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Shakespeare Shakes New Zealand

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Mark Stocker
Written by Mark Stocker

Aotearoa New Zealand is probably the most Shakespearean country in the world. The decision of the funding body Creative New Zealand (CNZ) to withhold financial support for Shakespeare at schools has recently created an international outcry, with articles in the Guardian and the Telegraph. CNZ is probably surprised; Mark Stocker is not. Although he bemoans the decision (‘In sooth… I am so sad’), he enjoys a Shakespearean fool’s dig at its upholders and offers us some hope.

It probably surprises some readers, but the Anglophone nation state that is the most Shakespearean in the world is not Britain but Aotearoa New Zealand. How come? This is largely thanks to a remarkable woman, Sheilah Winn, CBE (1917-2001), a footwear heiress, whose generous support of the arts included her foundation in 1989 of the Sheilah Winn Festival of Shakespeare in Schools, now known as the SGCNZ University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival. Over the past 30 years, a phenomenal 140,000 school students have been involved in it (our population is 5 million, so the British equivalent would perhaps entail some two million young British declaimers of ‘Wherefore art thou?’). The past casts of tens of thousands included one Jacinda Ardern, our current prime minister. The Shakespeare Festival operates under the auspices of Shakespeare’s Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ) and receives generous sponsorship from New Zealand’s oldest university, Otago. A key element in its success is the dynamic Dawn Sanders, founder and chief executive of SGCNZ, who lives and breathes the Bard and has a natural empathy with the teeming young Shakespeareans she corrals and cherishes.

I attended two of the annual festivals when I lived in Wellington, and was frankly blown away by the experience. The vast majority of the dozens of play excerpts that are performed are student directed, but facilitated by committed Drama teachers (virtually every state school in NZ offers Drama, Britain again take note). Over half the secondary schools in the country take part. The festival is, moreover, a wonderful ‘leveller’ – a posh private school’s production can easily be outclassed by a low-decile South Auckland school with a predominantly Māori and Pacific Islands cast. Liberties are taken with the Bard; I recall a Romeo and Juliet with the strutting Tybalt, played as a slapstick comedy which almost worked; and then there was an act from King Lear, where the title role was played by a burly youth who spoke certain lines in te reo Māori. This was hugely effective and affecting, compounding Lear’s tragic isolation and the dramatic tension. It is impossible to remain unmoved by the passionate way in which the teenage directors and actors live Shakespeare; he becomes part of them, and they become part of him.

I just wish that Creative New Zealand (CNZ), the country’s government-appointed arts funding body, could see this too, but recently, for the first time in many years, it denied SGCNZ its annual grant of $31,000. The report explaining its decision, recently excerpted in the Guardian, makes depressing reading, but its reasoning would alas be all too familiar to History Reclaimed supporters. The programme egregiously ‘did not demonstrate [its] relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape’ and (nay, worse), ‘the genre was located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance’. The grant only represents a tenth of the festival’s annual budget, but CNZ’s response was an unmistakable slap in the face.

I won’t attempt here to deconstruct the semi-educated thinking behind the decision. What I would like to hear is the CNZ’s panel members explaining to teenage Shakespeareans why they are somehow showing false consciousness and upholding imperialism, why what they are doing is dead, and why it is somehow irrelevant. Did Nelson Mandela view Shakespeare this way when a smuggled copy of the collected works kept him company during his lonely and lengthy incarceration? I’d also be very interested to know whether panel members have either performed in the festival themselves, or have bothered personally to attend it in recent years: answers, please! I extend these questions more particularly to Nicola Hyland, Associate Professor of Drama at Victoria University of Wellington, who told the Guardian that she believed Shakespeare was ‘over-represented’ in New Zealand. ‘It would be a massive, awesome act of decolonisation if we discovered our own stories first and discovered Shakespeare afterwards’, adding, “Wouldn’t it be great if young people could come home and say, ‘Hey, Mum, Dad, I just found this story and it’s really similar to Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. It’s Romeo and Juliet’. Nice try, but beautiful though the Māori myth may be, dream on, Ms Hyland. Who has written it with the eloquence and depth of Shakespeare? Her choice of words is revealing, particularly ‘decolonisation’: do Māori teenage performers somehow feel invidiously ‘colonised’? And then what precisely is the relevance (that favourite anti-Shakespearean word) of ‘colonisation’ in Shakespeare? Who did he ‘colonise’, where and how? Was Britain successfully colonising anyone, anywhere in his time? If a smart anti-Shakespearean came up with the sole answer, Protestant ‘plantations’ in Ireland, I would doff my hat. But these people don’t know their history, and instead prefer to apply irrelevant presentist notions of colonisation and imperialism to a very different past. Underlying Hyland’s statement is, moreover, a fundamental disrespect for New Zealand’s vaunted biculturalism: the distinctive roles and the unique mixing of Pākehā (European) and Māori elements in our culture, history and languages. With her, the former is patronised and the latter revered. By contrast, I see biculturalism brilliantly enacted before me at the Shakespeare Festival and I only wish she could see it too.

Scratch the CNZ supporters and you are confronted by robust philistinism – the anti-intellectualism and uncouthness that regrettably does run in our society, but to which the Shakespeare Festival is such a brilliant riposte. Journalist Virginia Fallon is surely the star here. She complains: ‘My generation was just one of many that had Shakespeare forced down our throats. We learned excerpts by rote, regurgitating countless doths, ofts, thys and thees peddled by manic-eyed English teachers convinced they were doing God’s work. Nobody cared if we didn’t understand it, but if we dared say we didn’t like it there was hell to pay. I was booted out of my fifth form class by a teacher apoplectic with rage after I declared one of the plays boring. It was. Still is.’ Fie, fie, Ms Fallon! Thou hast no music in thy soul! Her key words are ‘my generation’. The regrettable scenario she describes would certainly have been more common in the dark ages that preceded the Shakespeare Festival, but now look as if they belong to another geological era. Moreover, she sadly lacks the intellectual curiosity and imagination to have moved on since her teenage years, and allows her desiccated teachers to triumph. She was booted out by them and in turn got a ‘D’ from me.

Creative New Zealand’s rebuff is a chilling one, and suggests that something is indeed rotten in the state of Aotearoa. If its implications are followed, it risks being a profoundly elitist and reactionary decision, threatening the wonderfully democratised Shakespeare that our teenagers explore and enjoy today, and turning him into the preserve of privileged, private schools. But such has been the outcry (and I am proud of tipping off the story to the Guardian when it broke nationally), things could very well rebound. The show must and will go on: so strongly is William Shakespeare/ Wiremu Hekepia embedded in our culture that ‘not to be’ will never be the answer.

STOP PRESS: Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has made a bold and unprecedented intervention, making up the shortfall by a grant from the Ministry of Education budget. It was a move that would gladden the heart of her (former) British counterpart and keen Shakespearean Boris Johnson. All’s well that ends well? Not quite: the spotlight will certainly be on CNZ and its anti-imperialist ideology – if still applicable – when it is time to renew the grant.


Mark Stocker, FSA, FRHistS, is an art historian whose publications include “‘Look here upon this picture”: Shakespeare in art at Te Papa’, Tuhinga,  28 (2017),

About the author

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker, FSA, is former Curator, Historical International Art, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He has taught at the universities of Canterbury and Otago. His publications include numerous contributions to The Burlington Magazine and When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 (2021).