itself.

The responses so far from our teenage audiences have been great. You expect squeals of delight at the kisses, but the quiet attention and gasps are what have been the most satisfying (punctuated by occasional outbreaks of laughter at the smutty puns and stage violence). It’s a far cry from a performance I gave of Romeo many years ago. I was about to drink the poison when a kid at the back of the audience, bored of the performance, started yelling “skull, skull, skull!”

Well, what is so special about this 400 year old play? A great play can often be summed up in a single image. For instance we all know the image below, even if we have never read or seen Hamlet.

David Tennant as Hamlet

A healthy young man stares at a human skull. This single image gives us the essence of the play: its meditations on death, its macabre humour and the central question: To be or not to be?

Or this image.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

A man tries to grasp an imaginary, blood-soaked dagger he sees floating in the air. This image gives us Macbeth with its supernatural temptations to murder. Is this a dagger which I see before me?

For Romeo And Juliet, this is the image that people know without even seeing or reading the play.

Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as Romeo

A young woman above and a young man below, staring into each other’s eyes. This moment is the play in many people’s imagination. Two young lovers, kept apart by a barrier they didn’t create (although in the original Juliet doesn’t appear on a balcony – only at her window).

But the play is not just two hours of unremitting romance. Thankfully. That would be pretty boring. In the words of William Butler Yeats:

…only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind – sex and the dead.

Romeo And Juliet does not let us down on either front. It has a body count of five by the end of the play and more smutty puns than a Year 9 locker room. Sex and/or death almost on every page.

In fact, the image that really captures the spirt of the play play may well be this one:

Neolithic Romeo and Juliet

Ten years ago, this pair of human skeletons was found in a tomb between Verona and Mantua – the two cities featured in Romeo And Juliet.

The bones are 6000 years old. They are from two young people who appear to have died while holding each other and gazing into one another’s eyes. For millennia the lovers were locked in an embrace. Immediately labeled a Neolithic Romeo and Juliet, the pair captured the popular imagination. The embrace cuts to the heart of the play’s concerns with sex, death and a passion that transcends this world.

Some things in the story do need to be carefully questioned with a young audience. The

notion of a tragic fate, for instance, is one that I think needs scrutiny. Does Juliet have to die? Well, yes. Her fate is written in the stars (and in the script): two star-crossed lovers, and their death marked love. There is only one way this particular story can end. But this is where art differs from life. In real life we always have choices.

The current critique surrounding the Netflix season 13 Reasons Why is based on a very real need to avoid romanticising suicide. And it is important when presenting these stories to make sure we don’t do this. We need to emphasise that each of us has agency. In the society we live in, young people can get help from friends, family and organisations such as lifeline and beyondblue.

The Living Lectures are a highlight of our year at Barking Gecko, a time when we can share great works of art with our teenage audience. But it’s one thing to watch and another thing to get involved. So this term, everyone at Barking Gecko is exploring Shakespeare. All of our young actors in Gecko Ensembles around the city and the state are performing various Shakespeare plays.

Why do we still study and perform these great works? Young people need big stories to provoke and inspire them. Great big sweaty, unapologetically human works of art. In a world where attention spans are dwindling and communication is fragmenting, Shakespeare presents a universe that is deep, complex and rewards attention. We need Shakespeare’s humane, compassionate and ambiguous portraits of ourselves. John Keats described it beautifully:

[A quality which] Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

The Shakespeare term at Barking Gecko is always my favourite. From past years we know that young people love it too. Long live these big-hearted stories that make us think deeply and feel alive.

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