When you think about how much of William Shakespeare’s work permeates western society, it’s pretty incredible. Whether it’s watching The Lion King as a child, 10 Things I Hate About You as an adult, or either traditional performances or contemporary theatrical interpretations, we’re pretty steeped in his work. But that raises a lot of questions about what effects these works have on our everyday lives. For Jon Lachlan Stewart the questions this raised were around what Shakespeare’s many scenes of actual or attempted sexual violence towards women has had on today’s men.
Out of that curiosity came Lavinia, which is being presented at Canoe Theatre Festival January 28 – February 1. Jon says, “The show takes Shakespeare’s characters who are involved in sexual violence or sexual attacks, which a lot of women in his plays are, and they’re together in a Shakespeare survival group. One particular character named Lavinia, who had a particularly brutal case, sees her friend Silvia attacked by this man on a bus and nothing happens and no one does anything to stop this attack so Lavinia makes it her own personal revenge story to go after this guy and bring him to justice… I used [Shakespeare’s] plays where these men attempted to rape a character in the play and they were forgiven at the end of the story for doing that. So, this play is sort of picking up where Shakespeare failed to give the female side of the story.”
Jon says the impetus to create Lavinia were the assault and gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012 as well as Jon’s time at the National Theatre School (NTS), where he worked with many female instructors. Jon says, “[Being at NTS] kind of woke me up as a guy that most of my training, life, and personal stories were told from a male perspective and I’d been living in a very male perspective. So, those were the events that combined to make me want to write this story. I was very interested in the fact that there’s all of these stories of sexual violence in Shakespeare’s plays but at the time they were reenacted by men dressing up as women. So what’s fascinating to me about that is I think these men in Shakespeare’s day that were dressing up as women and re-enacting these stories of sexual violence and then forgive themselves in the story is kind of a horrible ongoing metaphor for what I think our situation is in our history of how we’ve had a male dominated perspective until relatively recently… We have this 500 year old tradition that is still in an undercurrent. I guess [we’re using] Shakespeare’s characters and Shakespeare’s stories because we’re trying to expose the fact that this is a long time tradition and it’s still kind of in our blood whether we like it or not and it’s very complicated and difficult to pull ourselves away from.”
Throughout the life of Lavinia, it has changed from five women speaking to having Lavinia as the only on-stage female character and Proteus (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) playing a male secondary character. Both characters are played by Jon, who tells me it was important that this be a one-person direct address show. “This is a time where myself as a man, I’m trying to reinvestigate the way I look at the world, at gender, at sex, at sexuality and equality and what all of that means to me. I imagine that at some point it must have come into Shakespeare’s head [to do the same] if he was writing these scenes. You can see how his plays develop and what periods he goes through. His writing changes and he has these female characters that get a different kind of depth from some of his earlier works. Like, Rosalind from As You Like It, you see these major intellectual differences from his earlier women. I know he had men playing her but he had to have been delving into himself and what his relationship with women was… I like this idea of him as an individual man going into the experience of the opposite sex to try to figure out what is up with him… Really, it’s about the author and the author’s relationship with the world and him appropriating these characters and playing them.”
And despite the fact that the characters are taken from Shakespeare’s classical works and placed in a contemporary situation, Jon says the point is not to disrespect the author and his works, but to re-examine the traditions his works have created. ” It’s very difficult to really question them and rewire our brains to have equality and respect and awareness of the way we look at the world. It’s pretty big stuff…. it’s a huge, daunting subject… I think the subject is far too important for us not to join in some conversation, even if the conversation is about wondering what the severity of that is and starting to put our feet in the water together so that we can have a conversation about it. Rather than me saying just because I’m not a woman doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it. Because I’m from the other side, it’s really important.”
While the Canoe Theatre Festival is the premiere of Lavinia, Jon and director Georgina Beaty have been working together on the show for quite a while. Jon says the collaboration between him and Georgina has helped ensure that both the male and female perspectives are present in the show and has been vital to the process as part of a “goal to get a balanced attack on this sensitive subject… What we’re talking about is extremely important and it’s so in the air right now. It’s everywhere. I don’t know how other men feel about this stuff, but I feel fucking terrified about this stuff. I’m so afraid of my own shit. Like this whole Jian Gomeshi thing is so fresh and as a guy, I think these things that happen, I think we’re talking about normal male tendencies that start as these little seeds that are just everyday normal things that we don’t recognize because it’s how the majority of us have grown up. So, this is very scary stuff. It’s very difficult stuff to talk about on both sides, whether you’re a guy or a girl…. It’s screwed up because I feel it’s very urgent for me to talk about this and I’m speaking from the privileged side. And speaking from that side that’s still really needing to talk about it… I think it’s dangerous and risky.”
Lavinia premieres at the Canoe Theatre Festival, January 28 – February 1. Performances are January 31 @ 8:00 p.m. and February 1 @ 2:00 and 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 from Workshop West.