Tama Matheson: Top 5 Shakespeare Plays

From the archives: This post is from our original site, MyCityLife back on 24 September 2014

Actor. Director. Artistic Director. Shakespeare Lover. Player. Tama Matheson transfers his talent in taking thrilling drama to the stage as a specialist in the British playwright’s works. As the Artistic Director of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival, Tama makes the eminent English playwright accessible – even amusing. And in a word, even now worth this, Tama Matheson puts the spotlight back on Shakespeare in Brisbane. 

With a legion of esteemed theatrical productions under his satin sash that comes across the big pond from The UK to Europe and Down Under, Tama really is a unique character all to himself. Whether appearing on the small screen in EastEnders and Heartbeat or leaping onto the stage as Mozart in Amadeus or Otto in the recent rendition of Noel Coward’s Design for Living with the QTC, there are many forms of drama, whimsy, comedy, tragedy and heroic natures within his form. And while he’s rubbed shoulders with famed directors from Franco Zeffirelli to Ian Judge, he still retains that larrikin charm with an androgynous accent that doesn’t quite fit in The UK, New Zealand or Australia. 

Perhaps that’s because he was made for Shakespeare. Passionate about the English language and literature, he’s forged a career in handling and emoting the lines of Richard III, Henry V, Oberon, Romeo and many more characters that remain penned into our school texts and books. From the director’s chair to The Underworld, be it Opera Australia or Covent Garden, Tama brings a modern romanticism and flair back to a bunch of well-used, well-thumbed and well-read magnum opus. As 4MBS sees the 2014 Brisbane Shakespeare Festival fly full swing into Bard Mode, MyCityLife sits down with the artistic directing thespian and looks at his Top 5 Shakespeare Plays


Shakespeare remains relevant because he is not trapped in time. He shows us our lives as they are still lived today, because he is writing about the unchanging parts of the human heart and the eternal human condition. His plays are not imprisoned in a historical period; but somehow escape them to spill into our own time. What we see is not antique. We just see humans; ourselves. The way we relate to each other, understand ourselves and interact is perpetually relevant. Everything Shakespeare puts on stage is immediately recognisable to us; he describes the experiences of our own lives with forensic precision; and no part of life is missing. Everything we experience is contained in these plays. Young love to old age, death, marriage, loss, and even madness, psychopathy, hatred, and political coercion – the list goes on.

Shakespeare is the ultimate observer: he sees everything, and never judges his characters. He simply presents them as they are and says, ‘these are real humans, with all their faults, frailties, and failings; this is what life is made of’ – and that kind of sympathy and understanding is something we can all afford to learn every day. Yet, he also just writes enormously entertaining plays – they just work as drama! After 400-odd years, they still enthral an audience. And they are so exquisitely beautiful, the poetry of his plays rings in the mind like music. That sort of poetry doesn’t ever get old, but grows more and more meaningful as we get older. Shakespeare helps us make sense of our lives. And it will outlast all the fads of fashion and time. 


This play gave us a refined and complete picture of human psychology. Freud drew on the play extensively when devising his psychological theories, because it is so precise and perfect in its observation of the motions of the human mind and the emotions of the heart. It is a vast, wide-ranging, and profoundly complex play, capable of infinite interpretation, which encapsulates every part of human experience. We all recognise ourselves in Hamlet. But it is also a classic revenge tragedy in the high Renaissance style and works simply as a dramatic and exciting evening in the theatre. The whole thing is also clothed in the most exquisite poetry ever wrought, and gave us common expressions we use in everyday speech, as well as some of the most famous quotations in literary history. It is the supreme achievement of theatrical canon. 


Richard III has a primary importance for me personally, as it was the play that first had me interested in Shakespeare. When I first saw Laurence Olivier’s film, it just seemed so powerful and is a fulfillment of my earliest actorish dreams. The character of Richard is so magnetic, witty and evil, it is hard to better him. He is a virulent psychopath, and when he gets into power, becomes a terrible dictator. In fact, Richard III is an exact depiction of a tyrant in his career – the lust for power, the removal of obstacles to that power, the paranoia that comes with the attainment of power and the eventual fall from grace. He is the template for all the Stalins, Hitlers, Idi Amins, Ceausescus in the world – and his career reflects theirs with amazing exactitude. 


Where Shakespeare is so great comes in showing us how the worst – and sometimes best – experiences in our lives are from the petty emotions and silliest delusions in our own minds. Othello is a jealous man wrought upon by vicious Iago. Iago is another psychopath who enjoys the destruction he causes, and never explains why he did it – which is, psychologists tell us, the final power psychopaths have: to remain mysterious. Othello ruins his own life and kills the woman he loves, because of his uncontrollable jealousy. Iago may be the catalyst, but the potential for tragedy pre-exists in the character of Othello – his temper is his hubris. But he is also the outsider. Shakespeare is hugely sympathetic in depicting the outsider – both the reason for their exclusion from ordinary society, and the real humanity of their character. And yet Othello is almost too grand to play – so vast in emotions, so mercurial in temper, he is almost unplayable. Iago is far easier, really: he is a psychopath, and an angry man. But Othello has colossal fluctuations of emotion that are really tough to perform. And the poetry he utters as he realises how much he’s lost at the end, is so beautiful, it hurts. 


Although Antonio the merchant is the title character; it is Shylock – another outsider – who really shines. He is a most exciting character. Vicious, vile, grasping, greedy, and unforgiving – he is still human, and his humanity redeems him. The amazing thing about Shakespeare is he builds characters out of fiendish and unpleasant parts, and yet manages to show us they are still essentially human – and therefore valid members of the human race. He doesn’t sentimentalise characters and pretend they are lovely people wronged by society – they can be morally vile – but they are still human, and can still be wronged. And being in the wrong does not mean the person who punishes you is automatically in the right.


Lesser known, this play is fantastic. Fiercely political, bitter, rough, and enormously profound. Coriolanus the hero, is not a pleasant character. But it is not ‘pleasantness’ in the genteel, bourgeois sense that makes a person good or great – that only makes them anodyne. People don’t understand this; they want their heroes to be ‘nice.’ And this is the cause of Criolanus’s downfall. Although he is a great hero, the defender of Rome and a man of deep integrity, the people turn against him because he is outwardly impolite. Shakespeare is excellent at showing the shallowness of the mob, and our own prejudices and bigotries. When Coriolanus is destroyed because he doesn’t conform to the people’s commonplace concept of what a nice person should be, his overthrow is disastrous.

Gosh – I just realised these are all tragedies. Obviously, I have a penchant for the unpleasant…


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