If You Don’t Trust Shakespeare, Don’t Do It
Emma Rice, a fine, innovative director, became the Globe director who started the rumpus – she famously stated that Shakespeare was like medicine, and wanted to modernise a theatre most famous for being a replica of the original.
It was a bad fit; she went on to direct a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that did indeed leave a nasty taste in the mouth. At least she chose the right play; her hyperactive, druggy, space-age Bollywood mash-up passed muster because ‘Night’ is set in a Neverland untethered from time and space, although in the process she destroyed the beauty of the language.
Her successor, Daniel Kramer (a mate of mine but still) went on to compound her faults with an even more ADD-afflicted ‘Romeo & Juliet’ featuring the music of the Village People. Now we have Rice’s dancing sailors and added silly dialogue in ‘Twelfth Night’.
To be fair, the directors have picked the only plays you can muck about with – no-one is attempting to direct ‘King Lear’ with Goneril dancing in track suit bottoms and bunny ears. But I do wonder why every moment of these revised plays has to be packed with incident and ‘business’?
Perhaps the language of film editing has reduced our concentration. But are we so attention-deficit that we need someone to zoom on in a leopardskin posing pouch covered in balloons every few seconds? I have a sneaking suspicion that the directors don’t trust audiences to understand the words. Shakespeare’s language is easier if the director understands Shakespeare to begin with. I’ve seen simple, clear productions that have brought mainstream audiences to tears, and none of them had the cast dancing to ‘YMCA’.
I’ve said this before, but you don’t have to understand every word in Shakespeare. But you need space and clarity sometimes, so that you can consider what you’re hearing. These plays are not about how many chorus-lines of dancing punks you can cram onto the stage, because each addition subtracts from the play itself. Some things are hard enough to follow without extra distractions.
London is the capital of reinvention, and reinventions can be electrifying; ‘Hamlet’ unfolding in a surveillance state is one recent recurring theme that works perfectly. Rewriting ‘Twelfth Night’ as ’42nd Street’ isn’t a play – it’s a comedy sketch.
The oddest part is that many more recent works, like ‘West Side Story’, itself based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, are inviolate; directors are not allowed to change anything about them. No-one would think of revising books or most music, but plays do improve with updating. What they don’t need is random trimmings for the iPhone generation.