The 38 plays and 150 poems written by William Shakespeare are at the heart of the western canon. His dramas and comedies continue to be shown more than 400 years after his death.
According to Kate Besworth, who wrote a film called Done/Undone about Shakespeare’s legacy for Bard on the Beach, there are 21 Shakespeare-oriented theatre companies in Canada.
“I would say we are taught from an early age in Canada in this country to venerate Shakespeare as kind of a symbol of western literature,” Besworth told the Straight in a recent phone interview.
But does his work merit such high regard, given how women and racial and religious minorities are portrayed in his plays? That question lies at the heart of Done/Undone, which was directed by Arthi Chandra and features actors Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu, playing a variety of characters.
“The objective was to get people excited about thinking critically,” Besworth said. “I really didn’t want to prescribe a solution or even prescribe an opinion to the audience.
"I wanted them to come away with a balanced argument on both sides in terms of pro-Shakepeare and anti-Shakespeare," she continued. "But I wanted them to have their own conversations about it and to, hopefully, take this kind of critical lens and apply it to all of the things that we enjoy and elevate and idealize in our society.”
At one point in Done/Undone, Sandhu’s character named Isabella, who is speaking to the audience after her performance in Measure for Measure, bluntly declares that Othello was not a “real Black man”.
“He’s a white man’s idea of Blackness,” she says. “He’s an idea, not a person.”
It’s a riveting moment. In fact, Besworth relied on accounts of academic works of female artists and scholars of colour in writing this and other provocative ideas expressed by Isabella in this scene in the film.
“One of the really exciting parts for me in crafting this was doing all of this academic research and understanding that academics—and female academics of colour, especially—have been looking at this over the last 20 years,” Besworth said.
Her goal was to bring their theories and ideas forward in an accessible and entertaining way.
In a similar vein, there is one scene entitled “Übersetzung”, which is the German word for “translation”, presented in a style of theatre known as German Expressionism.
Standing on a box in a white circus outfit on a spare stage, Sandhu delivers highly misogynistic lines from several of the Bard’s plays with an English accent over a haunting background score.
Each time she does this, Gallant follows up in a similar costume by explaining in a German accent what Shakespeare was actually writing in contemporary language. The words are full of hate and contempt for women—and Chandra’s eerie direction, including several close-ups showing their unusual makeup, magnifies that impression.
Some of these lines were taken from The Taming of the Shrew, which is one of Shakespeare’s more controversial plays. Originally written as a comedy, nowadays it’s often presented in a more critical way, according to Besworth.
“My question is: do we need to keep using this material or can we make something new of it?” Besworth asked.
Yet the film also contains stirring praise for Shakespeare—and not only by white males played by Gallant.
In one scene, he portrays a fictional academic, Martin Gibeaux, who is actually highly critical of Shakespeare. Here, he debates a pro-Shakespeare academic character, Anaad Prewal, played by Sandhu, who delivers an articulate defence of The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare’s female characters.
In addition, Sandhu plays the bard himself, explaining in a rather egotistical way why his plays are so important and why he put the audience at the centre of everything he wrote.
When the Straight asked Besworth what the two actors brought to their multiple roles, she paused for a moment.
“Charlie is my partner,” she replied. “It’s hard to have perspective on that, to be quite honest, but I would say he brings deep humanity to every role he plays. And an incredible work ethic. He’s so rigorous with his process and with his text.”
As for Sandhu, Besworth described her as “so naturalistic on film” and “so grounded”.
“She’s magical on-screen and on-stage,” Besworth added. “I think they are two of the most talented actors in Canada.”
Besworth was already planning to write a play for both of them when the idea came up of two academics debating Shakespeare’s relevance.
“They were right on the ground level of it, for sure,” she said, “and then carving characters knowing them was such a wonderful process as a writer.”