When we catch up with her in late June, Anne-Louise Sarks is achieving a level of 9am erudition that most of us could only dream of. She is incisive, passionate, and very awake. Sarks has a rehearsal beginning at 10am for Bell Shakespeare’s upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, and she likes to be prepared. Readiness seems her trademark: ready for work, ready for interviews, and ready to engage with a theatre canon that can, at times, feel a little bit intimidating.
Sarks is not known primarily as a Shakespearean director, and she is well aware of that. It’s easier to associate her with new writing and bold adaptations, alongside names like the Hayloft Project, Belvoir Theatre, Malthouse Theatre and Lally Katz. In fact, Sarks’ latest project is sandwiched between a production of Katz’s Minnie and Liraz at Melbourne Theatre Company, and an adaptation of Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary at Malthouse Theatre.
There’s a firm Judeo-Christian focus linking these three works: a black comedy in a Jewish retirement home; the provocative testimony of Christ’s mother; and a portrait of 17th century anti-Semitism. Sarks acknowledges that her 2017 slate focuses heavily on religion, institutions and faith. “[It raises] a bigger question of why I am drawn to these sorts of stories as an artist. I was raised in a very religious Catholic household, and my father’s family business, which he inherited from his father, is a religious supply store. So everything about life, in a way, was connected to religion. That was our lifeblood, quite literally.”
Despite now identifying as an atheist, Sarks’ religious upbringing affects the way she navigates the world. “Those beliefs are firmly rooted inside me, have formed who I am. There’s this [interest in] ritual, and what is sacred, and the community, which makes perfect sense in relation to theatre and the shared experience. I absolutely believe in the power of communal experience to change us. I think that shared empathy is literally the only answer, and maybe you can’t get any closer to faith or belief than that.”
It’s Shakespeare’s women, and their social powerlessness in this play, that have prompted Sarks’ creative interest in The Merchant of Venice. She describes the play as “a really odd journey, where Portia is the supposedly ideal, beautiful, intelligent woman, but is the victim of this odd game, and waiting for her fate to be decided for her. All of that supposed luxury amounts to no satisfaction. As much as I want to fight the politics of that, the play is not really trying to unpack that. It’s the comedy! It is unreal, a fairy tale, and you do want to believe in the romance. But that doesn’t entirely make sense to me as a woman theatre-maker. It’s wonderfully challenging, and tricky.”
In Sarks’ production, the women will become more than just a side story to Shylock and his pound of flesh; their lack of agency, despite their superficial privilege, is exposed. She says, “After doing the research and study on the text, you actually just have to meet the play as an equal, as an artist, and respond to it with your own instincts. I am looking for what the heart of this work is, and trying to be truthful about it. Despite my reluctance about Shakespeare, and his women, and the world that he was writing, there is a lot of complexity and richness for us inside this work. It’s been a process from defensive to utterly embracing!”
It comes down to the power of Shakespeare’s language, says Sarks: “The experience of that language hitting you is not intellectual or rational. It is freeing, when it works. I’m excited about the way that work can hit you, in a way that something political, straight out of the argument and the brain, wouldn’t necessarily.” Perhaps in this heightened state of poetry, real change can be quietly, carefully planted.
These seeds of change are first germinated in the rehearsal room. Sarks and her actors have spent much of their rehearsal time discussing casual discrimination in Australia, which she believes is the most dangerous. “It is harder to point at. It is insidious and continuously undermining. What that must be like, to have built a shield to try to exist and function as a businessman and businesswoman. When that occurs continuously around you, or at you, it is utterly destabilising and heartbreaking. The gift that theatre gives you is that, ideally, you don’t have to experience that yourself. Someone else is inside that [experience], to share that with you.”
We touch on the famous anti-Semitism The Merchant of Venice, particularly evident in the construction of Shylock and Jessica’s characters: one blindly dogmatic, the other deeply self-hating. In her preparation for the production, Sarks undertook consultation with members of the Jewish creative community. “It quickly became obvious that one single answer didn’t exist. I’m trying my absolute hardest now to be utterly conscious and respectful of the people we’re representing. This play, in the end, wasn’t written by a Jewish man. It’s not a play that is about Jewish culture. That empowered me to go, ‘What I need to be true to is the level of oppression that exists towards this man, and what it’s like to be inside this experience.’ That’s the clearest thing for me to access. We talk a lot about assumptions around white privilege. It’s been fascinating because I’m learning so much more than I would have learnt [from a less problematic play].”
Equality is a global conversation, but it also manifests in personal politics. Sarks felt some trepidation in approaching the big blokey canon. “It’s tricky when you’re meeting Shakespeare. It’s epic, this status, the notion that there are so many more people, often men, who understand this play better than me, and know more about what this is.” However, she also acknowledges her creative freedom in this production: “Bell are encouraging me to be my full self, and as bold as I can be. I always trusted that they wanted me to respond to this play.”
We joke about the uproar that surrounded the all-female Ghostbusters remake, and compare it to the panic that some self-imposed gatekeepers feel around democratising the canon. Sarks paraphrases a quote from director Sam Mendes: “'Treat Shakespeare as if it’s a new play, and treat new plays as if they are classics.' I found that very liberating. Trust myself to shape this. Merchant isn’t going anywhere.”