The bard laid bare

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 January, 1999, 12:00am

When the Soho group represented Britain at an International Shakespeare Festival in Gdansk last autumn, the company members had two surprises.

First of all, out of 12 groups in Poland for the event, the Soho group was the only one performing in English. And secondly, the British actors found they were preceded by the bard himself.

'Apparently, Shakespeare's own company toured the Hanseatic ports almost exactly 400 years ago - and the Poles built a theatre like the Globe there in Gdansk,' said director Luke Dixon, who will be bringing As You Like It to the City Festival in Hong Kong next week.

The group began life in the Tower Room at St Anne's Church in London's Soho: hence the name. They started with a repertoire that included Strindberg and have, as Dixon explained over a drink in Covent Garden recently, increasingly come to specialise in the works of Shakespeare. And in variations on the bard's work, including Shakesqueer (1996) and Shakespeare Tango! (1997).

As You Like It could be described as 'accessible, very physical, quite pared-down', said Dixon.

'Actually, it's very pared-down: it's only 90 minutes long,' he added.

Because much of their year is spent touring - including to places like Siberia (they have the unlikely claim to fame of being the first British theatre company to play in the Udmurt Republic), Germany and France where English is not a first language - the emphasis is often as strongly on visual theatre as on text.

In this play, for example, the costumes are generic workwear, not geographically or historically significant, Dixon said, and the move from the Court - where nothing happens - to the Forest - where anything might - is shown through colour-coding. The action moves from a white stage to a stage of colours, from sterility to reality. Rosalind and Celia are teenagers, painting their toenails, reading comics, and the play shows their journey into adulthood.

'It is an incredibly positive play, while something like Twelfth Night is much more equivocal.' Dixon said he wanted to show the play's universal message, which 'is about transformation and the power of love to do that transformation'.

'And, of course, it's also about gender confusion.' This reminded me: this was the first time I had ever had a drink with a doctor of gender, I remarked. Dixon laughed, and briefly explained his recent doctoral thesis.

'Having spent 15 years directing Shakespeare, I've been fascinated by the idea that these were performed entirely by men. The fact that nowadays they have mixed casts has to make a difference to how audiences understand what they're watching,' he said.

Macbeth, for example, was not happy about the things he was doing as a man. Lady Macbeth was frustrated not to have a male role.

Today, with mixed casts, those emotional currents, so obvious to Elizabethan audiences, are lost. Dixon and the Soho group are engaged in what he called the 'People of Gender' project, which involves workshops (including collaborations with Pina Bausch and Eugenio Barba) and touring productions of Macbeth and Hamlet in which all the actors have been women.

Their next major endeavour is a millennium project involving the simultaneous rehearsal of three plays written by Shakespeare for the turn of his century 400 years ago - Hamlet, Troilus And Cressida and The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

They will also be performing a new play commissioned for them on themes thrown up by the Shakespeare trio. 'That'll be from midnight to dawn, right into the year 2000,' said Dixon.

As You Like It, Soho group. Jan 18, 6.45pm, 9.15pm; Jan 19, 9.15pm. Fringe Club. $90-$120