I’m a better actor than I am a writer. I find it difficult to write as clearly as I would like. But I know that after many years of practise as an actor I am getting better at using my life experience in my art, and sometimes the depths of my confusion and hurt or even joy can only be fully articulated through the characters I get to play on stage. I find it difficult to deal sometimes with daily life but acting always acts as a kind of conduit to express what is inside me. My humanity. The way I see the world helps the way I shape the characters I play. This makes it MY interpretation of a character no matter how limited or well-rounded it may be. It’s the best I can do for now.

In the two weeks of holiday that we have had there have been enormous events in the world that have rocked me to a cold silence. The awful hatred towards the gay community in Orlando, Florida, a man for all intents and purposes was gay himself and hated that fact so turned his self-loathing on to others; the exit of my adopted country from the European Union; the brutal death of Jo Cox, by a man living in fear of the future. The vile hatred spewed from both sides after the referendum results. All this division has made me stop and ask myself the question: does what I do in the world matter? Does theatre/art change anything or is it the poor sloth-like brother to the real world of engagement in, say, a profession like politics?

I know that I already have an answer to that question. I know it matters. But sometimes the act of telling stories in a dark room seems like such an ineffectual way to engage with the real world precisely because the effect on that world can't be seen or quantified. We hardly ever meet our audiences, there is no dialogue afterwards. We come together, audience and actors, for a few hours a night and then we walk away from each other. Saying nothing. 

Byron Mondahl as Philario in Cymbeline, wearing a grey suit, yellow waistcoat and a rich scarf
Byron as Philario in Cymbeline
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC – Image Licensing

Tomorrow we start rehearsals for King Lear and I have absolutely no idea what Greg Doran’s take on it is going to be. I will know tomorrow, but for now I have been doing my own research and I have been reading James Shapiro’s book on the year that Shakespeare wrote Lear: 1606. I enjoyed his other book 1599 as well and both give a clear context to the plays and try to answer the question: What was in Shakespeare’s head, thoughts, awareness in the year in which he wrote the plays? And to a large degree it finally clarifies how his plays spoke immediately to his audience. What he was thinking and concerned with or aware of, his audiences would be too. It clarifies themes in plays and certain passages of text that may seem obscure to us now but brought up topical thoughts to his audience. I never fully appreciated that angle on the texts before.  

But you can't help thinking of the play of Lear and the dividing of a Kingdom and the disastrous consequences that follow. That’s Shakespeare’s story, but strangely also, ours. On Friday when the results to leave the EU were fresh in everyone’s minds I was reading the chapter in Shapiro’s book about the Gunpowder plot and its effects on that time. Being a South African living in the UK I knew the basics of what it was all about but I learnt many more details. And while reading the chapter there were certain parts that described the effect on life at that time and it made me sit up, because I had woken up to a changed world. Just like they had after the plot was revealed. A world of uncertainty and deep division. Suspicion almost. Recriminations and accusations. I was reading something that happened then but in my context all I needed to do was engage with social media to see the same things unfold.

So how does this answer my question that I ‘feel’ I know the answer to? ‘Does art matter’ and the answer: of course it does. But it’s as limited a profession as politics to reach anyone. But when they do come and the audience are sitting in their seats there is potential for something incredible to happen inside them. If the play is truthful and if they are open to seeing that truth.

In South Africa I was, of course, fed the white Nationalist party line during my Apartheid schooling.  Not knowing I was being fed that version of events, I never questioned it. My last year of high school was the first time I saw a black person as a fellow student. Politics was a deeply dividing subject so was off limits between members of my family and so I grew up with a political unconsciousness.

I was rudely awakened when I saw the original production of Athol Fugard’s MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. A deeply disturbing play about the consequences of Apartheid on the black community that surrounded and indeed looked after me. An image from the play is still burned in my memory. Everyone involved in the production has no idea the effect that it generated in me. But I know I was deeply affected by that piece of art. It woke me up and I have never been able to go back and see the world as I used to see it. This is the kind of change a piece of theatre can create in anyone ready to see.

Art matters because it connects and it challenges but so often that shift or learning is unseen and happens inside of audiences’ minds. I am looking forward to what our Lear can say about this new world and what that might mean to audiences. And it is very exciting to be a part of it. 

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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