Rob Pensalfini has his own unique approach to Shakespeare.
As the founder and artistic director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble (QSE), he has been working tirelessly to showcase Shakespeare’s plays to contemporary audiences.
Since 2001, the ensemble has presented some of the most fascinating and diverse interpretations of the Bard’s work. Notably, QSE’s ‘Prison Project’ – an initiative created by Rob in 2006, has garnered well-deserved attention from both the public and media.
As Australia’s first, and only, Shakespeare prison initiative, the project aims to give prisoners the opportunity to perform Shakespeare’s plays, whilst encouraging emotional awareness and dedication. The project has been a success, with some former participants continuing their involvement in theatre after leaving prison. QSE’s upcoming production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Rob, will showcase the talent of a former ‘Prison Project’ participant within its diverse and brilliant cast.
“I wasn’t one of those people who was always interested in Shakespeare,” Rob told AussieTheatre. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-20s, while living in the U.S, that I began to take an interest. The approach to classical theatre in the U.S is more visceral. It’s gutsy and physical.”
“We aim to evoke the artist in everyone. I believe everyone has the right to be an artist”
Rob gained his doctorate in theoretical linguistics and Australian Aboriginal languages from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997. His time living in the U.S not only had an impact on his personal appreciation and approach to the works of Shakespeare, but led him to address the lack of such an approach in Australia. His creation of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in 2001 brought modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays to Queensland audiences, and allowed for a more community-based approach to the production and consumption of classical theatre.
The ensemble has been performing for over a decade now, and combined with initiatives such as the Prison Project, they are a progressive force in giving opportunities to a diverse range of people within the community. Rob’s approach opens up the world of Shakespeare to everyone, not just the educated or the theatre-obsessed.
“We aim to evoke the artist in everyone. I believe everyone has the right to be an artist.”
As a senior lecturer in both drama and linguistics at the University of Queensland, his work with the ensemble transcends beyond the traditional confines of theatrics. It integrates an appreciation of the spoken word – the most important element of Shakespeare’s work, but one that many contemporary directors seem to forget. Rob describes the ensemble as being “fully committed to words”; his approach as a director ensures that the actors don’t recite lines that have no meaning to them. The ensemble’s rehearsal process focuses primarily on the clarity and understanding of Shakespeare’s plays within a modern context, this contributes to the unique interpretation and high quality of QSE’s productions.
For his upcoming production of the The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Rob is taking Shakespeare’s comedic play, and adding his own “spaghetti western” approach. He came upon this idea after considering the possible modern settings that this story could feasibly be played out.
The play has a raw, last-frontier feel to it; which led Rob to land on the incredibly entertaining idea of cowboys. Not cowboys in a “cowboys and Indians” way; but the gritty, gun slingin’ men of the Italo-Western genre. Rob has also been working on original music for the play; in fact, all of QSE’s productions feature original live music — another element that makes their work incredibly entertaining for the modern Shakespeare enthusiast.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is notorious for its controversial ending, and in answer to this, Rob is considering the impact the ending may have upon audiences. Since QSE are never afraid of a challenge, they are going to add their own spin on the ending. Shakespeare’s comedy of love, outlaws and cross-dressing looks likely to get a bizarre re-telling!
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Presented by: Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble
Venue: The Amphitheatre, Roma Street Parkland, Brisbane
Directed by: Rob Pensalfini
Booking information: www.qldshakespeare.org or phone: (07) 3365 3269
Season: 15 August– 2 September