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Jonathan Drew and Tris Bartlett: In love with Shakespeare

Par Nad Sivaramen
12 JAN 2016

Nashreen EdooBaccus


British High Commissioner Jonathan Drew, and Mr Tris Bartlett, Country Director, British Council, Mauritius, jointly
talked to lexpress about why they are fascinated by Shakespeares works and his influence on culture and society as
the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of his death.
The Shakespeare Lives programme was launched last Wednesday, the 6th of January. Whats the idea behind this
series of activities?
JD: Its a fantastic programme which not only marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeares death but also
celebrates a colossus who may have been English in origin but who today belongs to the world. He introduced 3,000
words into the English language and so many phrases, like the knock-knock joke from Macbeth or to wait with bated
breath. He has moulded our ever-evolving English language.
TB: Shakespeare is known as a poet and a playwright but, for me, most of all he is a dramatist. Better than any other
person I can think of, he has studied the human condition and transposed it to his plays in a way that we can enjoy it.
He has also enabled us to articulate our own thoughts better. He has put into words what very few people were able to
put into words so successfully before or after him.
What is your take on the language used in Shakespeares plays? Can people even understand the period English

JD: Shakespearean English is of its time but it can still be understood today. Nelson Mandela quoted a line from Julius

Caesar during his imprisonment, Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but
once. When you hear that line, you can still perfectly understand it. Some of the words may make you scratch your
head but, if you let yourself go, be guided by the verses, you will understand their beauty even today.
TB: Its the rhythm, the emotions which matter. Even if the audience is not familiar with a word, the way its delivered,
the timing of it, the music, its something people can absorb and go with.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding Shakespeares death. Apparently his gravestone holds a curse
JD: There are so many conspiracy theories surrounding Shakespeare. He himself loved conspiracy theories and you
often find them in his works. I am sure he would be overjoyed that, even today, people still have these theories about
his grave and his death itself. He would probably be encouraging someone to write a play about it.
Since were already on the subject, what would Shakespeare think of todays world? What would be his take on
terrorism for example?
TB: Shakespeare was of his time but his writing is still relevant today. The theme of terrorism is present in many of his
works, even in Othello. Most of the circumstances of the human condition he wrote about in his plays are as relevant
today as they were 400 years ago. I think that he would have a lot of fun with the information revolution and the use of
technology. You can imagine Shakespeare engaging with that, poking fun at it and studying the human interaction and
JD: But I cant quite imagine Romeo and Juliet on their smartphones and texting. But it could just happen; I think he
would have lots of fun adapting todays world for everyone to enjoy. There are many people who translate
Shakespeares plays and adapt it in their own ways and I think thats a great thing. It makes Shakespeare so much
bigger than just a playwright or just English.
Shakespeare wrote his stories and plays and poems in English but then he became bigger than just English. Could
you say that hes the biggest ambassador for Great Britain elsewhere in the world?
JD: Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of our greatest ambassadors. Some people would quote from Churchill, others
would quote Elizabeth I, but Shakespeare is absolutely high up on the list. But whats fantastic is that because he is a
playwright, a dramatist, a poet, you can take Shakespeare anywhere in the world and put on one of his plays. Everyone
can relate to them because theyre based on human emotion, whatever the language. Shakespeare is an ambassador
for plays, for culture, for literature well beyond the UK.
TB: Its actually Shakespeares relevance in the world today that shows the strength of his works. For example, this
year we might be bringing an adapted version of Richard III set in a 20th century totalitarian society backdrop. It is this
ability of people to interpret his work to highlight other aspects which is wonderful.
Shakespeare livesthrough his works, his plays, his poems. But what about his progeny? People dont really know
about his children. Dowe have a great-greatgreat-grandchild of Shakespeare?
JD: Unfortunately the Shakespeare family has died out. Theres no known direct descendant of the great bard. Im sure
conspiracy theorists might attempt to find someone (laughs) but unfortunately theres no one.
Who owns Shakespeares works then? Are there copyright or royalties issues?

