On Shakespeare's Birthday- the man who invented applied theatre

Posted on: 26 April 2014

Written by: Adrian Jackson MBE

Petia has asked us to choose our favourite Shakespeare quote - the idea of Choosing a single favourite quotation from Shakespeare is of course completely Invidious and impossible. Seems to me that the man (yes, I am an old fashioned believer in the single actor-scribe called Shakespeare) wrote lines for every single nuance of every single situation or emotion any human being can ever encounter. A favourite quote would thus change every hour of every day, according to mood.

But as purveyors of Forum Theatre and believers in the power of the Theatre of the Oppressed to change our views of the world (and thus the world) it is fun to think about 'the play's the thing/wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king' as the first recorded example of applied theatre - yet another Shakespearean invention it turns out. This branch of applied theatre, which we might christen 'forensic theatre' is an application which the forces of law and order have yet to adopt in a big way - which is a pity, because it works in Hamlet’s case.

Hamlet commissions a theatre company to perform a play in front of his uncle, the purpose of which is to provoke him to reveal his guilt in murdering Hamlet’s dad. Like any powerful cultural commissioner Hamlet has clear views about what he wants, and he instructs the Players accordingly - about content and even performance style. He further instructs his friend Horatio to pay very close attention to Claudius's reactions – Horatio thus becomes the first known evaluator of impact, as beloved of all arts funding bodies. And just as expected, at a certain point Claudius finds the play so close to the knuckle that he can watch it no longer. And Hamlet knows that his suspicions were well founded.

The play – famously, enjoyably, entitled The Mousetrap, sadly not same play as its long-running namesake in the West End, but also a sort of whodunit, or rather did-he-do-it – the play only works because it is good theatre. Just like our Forum theatre, which needs to hit the spot in order to implicate and involve our audiences. And then we all become Players, and in Forum Theatre we move beyond mere discovery of our possible complicity to a place were we can take actions to solve and resolve the crimes we see perpetrated around us.

The moral of which, on Shakespeare’s birthday, is: we neglect the construction and performance of the play at our peril. The plays the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

P.S. Conscience here doesn’t just mean the sense of guilt or knowledge of wrong, as in its contemporary usage, but the broader sense of consciousness and knowledge, (Latin conscientia “knowledge within oneself"). This in turn can be reasonably related to what Boal might have called (in his more noticeably Marxist days) ‘conscientisation’, sometimes translated at consciousness raising or critical consciousness – a concept developed by Paulo Freire, meaning the process of extending our knowledge of the political and social ramifications and contradictions of capitalism. I might complicate it too much if I mention that the other mention of ‘conscience’ in Hamlet comes in the context of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s speeches, probably the most popular quotation of all, ‘To be or not to be’ – and in this case he says ‘conscience makes cowards of us all’ meaning that our awareness of the possibility of something worse after our lives restrains us from taking our own lives – at which point no doubt we will move on to Boal’s Rainbow of Desires work – matter for another blog another day...


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded