It’s no secret. I don’t see Shakespeare if I can help it: two notable exceptions in the last two of the last ten years- Macbeth by Wildfire Theatre Company (2008) and Pericles by the Bell Shakespeare Company (2009) . Both were social occasions- one in support of the very energetic and intelligent Sandra Stockley and the other as the guest of James Waites.

Neither one I reviewed. I just don’t want to see those stories. I spent too long being a theatre scholar and not a theatre consumer. I spent too long deciphering and appreciating the linguistic gymnastics of the Shakespearean form… In general when witnessing Shakespearean productions I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable for performers who don tights and rounded vowels – it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be that type of uncomfortable in the theatre. I want to be a different type of uncomfortable: a sobbing heaving frightened laughing, shocked , delighted and reassured type of uncomfortable – the type of uncomfortable I get from new work: new local work.

In addition- I don’t particularly like Shakespeare. Its just a taste thing. And here’s another unpopular taste thing of mine… are you ready? Bombshell is about to hit….. I don’t like The Beatles.

There are sociological reasons and the main focus has to do with the clutter these ancient arts create in the minds of people… dwarfing any opportunity for new work- local and contemporary work to be seen and heard amongst the clamour of the “classics” stunting our ability to discuss new work in the cold shadow of thousands of years of lead up: it can seem insumountable.
Where do i sit on the topic of classics versus new work? I sit as a wild and passionate advocate of living breathing writers.
I declare myself to believe wholeheartedly in the payment of writers who are buying bread, paying rent and walking around.

I believe in people seeing stories they don’t know, haven’t read or been forced to memorize for the HSC.

I advocate dispute debate and discussion in foyers and online. I uphold conversation as a sign of a healthy industry full of diverse and differing opinions…

I don’t and won’t review a classic play of 100 years or more or from another country…. my voice does not need to be added to that conversation.

I will try to review and to write about and for the shows what may not be an established part of the canon… yet.

I promise to support the writer in all I do, and encourage the directors to support the writer and the actors, and encourage the quivering frightened programmers of the main stages to take a chance on new work in all its terrifying brutal glory.

This is what I believe.

I urge you to check out what Alana Valentine says:

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http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2650588.htm

Alana Says:
There’s a line in my new play Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah: “People in the arts have the veneer of difference but at heart they are deeply conservative”.

It always gets a laugh. The trick of an unlikely truth. But in the simplest understanding of the verb “to conserve”, theatre must be acknowledged as one of the most conservative artforms. As every living dramatist knows you are always competing for production with every dead and classical playwright who has ever worked.

Unlike the novel or the poem, which I grant you needs to remain in print but can still be purchased second hand, the play is not fully understood until it is produced and so the classics are produced over and over and over again. The rationale being that human nature is timeless and unchanging.

I’ve so often been bludgeoned with the notion that there are ‘only a small number of stories to be told’ that I wonder why any person now taking breath would bother opening up a laptop. Of course it doesn’t have to be a dialectical either/or. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Indeed, as the Alex Buzo Company would attest, it can be both at the same time.

But are we or are we not presently being marketed the idea that ‘radical’ reinventions of classical texts are the most cutting edge aspect of contemporary Australian theatre? Are we or are we not being sold the notion that we live in a post-post-modern, globalised world where the particularities of national identity and the language of localised community are no longer relevant except as a contextual veneer? Well, hey, call me a contemporary Australian playwright, but I’m not convinced.

I’ve always been a sucker for the ‘new’. When I walk around a supermarket the trolley soon becomes studded with items bearing that little ‘new’ sticker, you know the one, all fluorescent colours and jagged edges. I love what the word carries with it. The promise of the unexpected. The seduction of a surprise.

And so let’s head into the bouncy castle labelled ‘let’s make the classics new’.

“We’ll let the original author do all the philosophical heavy-lifting”, they say, “which will be fine because you know what, theatre is first of all theatre and only second needs something to say.”

“We’ll change everything except the value system at the heart of the classical text,” because, I’m told, “that’s timeless anyway.”

Only it’s not, I say in a small, nervous voice.

“In the interim between now and Elizabethan England we’ve had feminism and post-colonialism”.

“That’s irrelevant,” they tell me, “human nature is timeless, the brutality of war is always the same.”

“Only it’s not,” I try again, my voice still quavering. “Because between ancient Greece and Abu Ghraib we’ve had the internet and er, parliamentary democracy.”

“So what, we’ll just decorate the reinvention with those references.”

And now they are shouting at me: “The nature of evil is unchanging”.

And I’m screaming back: “Yes, but the mechanics of context are everything, there’s a complacency that creeps in if brutality is just a centuries old horror.”

“Art is not about being the village explainer,” they rant. “As Gertrude Stein pointed out, that’s alright if you’re a village but if not, not.”

“Yes, that’s witty,” say I, “Only we don’t live in villages anymore, we live in pluralistic, multi-ethnic cities and anyone who’s got any kind of creative insight into what the hell is going on is alright by me.”

“You’re an idiot,” they bellow, as I try to stutter out some final statement about form carrying meaning, about a new Century’s stories needing a new Century’s theatrical form.

At which point they slap me across the face and I retreat, holding my stinging jaw in my hands.

Yes, I’m being provocative, but, come on, all those long dead authors and their acolyte directors have been bullying us with their ‘continuing relevance’ for so long that you can’t blame us living writers for getting a bit uppity.

In truth there are radical reinventions of classical texts which I have profoundly admired, which do use an old glove to make something with an entirely new punch. I am not even adverse to plundering the past for my own ‘versions’ of such texts because, of course, there are times when such a ‘reinvention’ can be astonishing.

Perhaps it’s just that I spent the early 1990s at all night dance parties so people covered in various fluids, sporting exaggerated genitalia has always represented fond adolescent memories for me, rather than a revelation filled with shock and awe.

More likely it’s because I wonder if the balance isn’t teetering too hard on the ‘reinvention’ side. I want, simply, to put my hand up for the work of theatre that captivates us with a reality we can see, but perhaps have not looked at, in our immediate present.

I want to do that, not simply to agitate for space on the contemporary stage, but because there is such immeasurable artistic joy for an audience to have in experiencing themselves in the context of their own immediate community.

Not topicality, but urgency. Not parochialism, but provocation. For me, there is nothing quite like having one’s very own world and reality made simultaneously recognisable and unfamiliar through the wonder of live performance. Because in that reflection is surely the strongest possible dissolution of self, in that communal participation is the realization that we really are a joined, interdependent group of organisms.

If only for a brief moment, in the dark, what hurts you in your world, today, really does really hurt me and what rouses your love, in our community right now, really does rouse mine. I continue to open up the laptop because I absolutely believe that there still are voices that have not been heard and wonders of understanding that can still sew the heart of every audience member into a place in the present.

This is an excerpt from Alana Valentine’s Alex Buzo Memorial Lecture, which was delivered 10th August at Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s lecture series.