On arrival at Sharmini Kumar’s ‘Shakespeare in Therapy‘, a self-help group set in the afterlife, I was directed to write a nametag for myself. Then I took my seat in the circle of plastic chairs. Was I going to be assessed on my knowledge of these famed characters’ backstories? I need not have worried. When you’re seated between characters written by Shakespeare, they like doing the talking! His creations stand fully formed 400+ years after they first trod the boards and are as engaging as ever.
The lead therapist counsels: ‘everybody in this group has experienced some kind of trauma. We’re not here to judge, we’re here to work through it’. Thus, classic Shakepearean characters come to work through their past actions in group therapy set after their theatrical ‘death’. They mingle and pop out amongst us, strutting their stuff. The group therapy setting is a fun way to revisit their stories.
One-liners fly. A full house on opening night chuckled loudly at the witty barbs. From teenage romantic Romeo to despoiled pre-teen Ophelia, to Lady Macbeth and the spot she cannot remove. There’s Katharina, the shrew who does not want to be tamed, the Fool who wants to speak the truth. Plus we see General Othello, referred on to a returned veteran’s self-help group because the wife he murdered, Desdemona, has just joined this group — and they don’t do marriage counselling.
The author presents these characters both as tool for deep drama as well as satire, and allows her characters to explore their stories. We enjoy the creative dimensions offered by characters from different plays mixing together, whilst also critically examining the values in the plays. It’s tough material: arranged marriages, suicide, sexual assault, domestic homicide, drownings, incest, and familial enmity. Madness triggered by trauma. Unhappy marriages where you spouse tries to change you. Or, being the joker when all you want to do is show your real feelings.
The actors relish their quirks. Romeo, though constantly singing tacky pop songs about love, admits he was in love with the idea of romance. Ophelia is now an outspoken punk teen who pushes people’s buttons. The jester Fool is tired of always being a sidekick. The play shows serious drama, too. Hearing Lady Macbeth deliver her ‘Unsex me here…’ speech to Desdemona is a gripping feminist moment. Desdemona, being a newbie, isn’t yet rid of her past, and still defends the ‘good character’ of her husband. They meet at the play’s start; it’s eerie to see a victim encounter her killer. Through it all, the calm counselling of the therapist exists, offering support to this bunch of flawed humanity, much as the Priest did in ‘Romeo & Juliet’.
If you love Shakepeare’s plays, you will enjoy the shorthand which sketches again for us these heart-wrenching characters. As ancient characters in a modern world, there’s still lots they have to say about being human. This is serious drama told with fun. It is not to be missed!
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold, and non-traditional performance platforms. On-the-street or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.
The four-night season of this 60-minute show runs 21-24 September at St Michael’s, North Carlton, 7pm Wednesday-Saturday. Book tickets now.
This venue is wheelchair accessible.