Award-winning Canadian director Mona Zaidi is ready for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022, having staged Justin Hay’s critically acclaimed play My Own Private Shakespeare which continues its run at the Willow Studio, Greenside at Riddle’s Court until 27 August 2022.
Fresh from a sold-out, three-week run in Toronto, the play – written and performed by renowned actor Hay – draws on some of the greatest and most powerful passages from Shakespeare to ask: Is it possible to find peace with the impossible paradoxes of life? Five-star reviews for the show in Toronto included: ‘Magnificent acting’, ‘Outstanding…’, ‘A spellbinding performance’, ‘Superb blend of Shakespeare and personal story’ and ‘A must-see show’.
“From a single fateful phone call taken reluctantly from the toilet, a Shakespearean actor finds his world collapsing around him. As the story unfolds, the unforgiving realities of his shattered life intertwine with Shakespeare’s radiant, immortal text, while the man teeters dangerously close to the brink.”
Zaidi is known for her ground-breaking modern adaptations of classical theatre, including Julius Caesar: In Shallows and In Miseries and Richard III: Unto the Kingdom of Perpetual Night. The latter was selected as Best Film at the 2007 Shakespeare Film Festival by Academy Award winner Kenneth Branagh who described it as “excitingly ambitious… and full of imaginative talent”.
How did the idea come about for My Own Private Shakespeare and when did you first get involved with the project?
As a director it is a compliment of the highest order when a writer trusts you with their original work, particularly when it is in its early, fledging stages. Justin Hay and I had worked together on several projects in the past, including a piece that won Best Film at the Shakespeare Film Festival. He called me in the middle of the first Covid lockdown and rather shyly told me he’d been working on something new that he’d like to work on with me. I had a look at the script and immediately jumped at the opportunity.
Can you tell Mates readers a bit about the premise of the show and what role Shakespeare’s plays have in telling the story?
The story begins simply. A man gets a telephone call. But things rapidly plunge into the depths from there as he finds his entire life unravelling around him in a heart-breaking, and often very funny way. It is an autobiographical piece – it weaves its way back and forth through time, tracing the events that got him to this point. Throughout the story he draws parallels between his own life and scenes from Shakespeare. These scenes are done in a way that renders them very fresh and totally accessible to those who aren’t necessarily familiar with Shakespeare, or who may have traumatic memories of being forced to study him at school.
What are the challenges of staging a drama that encompasses several different characters but with one actor performing?
That is certainly a big part of the rehearsal process. We spent several months really finding the nuance and dimensionality of each character so that the effect on stage is, I hope, quite surprising. One of the critics who came out to our run in Toronto commented that it was hard to believe there weren’t several people on stage, which was a tremendous validation that we’d done our job well.
What was the process like in the rehearsal room? It must be fantastic to be back in action post-pandemic?
It’s indescribable. My hope is that we can harness the power of all that pent up creative energy and deliver a truly memorable experience to our audience.
The play has already been a big success in Toronto, Canada, what was critic and audience feedback like when you premiered the show there?
We were overwhelmed, really. We were very fortunate to receive rave critical reviews, but almost more significant for us was the feedback we got from audiences. Many nights, the audiences would often stay on after the show, wanting to talk about it, how moved they were, how they had never connected with Shakespearean text before, and to share their own personal experiences. I think the most memorable feedback was from a group of 18 year olds who wandered in off the street, having never seen live theatre before in their lives. They stayed after the show and asked, how can we see more like this?! They were knocked out by the experience, the intimacy, the humanity of live theatre. It was amazing to have made that kind of connection.
Had you always hoped there might be the possibility of a transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe? I believe writer and performer Justin Hay’s breakout role was in Rob Roy during the Glasgow Cultural Capital of Europe celebration in 1990.
Justin grew up here and studied acting at a prestigious programme in Glasgow so certainly being a part of the Fringe has been a life long dream for him. For my part, I was much more cautious, wanting to hone the material until it was ready for the world stage. On our closing night in Toronto, with tears in my eyes, I knew we had something special. We were ready for the Fringe!
What is the most exciting thing about bringing the production to the Fringe?
Being at the Fringe for us means arriving on the world stage. The festival has been an incredible springboard for some of the greatest talent in the world, and we are hoping that some of that magic will rub off on us. It is truly a tremendous honour to be able to share our show with the greatest theatre audience in the world.
You have enjoyed a great deal of success working with classic texts, and have even been praised by Kenneth Branagh. What is the attraction of theses dramas and what is your approach in bringing them to a contemporary audience?
I remember reading a marvellous quote that mythology is something that never was and yet always is. That’s what draws me to the classics – the mythic stories that perhaps never were and yet always are. I’m interested in speaking to the deep, timeless themes of human existence. How do we survive the sorrows and miseries of earthly life? How do we face our mortality? How to find joy and humour even in this vale of tears? I believe modern audiences are starving for this type of storytelling, which is as basic a need as food and water for the human psyche. I think a lot of my approach to creating work for contemporary audiences revolves around starting with the right questions: what is the universal, timeless truth of this story? How can I communicate that which “always is” and leave behind what “never was”?
In a nutshell, why should audiences see My Own Private Shakespeare?
It’s intimate, heart-breaking, very funny, and deeply moving. Everything that great theatre should be.
Do you have anything more you would like to add?
A heartfelt thank you to the people of Edinburgh, who have made this jet-lagged Canadian feel so warmly received, welcome and cared-for. You are truly braw! (Hope I said that right…)
Presented by the Modern Classic Theatre Company, My Own Private Shakespeare runs at the Willow Studio, Greenside at Riddle’s Court, Edinburgh until 27 August 2022 (6, 8-13, 15-20, 22-27 August). Performance time is 10pm and suitability is 14-plus. Prices range from £10-15.