Shakespeare: champion of the asylum seeker?

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There’s a curious theme that comes up time and again in Shakespeare’s work: the shipwrecked traveller thrown into a strange, new world. In late 2012, Sydney-based Sport for Jove Theatre Company presented a festival of the Bard’s most famous shipwreck pieces; The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
“One of his great obsessions was shipwreck and what that symbolises about life and family – the way people are torn apart and brought back together by natural phenomenon – storms and the like,” says Sport for Jove artistic director Damien Ryan.
Ryan’s own production of Shakespeare’s riotous comedy Twelfth Night is being revived for a season at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre and a season at Sydney’s Seymour Centre. The 2012 performances, in the great outdoors at Bella Vista farm, won critical praise.
But the piece may have even more resonance this time around.
“One of the reasons I did the play in the first place was actually something of a political statement about the situation with asylum seekers and our relationship with the sea in this country. Shakespeare wrote a series of plays that explore people seeking asylum in strange lands,” Ryan says.
Twelfth Night follows two twins – Viola and Sebastian – who are separated by a shipwreck. It’s a comedy involving disguises and mistaken identities, but there are some bigger themes at play under the surface.
“If we took any asylum seeker or any person who washes up from a terrible storm on a strange land and bothered to tap them on the shoulder and ask what their story is, there’ll be some remarkable story of anguish and despair and loss and loneliness and terror. That’s what Shakespeare wrote about. He dares to tap this asylum seeker on the shoulder and follow their story,” Ryan says.
The shoreline, upon which Viola washes up on during the first act is central to Shakespeare’s work. Ryan’s production takes place on a beach on a hot summer’s eve.
“The water is central to the story,” Ryan says. “The characters are all in 1960s men’s and women’s swimwear. A lot of the story happens with them entering the water, with the audience representing the water and the power of the ocean.”
The “twelfth night” of the title refers to the celebrations that took place in Elizabethan England on the twelfth night after Christmas Day. It was a day when the world was turned upside down: there’d be wild festivals with drunken revelry and servants dressing up as their masters. Shakespeare’s play, with all its twists and turns, captures that sense of joyous, Christmas frenzy.
“From an Australian perspective, what’s Christmas to us? It’s extremely hot days on summer beaches and that prickly, irritating heat that starts to make people go mad,” Ryan says.
Sport for Jove produces predominately Shakespeare, often in non-traditional venues. They aim to make Shakespeare more accessible to today’s audiences, combining bold new interpretations with a clarity that honours Shakespeare’s work.
“I don’t think you can just turn up and make no original choices,” he says. “Why put this show on unless you want to tackle it from a new perspective somehow that opens up some new doors, give actors some fresh choices, gives the audience another perspective on the play?”
[box]Twelfth Night is at the Riverside Theatre from 5-8 March and then the Seymour Centre from 1-12 April. More information is available at
We have three double passes to giveaway to the 2pm performance on Sunday 8 March at the Riverside. To win, like us on Facebook and enter your details.[/box]

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