From fishing boats to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare.

JAMES DE Vita was a young fisherman searching for a new career and then he discovered the greatest playwright of all time - William Shakespeare.

Acting Shakespeare, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Monday October 20 at 8pm, is the funny, touching, and uplifting story of one man’s journey with Shakespeare’s life, work, and language, coupled with reminiscences of James’ own days on a Long Island fishing boat and nights as a classical actor.

De Vita’s play is freely adapted from Ian McKellen’s solo show, Acting Shakespeare, and the night James saw it proved a fateful evening.

“It was more than 25 years ago,” he recalls. “I had dropped out of college twice, I was working on fishing boats at the time and was going to a small community college. They took us into the city to see the show. I had never seen Shakespeare before and had no real interest in classical theatre but I still remember that evening.

“I had thought Shakespeare was only for smarter people and I was just a kid from Long Island but I understood everything McKellen was saying and it was an epiphany. He was such a wonderful performer and the language was so accessible and there was this great poetry which I had never thought I would like.

“I decided I wanted to do that and it started me on a journey and here I am, still working on it, and the majority of the work I’ve done in last 25 years has been in classical theatre and Shakespeare.”

A few years ago James decided he would like to revisit McKellen’s Shakespeare show himself. He received permission from McKellen to do so and commenced working on it. Yet as the work progressed the show began to change and to tell a more personal story.

“At first I thought I would just do Mr McKellen’s show,” he tells me. “In the first year of working on it my director John Langs was good enough to say ‘This is not working’.

“In those first few drafts I had mentioned a few things like about how I was working on the fishing boats when I went to see McKellen, and John said, ‘Now that’s interesting! Who was that kid working on the boats? Write more about that person.’ John really helped me develop the piece, he kept on at me, like any good storyteller, to keep looking for the conflict in it. He asked me ‘how did your father feel about you becoming an actor?’ and that started bringing in the conflict I had with my dad, who was a blue collar guy, about the career choice I was making.

“John kept pushing me with questions and eventually the play got much more personal, my everyman story about this kid who wanted to be able to do this thing. Then I also replaced the Shakespeare pieces that Mr McKellen used with ones that were more appropriate to my life. The structure is the same as McKellen’s but it was just exchanging my stories for his stories and I reference his play throughout of course.”

Another level of the play looks at Shakespeare’s life.

“We see him as a young boy working in his father’s glove-making shop,” De Vita explains. “We tell the story of Shakespeare from what we know of him and how he might have left his father’s business and going to London and writing his first play. We get two parallel stories - the young boy from the fishing boats wanting to do Shakespeare and Shakespeare as a young boy in a glover’s shop wanting to be a playwright.”

De Vita also points how there is a lot of humour in the show.

“It’s often very funny,” he says. “Sometimes having Shakespeare in the title scares people away. Somewhere along the line Shakespeare was hi-jacked by academics who placed this aura around him. Even though he was a genius he was also a labourer of the theatre where the common people came. The point of my show is that he wrote for everyone and is very accessible.”

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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