Classics with a modern twist: Shakespeare at the Fringe

Posted on 24 August 2012 Written by

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a place for both the classic and the cutting edge, which is why a new take on Shakespeare is the ideal combination for a chance at Fringe success. With many of Shakespeare’s plays being taken up every year, it can be a hard task to stand out from the crowd in amongst the many Romeo and Juliets, shortened versions of Hamlet and the odd Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. Two companies taking on this challenge are The Fifth Act from The Netherlands and Straylight Australia from down under, who are focusing on females, both within the plays and those that surrounded Shakespeare himself during his time.

Straylight Australia’s piece Shakespeare’s Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents explores “what it means to be a Queen” in Shakespeare’s England, where many of the issues “are still high on women’s agenda’s today: career or family first?; negative perceptions of powerful females; forced marriages arranged for political or commercial gain; infidelity, infertility and the use of sex as a bargaining tool.” The wheel of history turns once more, showing us that what goes around comes around – or has it ever left us? “The passionate, seductive, ruthless and vulnerable queens of his plays are as exciting to play as they are thrilling to watch,” says Kath Perry, a member of the three person cast.

The show is versatile, easily accessible to all and tons of fun to watch; it stems from a previous show Shakespeare’s Mothers: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know taken to the Fringe in 2010. The concept of the play is that Shakespeare is caught between two raging queens: Elizabeth I and her cousin and arch-rival Mary, Queen of Scots. He summons each of his queens from his plays to “contribute their experience to the debate”. This way, we hear speeches from some of “the greatest female roles in theatre” including Cleopatra, Queen Elinor and Tamora, and can see how much Shakespeare was influenced during his time at court by how much his queens resemble his patron, Elizabeth.

This is Shakespeare with a twist; audiences who may not feel up to a full Shakespeare production can watch this fast, funny, 60 minute piece, fill their Bard quota for the day and maybe see Tony and Cleo in the future, or those who know the plays well can revel in all the great characters being side by side, having conversations with one another and helping Shakespeare in his plight to calm the two queens. The show has already been in Sydney and Adelaide and there is a mini-tour planned for after the Fringe to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home turf, and London – but Perry would like to spread the joy of the Bard as far as she can and “would love to take it to other cities and countries.”

The Fifth Act, instead of looking at a range of females, has focused on one woman in particular in their show Lady M.: Lady Macbeth’s Lady-In-Waiting, a small bit-part who would probably be able to tie up all the loose ends in the plot - if only she had more lines. “It’s a wink to the conflict between being a bit character or principal character in life,” says Sarah de Bruijn from the company. Amongst the comedy, “the dramatic foundation [is strengthened] through the play: the tragedy of a person who will not be remembered.” Every character in Shakespeare’s work is important, even if they are just a messenger; each has their part to play within the plot and in this case one of the smallest parts takes centre stage in this one woman show. “It’s pure poetry and the way Shakespeare puts characters down is still (in the 21st century) a true insight in human behavior.”

The piece is also a comment on the acting profession – actresses are always striving for larger parts and trying to get noticed by the right people as the weighting in roles between males and females is still, in the 21st century, uneven. Coming from The Netherlands, Fifth Act’s take on Shakespeare is different to our perhaps more “traditional” English pieces. The Fifth Act have a respect for traditional Shakespeare but would prefer to watch and create pieces that put forward a comment on his work than simply re-produce it. “Lady M. is a very dynamic piece, more dynamic than you might expect from a solo [performance]. The audience reactions, and reviewers, are very enthusiastic about the play.” So far, so good in the Netherlands, and hopefully there will be the same success at the Fringe.

In cooking, TV chefs are obsessed with ‘classics with a modern twist’ – easy, mainstream dishes that have been tweaked to give them a little something extra for the cameras, and that is what Straylight Australia and The Fifth Act have done with theatre; taken 400 year old words, added some spices, a new perspective and created a modern classic exploring what it is to be a woman under social pressures both in Shakespeare’s time and in the modern day. Hopefully it will be a winning combination that all of Edinburgh will be loving as much as the ultimate Scottish classic with a twist: the deep-fried Mars bar.

Shakespeare’s Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents is at C Venues – C Eca until 25 August. For tickets and more information, visit or or for more about the show, visit

The Fifth Act presented Lady M. at C Eca – C Venues on 18 August but you can find out more about the production at

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Lauren Says:

    Great article. I love the cooking analogy. I adore Shakespeare and all it’s different re-productions, I see nothing wrong with that as all are unique in their own way. However, I really appreciate the ethos to ‘comment on his work’ in a way which is fresh and relevant to the 21st century. I think this is something that we will see more off, especially after The Wooster Groups version of Troilus and Cressida, of which was argued a response and not an illustration, provoking much debate!

    However I think it is still dangerous territory – Elizabeth LeCompte of The Wooster Group said in The New Yorker,‘I am not an intellectual. I am not trying to mean anything-I’m trying to have a good time’. Now my ex bf used to be an artist and I remember one piece he showed me – a mac computer with a cream cheese frosting substance covering it. I asked him what it meant and he swiftly put me in my place, telling me it doesn’t have to mean anything. Ok. But I don’t know what to think, my brain is literally trying to make sense of it because otherwise it just feels self-indulgent, without talent and with no purpose! Self-indulgent is fine of course, but when put in a gallery for an audience… I don’t know.

    I know i’m going off course, but what I am getting at is, the beauty of Shakespeare’s works is that they do hold meaning and I think directors need to be careful that they still continue that connection with an audience. I am glad to hear that Straylight Australia and The Fifth Act have this intention.

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