On the eve of the 40oth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I had the privilege to sit with actor Tama Matheson in the glow of a newly erected set in QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre, and talk about Queensland Theatre company’s Much Ado About Nothing. This play, arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies, explores all the varied guises of love: its uncontained joy, its comfort, its tenderness, jealousies, playfulness, rages, certainty, fickleness, happiness, and its despair. At the centre of the drama are young lovers Claudio and Hero, and rivals Benedick and Beatrice- the latter couple determined not to marry, least of all each other. In this contemporary production, all four (along with friends, family and foes) are on an island ready to celebrate the men’s return from an unspecified conflict. The narrative unravels along with the revelry, wherein Matheson plays the Prince, Don Pedro.
We began our conversation with what I assume is an easy question: “Tell me about your character”. “That is not an easy question.” Matheson quickly disabuses me.
“He is so enigmatic. The entire play comes about because of his machinations. He decides to make a party of everything. He helps Claudio fall in love with Hero. He says ‘I want to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love.’ He’s the driving force, but at the same time he’s rather removed from it all. He’s sort of somewhat aloof. As the play comes to an end, Benedick actually says to him ‘Prince, thou art sad.’ The whole play ends with this happiness, this typical comedic fun, but he’s not joining in with it. It may just be a technical issue: a comedy, in the technical sense, ends with a marriage, whereas a tragedy ends with death. It may be that he does not have a wife yet so he is not an essential part of the comedy.”
So essentially, the Prince is driving the play, but what is driving him? “That’s the thing!” Matheson is animated.
“He’s very, very hard to pin down, so it is entirely up to the actor, I suppose. It’s true of all theatre that no play comes alive, no character exists, except at the interface of the audience and the actor. Until then it’s all theory on a page. It’s almost as though Shakespeare is inviting the actor to invest the Prince with their own character, whatever that may be. I think I’ll keep looking for and finding things until the end of the show. As often happens I’ll probably finish the run and go ‘Oh, now I know what to do’.”
By talking with Matheson, it was obvious the entire cast has gone through a rigorous rehearsal period to create a nuanced character profile. Matheson laughs.
“The character in a nutshell- it needs a great big nutshell, like a coconut shell. It’s so mysterious… We tried various things. We even tried the idea that he might be somewhat in love with Claudio, or that he might be in love with Beatrice and that a melancholy is engendered in him. I suppose what is surprising about the Prince is that the character could take all those choices and they would work in one way or another. We ended up not going down that path. We ended up going for him being someone trying very hard to be merry and then you see through that merriment and that jocularity that there’s something underneath slightly missing. There’s a loneliness there covering itself over with this desire to be happy, this pursuit of happiness, to put it in American constitutional terms. And I suppose that’s been the big surprise- that it’s so variously interpretable.”
I suggest that, more cynically, perhaps the Prince could just be testing his power, seeing what he can get away with. Matheson seems pleased I have brought it up. “We’ve done that as well,” he says.
“Is he just playing games? Is his pleasure a perverse pleasure in which he just wants to manipulate people around him? Fortunately, unlike his brother Don John who has the same inclination, the Prince’s manipulations end up being rather good. People fall in love as a result. Don John’s the opposite. Don John’s nasty. So they’re like two sides of the same coin, strangely enough. There’s something questionable about him [the Prince] as well. As he goes along doing these things, the characters within the play have questions about him: Is he stealing Hero? Is he earnest? Is he hurting everybody? Oh no, he’s not, but there’s something slightly disturbing about the games that he plays. I think it’s one of the hardest parts I’ve ever essayed.”
While on stage during the media call, and indeed at the beginning of our interview, I can’t help but notice that Matheson himself exudes that ebullience and levity he has just ascribed to his character. He quips that “The play is remarkable- you can’t kill it. I’ve tried!” and puts on a mock-straight face to say “The best you can hope for is that someone says ‘That’s definitive’. And that’s what we’re going for- definitive.
Draw Matheson in to a broader discussion of Shakespeare, however, and he becomes an entirely different, earnest character.
Although Matheson doesn’t remember exactly his first experience of Much Ado About Nothing, he remarks, “It’s one of plays that just seems to be in your consciousness already.”
“I know I read a lot of the Shakespeare’s first when I was younger, just because I thought I should, and then they were such a pleasure when I got to reading them… I think I read it first and then I saw the film [with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson], naturally, we all saw the film when it came on. Wasn’t a huge fan of that film, incidentally. I think they hammer the text very hard. A slight criticism, I suppose.”
