Departing from Shakespeare: reflections triggered by re-staging Manhattan’s west side on KwaZulu-Natal’s East Coast (2013)

  • Sarah Roberts


This practice-led research paper interrogates the “afterlife” of Romeo and Juliet through focusing on its transformed identity as West Side Story (1957) which transposed the tensions embedded in a Renaissance Anglo-European order into the so-called New World as a frankly declared act of appropriation. Designing the 2013 production of West Side Story at the KZN Playhouse prompted an extended focus on questions concerning “decolonising Shakespeare” within the field of theatre practice and production. I draw briefly on essays by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Moving the Centre that interrogate established patterns of cultural exchange and recasting as being inseparable from questions of imperial imposition and dominance against which strategies of resistance, such as appropriation and re-imaginings, are posited. As a medium of live encounter in the public domain, theatre (as a process and event) has a unique facility to stage readings in ways that destabilise a received narrative and its dramatic conventions as much as continuing to operate through these conventions. A necessarily contained discussion of aspects of theatrepractice and the languages of theatrical expression frames a close-reading of three aspects of West Side Story: the subject identities and action that are a direct outcome of re-locating Shakespeare’s narrative; the acknowledged formal innovations of the text; and, most crucially, its collaborative authorship. These three features have distinct resonance with postcolonial discourses and potentially far-reaching consequences for theatre-making initiatives committed to decolonisation. Steven Sondheim’s insistence on the “theatricality” of the text prompts a brief interrogation of the implications of the term in conjunction with the “afterlife” of “allographic writing” and its availability for appropriation. Addressing “theatricality” introduces the implications of radical departures from Shakespearean drama through valorising the theatrical languages of sound, space and dancing bodies over the printed word or speaking actor. The designer’s task focuses as much on these imperatives as on issues of cultural identity. The hybridity between operatic and musical-theatre idiom that results from the “collaborative authorship” of West Side Story invites addressing, albeit briefly, in terms of both the intentions of its makers and the critical reception of the work. Interrogating selected aspects of the origins and the extended process of making West Side Story enables me to problematise traditional sequences and residual notions of individual authority that continue to dominate theatre-making practices locally. I draw on the reflections of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to address inter-personal dynamics and power hierarchies: both are provocative in deliberating issues central to the collaborative creative process that might constitute a model of “decolonised” theatre-making. While the focus of the paper is confined to commentaries that emerged from the extended gestation of the first production of West Side Story and two subsequent South African productions, the implications extend to both Shakespeare in performance in South Africa today and to theatre-making more broadly.


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eISSN: 1011-582X