“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is arguably the most famous line of poetry in the English language. In this country, we are force-fed Shakespeare in school, before we even learn about any other poet or playwright. From an early age, we learn that Shakespeare is intrinsically linked to an idea of Britishness. If you visit London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, you can see how tourists associate Shakespeare with the ‘olde worlde’ England built through his plays. This is a romanticised England, with powerful monarchs like his history plays, and the pastoral countryside of As You Like It.
However, there is also a universality to Shakespeare’s works. They explore profound themes that relate on a human level, such as love, death, jealousy and revenge. These themes are all captured in the collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. When you are not forced by the school curriculum to analyse stanza length, quatrains, and iambic pentameter, you can actually appreciate that his Shakespeare’s poetry taps into something inherent within us all, regardless of nationality or religion.
In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Thespis Theatre Troupe, from Israel, weave together a selection of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets to create a narrative. Performed in Hebrew with English subtitles, the sonnets are transformed into dramatic pieces, theatrically interpreting their universal themes.
Prior to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I had never heard the Hebrew language spoken before. Guttural, with elegant, rolling consonants and an earthy inflection, it is a beautiful language to listen to. Proving that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be performed in the English language, the themes of each sonnet remain transparent, even in Hebrew. Although there were some technical issues with the subtitles in the performance I attended, this didn’t matter because I could still understand the essence of the sonnets through the expressive performance by Thespis Theatre Troupe.
The piece is composed in two distinct sections, the first addressed to a young man, the ‘fair youth’, the second focusing on betrayal, as he is seduced by a sultry temptress, ‘the dark lady’.
There is an extensive debate amongst academics over whom Shakespeare addressed his ‘fair youth’ sonnets to. The most popular theory behind the fair youth’s identity being that it is Shakespeare’s patron, and suspected lover, the Earl of Southampton. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the lovers are played by Gal Shamai and Yoav Amir, who render a passionate relationship through physical movement.
Mirrors are a recurrent motif in the dramatic interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets about youth and beauty. Not only do these mirrors create striking visual imagery, but they are also used to remarkable effect to reflect light. Shamai holds up a mirror, using its reflective light to form a spotlight, illuminating his lover’s face from below. This is lighting design at its most ingenious, generating a new light source from an ordinary prop.
As the “woman coloured ill” seduces the lover, physical movement is used to denote her erotic passion. Hands are intertwined to suggest a sexual relationship. In sharp contrast to the rest of the ensemble’s white costumes, Odelya Dadoun‘s temptress wears a black dress, suggesting her immoral nature. “She would corrupt my saint to be a devil”. Dadoun’s muse isn’t detestable though. She has a vulnerability that is expressed in Sonnet 100, performed through song. With a beautiful depth and richness to her voice, Dadoun extracts the emotion from Shakespeare’s poem, producing a song so powerful it gave me goosebumps, regardless of it being sung in Hebrew.
This main narrative is interjected with other sonnets that express loneliness, old age, and mortality. The sonnets are perfectly selected to represent the universal human traits inherent in Shakespeare’s works. A recurring clock motif is used to remind the audience that time is running out, that death is inevitable.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an aurally and visually striking piece that shows how beautiful the Hebrew language is. This incredibly talented Israeli theatre company have created a performance that demonstrates that Shakespeare’s sonnets strike a chord within us all.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets is part of the GM Fringe festival.