2016 / Thursday

Shakespeare’s poetry of language translated into song

Wendy John

Paul kelly

Paul kelly

“Witches, blood, sex, betrayal, murder.” Paul Kelly confessed to an infatuation with Shakespeare that began in high school and continued to inspire. He said that as a teenager this stuff of nightmares “got me hooked straight away.”

The veteran singer-songwriter was discussing Macbeth with Pete Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, in the session Shakespeare’s Sonnets at Pier 2/3 on Monday. “I fell in love with the language,” he said. “The poetry of the language, it was electric. It sort of made your hair stand on end.” Seeing another school’s production of Hamlet soon after studying Macbeth, he was “pretty gobsmacked by that as well”.

The rambunctious and vocal audiences of Shakespeare’s day offer some explanation of why the Bard’s language was so powerful, he said. “The plays couldn’t be subtle. They had to go out and grab the audience and you can feel it in the language. The language is often right at the point of extremity.  That heightened pitch is what first attracted me.”

It is appropriate that Paul Kelly headlined this festival discussion.  For the first time the Sydney Writers Festival has partnered with the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) to give students unprecedented access to leading writers and to “stimulate and educate beyond the normal classroom experience”.

Rani Heywood, SWF Head of Marketing and Digital, said the BOSTES program was more aligned to the NSW school curriculum than previous youth-centred programs and aimed to give high school students more of an adult, festival experience.  “In a way, we’re training them to become future festival-goers,” Ms Heywood said. Some dynamic thinkers and writers contribute to the BOSTES program this year, including Noble Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty, Olympic gold medallist Leisel Jones, and Wiradjuri man and journalist Stan Grant.

The capacity crowd for Shakespeare’s Sonnets was made up of students and teachers from over 20 state, private and home schools. If enrichment outside normal classroom learning was what they were seeking, Mr Kelly, an ARIA Hall of Fame member, delivered it.  Backlit by the morning sun filtering through the high windows of Pier 2/3, he sang a track from his new album Seven Sonnets & A Song, a folksy rendition of Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I compare thee to a summers day’, accompanied by acoustic guitar. Mr Kelly smiled at the crowd’s hearty applause and whooping, and assumed a more relaxed posture upon return to the discussion with Pete Evans.

Mr Evans had a story of hope for all writers facing career crises. He explained that the closing down of English theatres in the early 1590’s instigated Shakespeare’s poetry writing. Suddenly unemployed, Shakespeare took to writing poetry for commissions.  He was first engaged by a nobleman’s relatives to write the Procreation Sonnets, which encourage a reluctant young man to settle down and have children.  “When the theatres reopened in 1594/95” he said “Shakespeare seems to have come back and written Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  Mr Evans suggested the years spent writing poetry changed and edified Shakespeare’s writing so much that “what might have been a crisis in a writer’s life, like a theatre being closed, turned into a major benefit”.

“I’ve just come off directing Romeo and Juliet, which plays with the different meaning of lie and lying,” Mr Evans said.  Those sentiments were reflected in Sonnet 138, Mr Kelly’s evocative, second performance. He said sonnets adapt well to a pop song:  “They’re short, it’s 14 lines. They rhyme. They have a very strong rhythm. And traditionally, after the first eight lines of the sonnet, there’s supposed to be what they call a turn or a shift in perspective or tone for the next four lines.  That sort of relates to a bridge in song writing.  There’s verses and chorus and then just a slight lift or a change in mood and that’s what the bridge does.  And the sonnet has that built in.  The last two lines of a sonnet is the couplet and they rhyme right next to each other and that can sort of work as a chorus. “

Although Mr Kelly was the star of the session with his performances, it was Pete Evans who provided the last laugh.  A student from the back of the room asked the final question of the Q&A.  “Do you ever wonder that you might be getting the wrong impression or emphasising the wrong aspect of the work?”  he asked. And while Paul Kelly spoke to the beauty of Shakespeare being that different people take different things from the plays and poems, the director was more personally candid.  To the obvious amusement of the audience he said, “My life has been continually just failing.  The experience of being a Shakespeare director is incredibly humbling, because you are never quite getting it right.”  He paused.  “And yes, your question gives me nightmares.”