25 years of student-presented Shakespeare
Text: Alexander Kokkedal
Photos: Rikke Sønderby Nielsen
Since 1993, the Aalborg University Shakespeare Company has brought the plays of writer and poet William Shakespeare to life through their annual performances. In their more recent years they have performed at Det Hem’lige Teater located in the centre of Aalborg. The driving force behind the performances is the large amount of student and graduate volunteers working as scenographers, directors, costume designers, and of course actors.
In an age where modern retellings of classic literary works thrive in theatres, the Aalborg University Shakespeare Company has chosen to stay true to the original scripts, only going so far as to abridge a play when time constraints necessitate it. Prior to this year’s performance of “Richard III”, Agenda had the opportunity to meet the directors for a chat.
Sticking to the script within a reasonable time-frame
This year, the directors were AAU students Maria Donnerborg and Vanja Vukotic, both of whom over the past few years have had various tasks at the Aalborg University Shakespeare Company including assisting in costume creation and acting on stage. When inquiring about the Company, the first question popping to mind is: ‘why Shakespeare, though?’
“Why not? The thing about Shakespeare is that it is still so relevant today, even though it was written 400 years ago. With the characters, Shakespeare really managed to encompass what it means to be human,” director Vanja Vukotic explains.
The authenticity with which the plays are presented by the Company is by the directors believed to be a major contributing factor in drawing in audiences. “Richard III”, being Shakespeare’s second longest play only bested by “Hamlet”, had to be abridged for this year’s performance, but apart from that the script is kept as is.
“I think people want to watch Shakespeare, and I think that if you want to get as close to the original as possible you should come watch us, because our costumes are somewhat periodical, and the language is Shakespearian English,” director Maria Donnerborg comments.
Applying visuals to frame the characters
From ultimo March to primo April, “Richard III” was performed at Det Hem’lige Teater. The play is about the deformed Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who resorts to murder and manipulation in order to claim the Throne of England. In directing this year’s performance, Maria Donnerborg and Vanja Vukotic strived to shed a sympathetic light on the character.
“Richard is a character that can be played fully as a villain, but we have chosen for our Richard to be sort of sympathetic, at least in the beginning. People can understand his motives because he has been this black sheep, but as you move on and he starts to kill more and more people, he starts to lose his hold on the audience,” Vanja Vukotic says.
The choice of scenography took a – for the Company – bold new direction in on the one hand letting a very peculiar, four-legged appliance take centre-stage; a structure to be played off. On the other hand, the appliance of lighting and colour-coding as well as the use of personalized emblems were chosen to help audiences identify the characters.
“For the past few years, the scenography has been kind of the same, and some of our production wanted to do it a little more abstract. We thought that was a great idea and decided on it, and so we now have walls that can move around, and banners that change when people die,” Maria Donnerborg explains.
It is okay to mess up
Volunteers at the Company get to work on a variety of tasks if they wish for the opportunity to learn new skills such as sewing or crafting props. Everyone in the Company has the opportunity to both act and direct – the latter opportunity is acquired through a majority vote in favour of performing the play you suggest.
“If you’re part of the Company, you can decide that you want to try being a director. We have our annual general meeting where you stand up and say that you want to do a certain play, and if another suggests a different play, we vote. The two of us were the only ones running with a play last year, so we got it,” Maria Donnerborg says.
When the directors are chosen, it is time to find the actors among the Company’s volunteers. If many apply for the same role, the casting is determined by audition.
“There were a lot of good people this year, so we tried auditions, but it is hard as we are friends. I think one of the hardest parts about being a director is putting friendships aside when you have known these people for four years,” Maria Donnerborg says.
It is not necessary to have previous experience with acting in order to play a character in the Company’s performances. Help is always within reach, assures Maria Donnerborg.
“We are trying to support each other and say that it is okay to mess up because we are amateurs – we do this for fun, and the audience primarily consists of our family and students,” she says.
Inclusivity keeps the fire burning
The Aalborg University Shakespeare Company is always looking for more volunteers both for helping to make the performances happen and managing the organization. Given that the plays are performed in English, the way is paved for international students to come join.
“We do not have any now, but a couple of years ago they had some international students who were drawn to this because they could perform in English and the people here know how to speak the language,” Vanja Vukotic says.
According to this year’s directors, the Company offers a refuge for people with any background – and a supporting environment for people in need of one.
“When we are here, we do all we can to help each other, and when it is time to go we pass the torch on to the next generation, and I think that is why the Shakespeare Company has managed to thrive for 25 years now,” Vanja Vukotic concludes.