Bite-sized Shakespeare

David Ladderman, in Battle of the Bastards, says Shakespeare should be fun.
David Ladderman, in Battle of the Bastards, says Shakespeare should be fun.

For years - centuries in fact - messing with Shakespeare was close to blasphemy. But times change and modern audiences often prefer bite-size-chunks over bloated epics.

Christchurch actor and performer David Ladderman knows this well: that's part of the reason he penned Battle of the Bastards, the main attraction at Southland's annual bard-fest, Shakespeare in the Park, from February 7-11.

A tale of kings, queens and bastards, the one-man play comes complete with sword fights, eye gouging and Elizabethan cussing. The hour-long show concentrates on one of the subplots from King Lear, specifically around Edmund the bastard son of Gloucester and his more legitimate (in the true sense of the word) brother Edgar.

In recent years, directors such as Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and Juliet) have helped shunt Shakespeare into the modern age. The 1999 film 10 Things I hate about You was a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew. Then there's Shakespeare in 140 characters on twitter and Stars Wars in Shakespeare prose.

Ladderman puts on his best posh voice when asked why people seemed so reluctant for so long to play around with Shakespeare's work.

"I reckon we treat it with kid gloves because it's old. We all grew up with it. We have this image of the teacher who first taught us Shakespeare. Old Mr Jenkins was a stuffy fellow, who said you must 'speak the words with all of your mouth'."

He prefers to think that, at the time the works were written and premiered, they were a lot of fun and highly controversial.

"It would have been exciting and risque."

Shakespeare wrote his plays to appeal to the Royals and upper class, middle-class merchants, and the peasantry. He told the same joke in three different ways to appeal to the different audiences. He was a populist who made everyone laugh, sigh and sob.

"Aw, blummin' heck yeah . . . now let's throw a tomato," he says in his best peasant voice, mimicking the mocking approval of who would have been in the cheap seats several centuries ago.

When Shakespeare was a King's player, he still wrote to appeal to all the classes - which is one of the main reasons he has been the unparalled rock star of playwriting ever since, Ladderman says.

It's great people can go to the Globe Theatre in London and see a Shakespeare play "perfectly constructed" with original text in-tact but, on the flipside, if you do that, it risks becoming boring and stale, and no-one will care.

"We need it to be fun. It was designed to be fun. We don't need to treat it like gold."

So he does Shakespeare for modern attention spans. He wrote Battle of the Bastards with an eye to getting "Joe Plumber" along to the show.

"I actually wrote if for mechanics. Audiences are smarter than we give them credit for."

Oh, and the traditional Shakespeare tragics love it too, he adds quickly.

"I actually didn't expect the traditional crowd to like it, but I didn't [write the show] to mock Shakespeare. I did it because I love Shakespeare."

But, to be honest, some people "would rather cut off their own toes" than see a traditional Shakespeare performance, so Ladderman is delighted to be pulling in mechanics, plumbers and anyone else keen to have a good laugh.

He says he's pleasantly surprised how well the show plays out in all venues - theatres, outdoors or even in a tent, which is where the show is being performed during the Christchurch festival.

"People have zest when they walk into a theatre."

Performing outdoors doesn't daunt this experienced player. In Australia, he remembers doing King Lear on a mountain-top in the Grampians range when a massive storm rolled in as King Lear's despair reached its crescendo. The audience was enthralled as nature "served it up with no mercy" creating a wonderfully realistic atmosphere.

He's no stranger to Invercargill, having toured two shows here before. The first was The Butler and the second a burlesque show.

"We had a ball both times."

Life on the road is a reality for an entertainer and they need to be pliable and "go where the wind blows".

It could sound a bit glib for a performer to praise those paying him but, when Ladderman compliments Angela Newell for inviting him south, it comes across as a genuine artist happy to bring his modernising mission south.

"I applaud her for taking a risk on Bastards."

The show was often a bit of a hard-sell to start with but, as the reviews have testified, audiences love it.

It's also picked up a steady stream of awards including "Best of the Fringe" in Canada's Toronto Fringe Festival.

Australian born, Ladderman was captain of both his cricket and football teams at high school but jumped head-first into theatre soon after studying at the Ballarat Academy of Performing Arts and then New Zealand's landmark circus training school in Christchurch, Circo Arts.

He established himself as a prominent member of the New Zealand street-performing community. Between 2004 and 2009, he was half of the Motley Two, a duo whose highlights included two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, the Kuala Lumpur Buskers Festival and five World Buskers Festivals in his adopted hometown of Christchurch.

The Loons Circus Theatre company was established in 2007 as a rare entity comprised of award- winning circus acts, musicians and actors. It toured constantly until the 2011 Christchurch quakes left the company homeless - and on hold for the time being.

His next project is a play about a 1940s "mind-reading couple" based on research he and creative partner Lizzie Tollemache have done on what he calls a secretive and somewhat questionable pursuit.

Tickets for Battle of the Bastards, from today until February 11, from Invercargill i-SITE or phone 03 211 0895. The promenade scenes throughout Queens Park are free to watch but you will need a ticket to stay for Battle of the Bastards.

The Southland Times