Gonzalo, the playwright, & the Iron Lady: an essay by Chris Goode

Posted on May 6, 2013

Chris Goode brings The Forest and The Field to Mayfest 2013. It’s a piece which reflects on theatre from the inside, so we wanted to get an inside take on Chris’s inspiration for making it. He wrote this for us:

The weekend I’ll be at Mayfest this year is also the weekend of my 40th birthday party. Which means that, unlike many of my theatre-making colleagues and friends, I’m old enough that when the death was announced of Margaret Thatcher, at least part of my immediate reaction was to be hurtled off down a time tunnel, back to my 80s suburban childhood on the outskirts of Bristol, and the toxicity of the ideological culture I grew up into. The Falklands War and the miners’ strike were among the first political narratives I knew — though probably it was the blisteringly malign Section 28 that was the first Thatcherite crusade to really impinge on my own sense of safety and belonging as a teenager.

It was at about the same time, and not long after Thatcher made her notorious remark — much discussed in recent analyses — about there being “no such thing as society”, that I started taking theatre seriously. Outside of the classroom, there were rehearsals for a surprisingly radical school play, in my experience of which for the first time leftist political ideas became irreversibly tangled with ideas about collaboration and the collective in theatre-making. In class, meanwhile, I was starting to develop a genuinely enthralled, if not always comprehending, relationship with Shakespeare.

One play in particular got under my skin: The Tempest. It was — to borrow its own words — “rich and strange”, but also boring and wordy and remote. Yet somehow it stuck in my imagination. Some years later, as a third-year undergraduate, it became the first Shakespeare play I ever directed (in a pocket-sized version which was performed in people’s own homes; I went back to that production twice in my early professional career as a maker). Gradually, as my own personal understanding of the play became livelier and more fluid, I came to see that the character who really excited me in the play was not any of the sexy ones, such as Ariel or Caliban say, but Gonzalo.

Gonzalo is an old, fundamentally decent, slightly rickety counsellor to Alonso, the king. The play sets up — without endorsing it — the idea that he’s a bit of a ridiculous old coot: and quite often that’s how he’s portrayed. But when Gonzalo, shipwrecked along with the rest of the royal party, begins to describe how he’d run the island they’ve washed up on, were he in charge of it, he’s actually sketching quite sincerely and lyrically a portrait of a kind of anarchic Utopia that would likely appeal to any present-day anticapitalist. If you can dare to take Gonzalo seriously, you’ll fall in love with him.

In an alarming and perhaps seemingly paradoxical way, it’s an episode that bears out something of Thatcher’s social nihilism. What Shakespeare seems to be using Gonzalo, and the theatrical situation of the desert island, to suggest is that ‘society’ is not some abstract entity that exists except in the lived actions and the aspirations of individuals, and in the relationships between them. For Shakespeare, as for Thatcher, this idea is a hallmark of freedom. And yet, not all freedoms are the same, as The Tempest bountifully shows.

What if we started over? That’s the question, not just in Gonzalo’s speech, but again and again in any number of Shakespeare plays. What if we could be the authors of the society we live in, not just its passive and alienated occupants? What we frequently see in the plays is Shakespeare’s deployment of the apparatus of theatre to help us see ourselves, and our social relationships, reimagined, reconfigured, remixed.

The piece I’m bringing to Mayfest, The Forest and the Field, is inspired and informed by these questions, and by the way so many theatre makers — from Shakespeare right up to countless artists emerging right now, some of whom are part of the Mayfest programme — are using their work to explore ideas about how we live together: the spaces we make, the ideas we share, the changes we believe — or at least want to believe — are both possible and necessary. Theatre is uniquely placed to help us think about those things, because, for the time of our meeting together within it, we live together inside it. A play with a ‘fourth wall’, in which the audience is treated as invisible and preferably silently obedient, may struggle to do more in a political sense than tell us what one person, the playwright, thinks; but Mayfest is full of other structures, other formats, other shapes of theatre.

The Forest and the Field deeply wants to see its audience, and to ask them to see themselves. To see what it is we’re all doing when we go to the theatre. What questions we’re taking in with us, what hopes and fears, what capacities for reimagining, what appetite for change. There’s some Shakespeare in the show, but you don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare to get what we’re doing. Anyone who believes, as I do, that there’s never been a more important time for us to think bravely and honestly together about how our society works and how our relationships are made, will hopefully feel right at home.

The Forest & The Field, 24-25 May, Arnolfini. Get your tickets here.