This week Fiona Lindsay discusses Shakespeare's Comedy and how we can make these 450 year old jokes resonate today...

Banana Peel

Knock, Knock.

Who’s there?

Will

Will who?

Will Shakespeare’s jokes make audiences laugh today?

We all like a laugh, don’t we? It’s even better if it’s shared with others. There’s nothing better than sitting in a theatre and sharing the infectious energy of an audience laughing. What makes us laugh? Why do we laugh? Is there a magical formula that ensures that we do? Are those people who make us laugh born with funny bones?

Laughing is part of the universal human vocabulary. We all understand it and, unlike any other language, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We are all born with the capacity to laugh. Laughter occurs unconsciously. We don’t decide to do it. We don’t (unless we’re faking it) consciously produce laughter. It’s hard to laugh on command and it’s this fact that makes the job of being a writer of comedy, a performer of humorous scripts or a stand-up comedian a tough one.

It’s not a light-hearted occupation. The process of making people laugh is filled with self-doubt, delusion, self-recrimination, and fear, all mixed up, perhaps, with the desperate need for approval. You have to have faith in your material first and foremost. Material matters. Comedy firmly holds hands with the times and offers all involved the chance to make comment. It’s often of the moment for the moment.

What a case am I in then – or, indeed, anyone who is involved in a production of one of Shakespeare’s comedies - when faced with the monumental task of taking an audience along and encouraging laughter. How on earth do you make 450 year-old jokes resonate today? Is it possible to revive them and deliver them in the way that Shakespeare intended?

Many years ago, when we were all starting out at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I created an onstage event called Bare Board Bard. My intention was to explore the relationship between the text, the actors and an audience watching one of Shakespeare’s comedies: in this instance, As You Like It. We wanted to find out why/how/if Shakespeare’s clown Touchstone could be funny without resorting to Benny Hill-like business. My able assistants in this task were Joseph Fiennes and one David Tennant who had the unenviable task of playing the Touchstone that season.

The experiment began by casting the entire audience (over 400 of them) in role as Elizabethan playgoers. As they entered the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon they were given a selection of props depending on where they were sitting: fine hats, whistles, fruit (plastic), etc. In an instant they became aristocrats, merchants, duckers and divers, or groundlings, and were immediately engaged with creating the sense of anticipation that going to see a new play by Shakespeare held at that time.

There was a lot of noise and - what’s more - it was encouraged. This noise is quite an important factor, of which more later.

As tradition required, we began with a rude song which got the occasion off to a lusty start, followed swiftly by a narrated dumb show of the story of the play. The audience played an active part throughout. This participation is also an important factor, of which more later.

We then got stuck into some of Touchstone’s meatier moments. David’s instruction was to follow the text to the word and to resist any temptation to resort to any physical hijinx that may make us laugh at the wrong thing. The audience were also instructed, tasked with listening and responding vocally to every moment of the speech and scene that prompted a reaction.

And so it began. Both sides were a little tentative at first, yet slowly but surely something quite extraordinary began to happen. For one, the fourth wall just melted away and everyone was in the same space, sharing the same experience. The connection between the performer and the audience became vital and palpable. In fact, as it went on, it became impossible to make a call on just whom was leading whom. It was like a dance, or like a great group of jazzers playing together.

The listening was acute and the audience hung on to every nuanced moment of the text that David – with their encouragement – played like a master. The laughter was full and honest. It was like a stand-up comedian in their prime doing their thing; just standing there and using language to make us all laugh. Well, not just language. It wasn’t all noise. There were moments of silence, too, as the audience were let in.

As we drew the occasion to a close, David was both exhilarated and exhausted. Discoveries had been made. Touchstone and his ancient jokes were indeed funny and could make us laugh in the same way that any of our contemporary comics do. We were reminded that material matters, that a play – especially a funny one – is nothing without an audience and that humour transcends time and place.

So, how do you make old jokes new? Treat them like new ones and let the audience join in. Boom, boom!