Revised Review: DONE/UNDONE, from Bard on the Beach

by Lynn on August 14, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on-line from Bard on the Beach in Vancouver, BC until September 30, 2021.

Written by Kate Besworth

Directed by Arthi Chandra

Set by Pam Johnson

Theatrical lighting by Harika Zu

Costumes by Jessica Oostergo

Sound/composition by Mishelle Cuttler

Cast: Charlie Gallant

Harveen Sandhu

A bracing, challenging exploration of the question(s): how well do Shakespeare’s plays stand the test of time—and should some of them not be staged anymore? Watching Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu play various characters sparing with one another is electrifying.

Playwright Kate Besworth looks at the questions from various points of view, pro/con/undecided in order for the audience to come to their own conclusions. The ‘play’ is divided into segments and each focus on: a pair of debating scholars (“The Academics”), a theatre-going couple divided over Shakespeare’s appeal, Shakespeare himself (“The Writer”), two-otherworldly creatures who ‘translate’ how Shakespeare has dealt with women (badly) or ‘blackness’ for example (Űbersetzung) and one segment entitled “Isabella” (from Measure for Measure) that is simply stunning because of the context.

The play starts with the opening night of a production of Hamlet. One of the actors (Charlie Gallant) arrives early to the theatre to prepare—he will play Hamlet. He is deep in thought. He relaxes with a yoga practice. He is joined by another actor (Harveen Sandhu) who has five lines in the play. She has just received an op-ed article by e-mail from a friend, that was in a newspaper written by a critic about the point of Shakespeare. She is eager to share the article with her actor friend. He goes ballistic. He’s about to play Hamlet! He has to prepare himself mentally. He finds his friend’s eagerness to share this damning article insensitive etc. She looks at him and his over-reaction with a puzzling look. And we are off…..

The segments entitled “The Academics,” are interspersed throughout the film of the play. The two academics begins respectfully, properly dressed—he in a bow-tie, shirt, jacket and pants, she in a tailored suit. Both are intellectually nimble with their arguments. She believes in the value of Shakespeare to hold a mirror up to society and show us through his plays what we are like and have become etc. He feels that the world has changed in 400 years and that it’s time for modern playwrights and their work to be as respected—he doesn’t offer any suggestions of who that might be. I found that interesting. He says that Shakespeare is a white-cis-male-writing about the colonies, imperialism and that attitude is past its best buy date.

Each offers their arguments vigorously and with conviction. At times the arguments are so forceful, so combative one might think one is watching a Shakespeare play! The arguments are well balanced. But occasionally she gets off a shot that stops him in his tracks, “I’m speaking. Don’t interrupt.” We’ve heard that before. He rallies and lobs a comment that makes him stand his ground. As these segments progress, both Academics look more and more as if they have been in battle—both have removed their jackets; their hair is not neat etc.

Through it all “The Writer” explains that he has survived all manner of challenges: revolution, plague, puritanism, translations (!), Victorianism. He says, “I was only ever writing for you.” Stunning line. Besworth has created “The Writer” as if he is privy to all the discussion from the various segments. The arguing Academics give him pause, they are so combative. This provides an interesting perspective.  

Playwright Kate Besworth handles the idea of race with a steady eye and lots of research. The woman academic quotes Professor Ayanna Thompson who said that Othello is a white man’s idea of Blackness. (One can also argue the same thing about Shylock as a Jew or any of the other minorities in Shakespeare).

“Isabella” is the most unsettling and clarifying segment. Two actors who have just been in a production of Measure for Measure meet the audience in a talk back. There is the actress who played Isabella (Harveen Sandhu) and the actor who played Claudio (Charlie Gallant). The actress talks about liking the faith and ferocity of Isabella. And she talks about race because the actress (and Harveen Sandhu) is a woman of colour. She talks about the term “colour blind casting” and how that phrase is offensive. It means one is blind to what distinguishes that actress—her skin colour—and if you ignore that, then it follows you ignore what defines her.  She asks that if you ignore my skin does that make me white?  She also talks of “colour conscious casting” Casting an actor of colour, Black etc. to make a point or illuminate the play. The actress then notes that by casting this way then how that character fits into the rest of the play should be explored. Sobering, challenging, wonderfully uncomfortable questions and ideas.

In the context of the talk back the actor good-naturedly takes one more question: “Why does it always have to be about race?”  The actor’s face drops. Kate Besworth gets us to ponder that question too—because if an actor of colour is cast in a play, it is about race and we have to engage with, consider and embrace the idea.

Arthi Chandra has directed this blistering production with a firm hand to ensure that both sides of the arguments are fairly given. If the balance tips even a bit to one side it’s righted immediately. It seems like the audience is watching a fairly matched tennis match, wondering who will lob a winning shot. The arguments are intellectually dazzling. The acting of Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu is impeccable, fierce, jokey, engaging and so full of life and confidence that the whole experience of watching Done/Undone is exhilarating.

There is an extensive bibliography of books and articles Kate Besworth used for her research all on Shakespeare. Do Shakespeare’s plays stand the test of time—and should some of them not be staged anymore, because the world has changed and perhaps they aren’t appropriate?

But Shakespeare’s plays have been produced steadily for over 400 years and as the world changes, his plays seem to reflect that as well. And books continue to be written challenging his relevance. Hmmmm. I think the answer is hiding there in plain sight.

Kate Besworth has written a wonderful, challenging play that holds a mirror up to reflect our world and who we are, and in the middle of it is Shakespeare. Loved it.

Bard on the Beach presents:

Streams until: September 30, 2021

Running time: 75 minutes.

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