Shawn Macdonald on Shakespeare: don’t freak out

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With the Bard on the Beach season set to open on Saturday, Vancouver actor Shawn Macdonald talks to us about Shakespeare’s importance as a playwright and how it’s probably best not to “freak out” if you’re about to enjoy the Bard’s work for the first time.

Shawn MacdonaldPreparing for his dual roles in Much Ado About Nothing, Macdonald might have a vested interest but he certainly doesn’t shy away from letting his feelings about Shakespeare’s enduring significance be known.

“Shakespeare is the most important playwright ever,” asserts Macdonald.  “You don’t have to like him or enjoy sitting through one of his plays, but it’s hard to dispute the fact that he really created the drama as we know it“.

For Macdonald it goes even further as he points to the many sayings and catch phrases that can be attributed to Shakespeare.  “A dish fit for the gods” and “Greek to me” from Julius Caesar, “I’ll not budge an inch.” from Taming of the Shrew and “what’s done is done” from Macbeth are just some examples.

But according to Macdonald it isn’t just the drama and language that makes Shakespeare so important and why his works continue to be done.  It is also, Macdonald says, his “deep understanding of humanity, of love, of fear, of the heart of what it means to be human”.

For Macdonald, coupling Shakespeare’s importance as a playwright and in his “deep understanding of humanity” also helps to answer the question why, like this particular production, directors choose to stage Shakespeare’s plays in other time periods.

“Staging Shakespeare’s plays only in the time they were written is a disservice to the breadth and scope of the greatest playwright of all time,” enthused Macdonald.  “The depth of psychological insight in Shakespeare and the humanity of the characters easily lend themselves to all kinds of conceptual interpretations, which support the rich ideas in the work.”

Indeed, Director Dean Paul Gibson has chosen to set this year’s Much Ado About Nothing during the Edwardian era.

“Dean has drawn upon the cosmopolitan nature of Europe at the time, and has created a breezy, light, summer atmosphere that supports the flavor of this play beautifully. Think Room With A View with a bit of flamenco thrown in. It’s gorgeous.”

Much like the importance of Shakespeare, Macdonald also sees the importance of Bard on the Beach itself.

“Bard on the Beach has developed a great culture of straight-forward but sophisticated treatment of Shakespeare’s plays. The entire design of the experience at Bard is unique: a beautiful natural setting, a company that works together over many years, actors with a lot of experience with the text. It’s a super affordable, high quality, theatre experience that you can’t find anywhere else.”

And for those that might find the Bard a bit unfamiliar and inaccessible?  Macdonald says not to “freak out” because the language is different.

“Allow your ear to get used to it. Read the synopsis of the play before you go so that you don’t have to work so hard to understanding the basic story and enjoy”.

To help, Macdonald provided us with his own synopsis for Much Ado About Nothing:

We’re in Italy. A bunch of soldiers come back from fighting, led by Don Pedro. They’re invited to stay at the house of the Nobleman Leonato, where he lives with his daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice. Another of the soldiers, Benedict, has an ongoing ‘battle of wits’ with Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero, and Don Pedro helps him win her hand. Pedro also stages two elaborate ‘gulling scenes’ where the boys lead Benedict to believe that Beatrice actually loves him, and the girls do the same for Beatrice. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, decides to throw a wrench on the whole affair by making up a story that Hero is a bit of a bad girl and has been throwing away her maidenhood to a local ruffian. He even goes so far as to stage a fake ‘tryst’ that Don Pedro and Claudio think is real. When the wedding of Hero and Claudio arrives, Claudio publicly shames the poor innocent girl, who passes out. Her family suspects that she has been tricked, so they pretend that she has died from grief to see if that causes the truth to be revealed. When Don John hears that Hero has ‘died’ he skips town. Meanwhile the local ‘watch’ (basically a group of private citizens, led by the malaprop-ridden Constable Dogberry) stumbles upon Don John’s buddies talking about what they did to Hero, and they arrest them. Eventually word gets to Leonato that Hero was wronged and is totally innocent. In the final scene, Claudio and Hero are reunited, Benedict and Beatrice publicly declare their love, and everybody parties.

Bard on the Beach
Vanier Park
10 June – 25 September

The anchor production in the Mainstage tent will be the witty romance Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra. In the intimate Studio Stage, Bard will continue with the second year of “The Kings” History Cycle. In a new adaptation by Errol Durbach, Henry IV, Parts I & II will be blended as Falstaff and will play in repertory with the third history play, the powerful Henry V.  Visit for tickets and information.

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