JD: After 400 years you dont have to worry about that aspect anymore because, as far as I know, the limit to royalties
is 70 years after the death of an author. Anyone can reproduce the work of Shakespeare. Any copyright issue now is
mostly over the interpretations of his work.
So Shakespeares works belong to the world then?
JD: Absolutely, you have no excuse for not reading his works. (Laughs) Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
You quote Shakespeare beautifully!
JD: Thank you! Just this piece from a sonnet has been interpreted so many different ways over time, some would
compare it to politicians, or meeting someone of bad faith. These lines, when you listen to them, they open doors in
your mind. They trigger thoughts and emotions.
TB: And Shakespeare has put in words emotions that were until then often left unexpressed.
Shakespeares works certainly trigger many emotions. He has written tragedies, comedies, some dark, others light.
Why the choice of Hamlet for Mauritius?
JD: I think that its because its one of his best plays where he delves deep into the human mind. When we talk of
Shakespeare the psychologist, thats why people like Hamlet. Theres thought in it, deep concern, passion, selfexploration.
TB: Hamlet is one of his most powerful pieces of work and probably the most recurrent aspect of any Shakespeare
celebration, the work that highlights the human condition more than any other.
Apart from Hamlet, another very well-known play of Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet. However, many people
find it overrated. Whats your take on it and whats your favourite play?
TB: Romeo and Juliet epitomises young love, the sort of impossible dream; it touches our most basic emotions. Its
certainly not the most philosophical or deep play but thats the beauty of Shakespeares works. Theres something in
them for everybody. My favourite play is Othello because I love this study of cultural isolation, how this wonderful
person is brought down by many factors. Ultimately he loses his bearings; it is so tragic and so beautiful.
JD: To come back to Romeo and Juliet, I think that Shakespeare was a forward thinker and, as someone from a mixed
family my mother is from India, my fathers family originate from France I like the message conveyed through

Romeo and Juliet. He says dont betied down by social constructs or family feuds, always see the best in people. Im
not sure I do have a favourite play but, if I have to see a last play before I die, I would probably most enjoyMacbeth. I
think in life, we have choices to make and Shakespeare puts forward that point very well in Macbeth. If we make bad
choices, some things can come backto quite literally haunt us.
You say Shakespeare is a forward thinker and, 400 years back, he was weaving in his plays a sort of gender fluidity
through Viola or Rosalind who disguise themselves as boys
TB: Back then, since it was boys who played the roles of female characters on stage, this gender confusion was very
central to theatre. Shakespeare having a mischievous mind, I think he decided to work that into his plays as well. It
was just another dramatic angle he played on.
JD: I think that creative industries are the ones that encourage wider thinking. You have to remember that the
Elizabethan era was something of a golden age. Who knows if he was only being his creative self or was even more
ahead of his time? But then, this whole issue has been present since the beginning of history. If we look back in time,

we could argue that there are periods in history when we were more enlightened than today and vice versa. So long as
we study history and continue to be broadminded, we can continue together and the world can inch forward together.
Thats true! When we look back in time we say it was better then and that the world is now darker
JD: When you study the Dark Ages in Europe, you learn that what was happening in Iran and in the Middle East at that
time was incredible. Learning, knowledge, mathematics, the sciences, astronomy were being pushed forward in great
universities. But now its Europe that has great universities. I hope more Mauritians will come to the UK to study in our
universities! Now we hope that as much as they brought light to Europe when there was darkness, we can now be the
light to those countries which are facing difficult times.
There has been a reversal in roles then?
TB: Civilisations come and go, great African empires, dynasties in China and Egypt. All of our cultures have such
wonderful aspects to them and we are lucky to be in an era where you can access the best of each culture and learn
from them all. And through Shakespeare Lives, we want to light a fresh spark in Mauritius to continue such cultural
JD: Shakespeare Lives is an endeavour to safeguard that spirit and thats one of the reasons why we have asked the
Globe (Editors note: Shakespeare Globe Theatre) to exceptionally include a matine performance which will be
especially for school children. Its an opportunity for them to have direct experience of the artist through his play.
I am really looking forward to see this play! One last thing, every little word of Shakespeare is analysed and
interpreted. What if he only meant what he wrote literally?
TB: But isnt that the essence of being an artist? You are creating something yourself but you are putting it out there
for others to make of it what they will. I think that Shakespeare probably did that better than anyone else even today.
The sonnet about the lily and the weed, my interpretation of that is that a lily shines brightly but then crashes whereas
a weed carries on growing quietly; they have different properties. He creates a world of possibilities and we can go into
them as deeply as we like.
JD: Once you put your words on paper, they cease to belong to you and thats what Shakespeare shows. I think he
would be gratified to know that, 400 years on, he is the person who holds the record of most films made based on his
body of work. He would love it and probably be horrified as well because he would not know what to make of his fame.
Every artist wants fame but then there is fame, there is global fame and there is Shakespeare.

The Globe Theatre artists will give a performance of the play Hamlet on the
22nd January at noon and at 8.00 pm at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.

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