Every year since 1981, UWO’s English Department has mounted one of Shakespeare’s plays during the summer. The first UWO Summer Shakespeare production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was overseen by accomplished theatre director Kenneth Livingstone.
The thirty Summer Shakespeare shows, which have been nominated for ten Brickenden Awards since 2001, have included All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry V, Macbeth, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona; Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale (twice each); Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night (three times); As You Like It (four times); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream a whopping five times.
Dr. Jo Devereux, a professor at Western who is acting as the producer/stage manager of the current production of The Merchant of Venice, has a long and unique history with the Summer Shakespeare productions.
- Theatre in London.ca: How long have you been involved in the Summer Shakespeare program?
- Jo Devereux: I was actually the producer for the very first UWO Summer Shakespeare, in 1981. I was involved in […] Twelfth Night (1982), As You Like It (1983), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1981, 2008), The Taming of the Shrew (2009).
- TiL: What was the impetus for putting on a Shakespeare play during the summer? Was it planned to become a regular occurrence?
- JD: The idea was to give the drama students at Western a chance to perform in the summer. The first one was just experimental and was conceived as a one-time event, but it caught on immediately and has kept going ever since.
- TiL: Was producing that first show just a summer job, or did you have a prior interest in doing theatre?
- JD: I was a student in English and Drama at Western at the time and so I had been involved in a few shows during the school year, but it was nice to get paid! [The 1981 production was sponsored by a Wintario grant.]
- TiL: Both the UC courtyard and the grove in front seem made for outdoor theatre. Can you talk a bit about staging plays in those venues?
- JD: The courtyard is especially suited to Shakespeare because it evokes the earliest stagings of his plays at the outdoor theatres like the Globe and the Swan in the late 16th century in London, England. It’s also reminiscent of the outdoor theatre from the Spanish Golden Age of playwrights like Calderon (16th and 17th centuries in Spain). It’s nice and intimate; and the gothic style of the buildings, along with the greenery of the enclosed garden, provide us with a perfect backdrop—sort of a ready-made set—for the plays.
- TiL: Jen Fraser is taking on double duty in “The Merchant of Venice”,
directing and playing Portia, and you’ve got a lot of returning cast and crew. What’s it like working with this group?
- JD: This group has been among the best casts and crews I have ever worked with in 30 years! All the actors and production people have brought an enormous amount of talent, energy, and ideas to the production. It’s great to have returning cast members working with new members to provide both continuity and new directions.
- TiL: Shylock appealed his case to the Western Law Moot Court earlier this year; was the result (dismissing the appeal for delay) appropriate?
JD: I think that it was appropriate because—like the distinguished panel of judges at that Moot Court—I also read the play as exposing the problems inherent in a privileged hegemony such as that embodied by the ruling class of Venice in the Renaissance: essentially, Portia acts as a spokesperson for that hegemony and demonstrates that the law is always contingent on who is in power at the time. Shylock is victimized for his belief in a kind of
pure law that cannot be altered on a whim; at the same time, however, he is also punished for his misplaced desire for revenge. It’s a complex play because Shylock is at once a villain and a tragic victim; Portia is a comic heroine and also an instrument of oppression. As always, Shakespeare never offers simple answers: only more profound questions.
We are playing the courtroom scene as comic in many ways, even while subtly hinting at the complex undercurrents of this part of the play.
Dr. Devereux also noted “There are quite a few plays in the canon yet to be done, including a number of the history plays and the tragedies. We’d love to get suggestions!” What would you like to see?