Deplatforming the Bard

Creative New Zealand in a bizarre – some might say uber-woke spasm – has refused to fund a Shakespeare festival for college students that has been running for 30 years. At the festival students perform parts of Shakespeare’s plays and gain insights and understandings not only of the Bards work and his contribution to the English language but also the way in which theatre and drama work.

What could possibly be the reason for this. Essentially it addresses the relevance of Shakespeare in a 21st Century country that must decolonise, although I understood that decolonisation took place a long time ago when New Zealand became independent of Imperial Britain.

The Board of Creative New Zealand suggested that the festival’s genre is “located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance”. This is language that has all the hallmarks of obscurantist Wellington bureaucratese and fails to understand the way that Shakespeare actually works today.

Fortunately the festival will continue but without the $30,000 from the Arts Council.

Many of my generation remember Shax with anything but affection. We had his plays drummed into us year by year and had to know at least one play for School Cert and UE. For some his language was opaque. Having spent a number of years reading texts from the 16th and early 17th Centuries I can affirm beyond a shadow of doubt that the Bard’s language was crisp, clear and meaningful.

I am a Shakespeare enthusiast. I have a collection of all the BBC dramatizations on DVD together with a number of performances by others on DVD including Olivier’s “Henry V”, “Hamlet” and “Othello”, Zeffirellis’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Taming of the Shrew” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

When we go to London a visit to the Globe or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford is de rigeur. At the Globe we have seen “As You Like It”, “Julius Caesar” and “The Merchant of Venice”.

Not relevant, I hear you say.

In the first Act of “Julius Caesar” the great man makes his entrance through the audience. The cast takes up the chant “Caesar, Caesar, Caesar!” By the time he gets to the stage the whole theatre is on its feet cheering like a soccer crowd, totally immersed, totally involved in the performance. And so it continued.

Jonathan Pryce played a brilliant Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” – a privilege to see such an accomplished performance. Most of my generation recall Portia’s speech from the trial scene of the “Merchant” but the scene itself is so much more and is relevant even today. How so? Because throughout the trial scene different theories of the way in which the law should be applied are advanced and considered. Racism and anti-semitism – as alive then as they are now – are clear. The trial would provide material for classes in legal philosophy as well as they way in which the law should be applied to all citizens.

Shakespeare’s plays speak through the ages. Hamlet’s procrastination still manifests itself today as a clog to decision-making and action. The ambition of Caesar is still with us. The racism endured by Othello and Shylock are still part of our daily lives. The ingratitude of children experienced by Lear is still a reality. The doomed lovers of Romeo and Juliet are not only manifested on the streets of New York in “West Side Story” but are experienced daily by those who would love and marry outside the expectations of their families.

I would understand if Creative New Zealand suggested that the language of a late Elizabethan playwright is difficult to handle but to suggest that his work is a “canon of imperialism” is an absurdity. Shakespeare was no imperialist (perhaps “Henry V” excepted) but speaks to us, as I have suggested, about aspects of human nature and the human condition.

In a rampant rush to discard anything associated with England and its contributions to the fabric of society, Creative New Zealand – unworthy of that title and of course a Government agency; why am I not surprised– seem to be more focussed upon woke issues of national identity and self-image whilst ignoring the timelessness of the creation of one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights.