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Done/Undone: half done

by | Aug 17, 2021 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Done/Undone (Bard on the Beach)

Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu in Done/Undone (Photos by Emily Cooper)

For me, the two most personalized passages in Done/Undone, screenwriter Kate Besworth’s new film about the current relevancy — or irrelevancy — of Shakespeare’s work, are also the most successful.

In Done/Undone, which was initially commissioned by Bard on the Beach as a stage play, Besworth offers a series of vignettes. Two actors, Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu, play all the roles. The core characters are a pair of academics who are engaged in a formal debate. They are defined through their ideas.

The characters who are the most compelling are defined by their lived experience. In the first, Gallant plays a neurosurgeon who has just joined the Board of a Shakespeare festival. Giving a toast on an opening night, he talks about how he had nowhere to process his grief after losing a patient during surgery — until a friend took him to a production of King Lear. Although he hadn’t been a theatregoer until that night, Cordelia’s death unexpectedly afforded the surgeon the release he needed. “I don’t give myself the space to feel out here,” he says. “But when I go in there and I sit down in the dark, there is a space that’s made for me.”

Gallant moves the character from formal awkwardness to emotional nakedness and it’s moving.

In the other section that particularly engaged me, Sandhu and Gallant play actors who are doing a talkback after a performance of Measure for Measure. When an audience member asks, “What’s the hardest part of performing in classical theatre?”, Sandhu frames her response in terms of her experience as an actor of colour. She says that colour-blind casting, in which directors simply pretend that the racial differences onstage don’t exist, has the advantage of getting more people of colour in front of audiences but “It erases the reality of my body.” Asking how she’s supposed to situate her character’s experience in such a world, she asks, “Is white the default race?”

Sandhu’s character contrasts this approach to colour-conscious casting, in which casting a Punjabi actor as Hamlet, for instance, opens up possibilities by asking how the character’s experience as a Punjabi person affects the overall interpretation of the play.

Unfortunately, these personalized moments are islands in a largely academic exercise. We see a lot of the debating professors, for instance, and I quickly grew tired of the absolutist approach taken by Gallant’s academic: he repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that Shakespeare can be both a creature of his time, subject to the sexist trope of marriage meaning a happy ending, for instance, and a transcendantly original thinker, including on the subject of gender. (Overall, Besworth’s script scrimps on the discussion of queerness in Shakespeare.)

In another repeated sequence, called “Übersetzung” or “translation”, Sandhu and Gallant perform a coarse parody of experimental theatre — complete with “arty” makeup and expressionistic movement — while disgorging information related to the arguments that Shakespeare’s work is racist and misogynistic.

In a scene that attempts to explore the elitism that can be associated with Shakespeare’s work, a young couple chats about the production of Romeo and Juliet that they’ve just seen. He feels dumb because he doesn’t understand the language, while his girlfriend, who has had a more privileged upbringing, does. Unfortunately, the exploration is too simplistic to acquire any depth.

You couldn’t ask more of the performances that director Arthi Chandra gets out of Sandhu and Gallant, and Besworth is clearly an intelligent writer. My experience of Done/Undone, however, is that it’s a filmed stage play rather than a cinematic exploration. And, although the script offers some persuasively personal moments, it mostly remains marooned in the land of abstract ideas.

DONE/UNDONE By Kate Besworth. Directed by Arthi Chandra. A Bard on the Beach film. Viewed online on Monday, August 16. Available on demand until September 30. Tickets.


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