However, he certainly remembers discovering Shakespeare. “When we were kids we had tales of Shakespeare books, and they had these wonderful illustrations and we’d look at all the pictures and point at them and go ‘Titania! Bottom!’ as little kids. My first real encounter with Shakespeare was when I was eleven years old, and Dad showed me Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, and there was this extraordinary looking man, with this made up nose on him, and a bob wig, with these louring eyes, and he shuffled straight towards the camera and fixed you in his gaze and said ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ and it was so magnetic. I perhaps didn’t quite understand all the words he was saying, but I knew they were incredibly powerful and the way he put them across was so vibrant and exciting. I ran upstairs and I learnt the speech that day and started to hobble about like a hunchback with a limp, and from that point on I was absolutely hooked. I started to understand how densely packed with meaning theses words are, and how enormously potent that is and how when you say them your soul seems to expand and you seem to understand life more, and you can comprehend the entire world because you know your own emotions. It’s an extraordinary thing. It came to me, fortunately, quite early and I’ve been sitting and living with Shakespeare ever since. He’s always there in the back of my mind, as a kind of genius, as it were- genius in the old sense of a spirit. His influence spreads itself over everything and you sort of see the world through his eyes in a way because when you see or perform his plays he makes you see things. Because Shakespeare gave us so much of his language, we think in his thoughts so much. When we say ‘the world’s mine oyster’ or ‘in my mind’s eye’ or ‘hot-blooded’, or ‘cold-blooded’, these are his expressions. His way of understanding the world, which is never to judge anything, but just to appreciate that life is a many various thing, and that all the different parts of humanity make up the world, and there are bad parts and good parts, and if you are able to look at them poetically and with comprehension and understanding, the world is bright for you and there is no darkness but ignorance.”
By this stage, we have descended into a veritable rabbit-hole of Matheson’s deep intellectual, emotional and psychological understanding of Shakespeare (borne of years of studying, performing and directing his works. In fact, he directed Much Ado About Nothing eight years ago and fell in love with it). I feel inadequate surfacing to ask the somewhat simple question “What is your favourite Shakespearean play?” My worries are groundless, for we plunge straight back down.
“I think Hamlet is the play the world can least do without. It’s the play that explores most thoroughly what it is to be human. The huge internal complications and decisions you have to make every day as a person, and the vast chasm of the future that you see before you which is sort of an emptiness and you have to give your own life meaning so that you can outstare the emptiness… I think that comes from Hamlet. Also because the role of Hamlet gives us the most refined psychology of any part, except perhaps Macbeth, and that so much of modern psychology, and Freud was quite aware of this, comes directly from Shakespeare and, more than any, Hamlet. It somehow seems to touch every part of human existence, Hamlet, and every second line is a great quotation. ‘Oh my god. Oh my god. That’s from there, that’s from there.’ I don’t know how any man could pour so much concentrated genius into one work. I suppose that’s the ultimate play.”
Matheson draws breath, “In terms of excitement, Richard III or perhaps Macbeth….He [Shakespeare], noted something very, very important about people on stage. If you open your thoughts to the audience and if you tell people ‘this is what’s in my head’ they cannot help but love you.”
All this insight into Shakespeare’s continuing relevance begs the question- “Why contemporise something that is timeless?” This may perhaps be a question better posed to director Jason Klarwein, but Matheson is happy to answer in his place.
“It’s a difficult question. There are always going to be some ideas, some words in particular, that don’t fit in the contemporary perspective. In the end it doesn’t matter, because Shakespeare can only live for us now in the modern world as we understand him, as we approach him and apprehend him. Shakespeare took all these old plays and in his day, they were performed in contemporary costumes. It is traditional, as it were, to contemporize it.”
One thing, Matheson concedes, that can be difficult for today’s audience is the treatment of the character Hero (without too many spoilers, for those unfamiliar with the play). Her’s and Claudio’s is a stormy romance. “It’s young love.” Matheson explains.
“He [Shakespeare], counterpoises that against Beatrice and Benedick. If you think of the sonnets then you have, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.’ And that is Beatrice and Benedick who suddenly realise that all their games of rivalry and apparent contempt have actually been love. Whereas Claudio and Hero are Romeo and Juliet. They fall in love explosively because they fancy each other and it’s that ‘first, fine, careless rapture’ and that grip of love that makes you feel like you’ll be faithful for eternity, and of course it all crumbles in a second. But then Shakespeare does an amazing thing, he just…forgives. And this is the great lesson of the comedies, I think- that unforgiveable things happen and then you forgive them and you take all your power back again, and once you do that the world is smoothed out. If we hang on to the things that hurt us we could never function as human beings. We have to, daily, through the tribulations of life just learn to be compassionate, merciful and to forgive. When Hero says ‘I died, and now I am alive again’ she has forgiven everything. It’s a new life, which is a very Dante idea, La Vita Nuova, renewed by love.”
Haven fallen down the rabbit hole of Shakespeare we find we have overrun our interview time and have to wind up quickly. As Matheson is shepherded backstage and I am hurried towards a different exit, I just have time for one last question- “What would Shakespeare say about this production?” The initial, merry Matheson is back and quick to don the Bard’s shoes- “He’d say ‘Really, the Prince is exactly as I envisaged him’.”
Much Ado About Nothing plays at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre until the 15th of May.