If You Don’t Trust Shakespeare, Don’t Do It

The Arts


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’?

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare - Shakespeare’s Globe - 21 April 2017 Director - Daniel Kramer Designer - Soutra Gilmour Choreographer - Tim Claydon Lighting - Charles Balfour

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.

6 comments on “If You Don’t Trust Shakespeare, Don’t Do It”

  1. Agatha Hamilton says:

    ‘Each addition subtracts from the play itself’ – absolutely right. Have seen some very good productions, mostly at Stratford, that were set in unlikely times and places- ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for instance, with the Wives under hairdryers and Falstaff (Peter Jeffrey, with a handlebar moustache as superannuated WW 2 pilot – brilliant. But to add dialogue, what arrogance!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder if directors are trying to prove that the Shakespeare we learned in school is not all there is. Quite true and the examples cited are proof, but you don’t prove anything by adding lines. Deducting lines or whole scenes is something else and I am sure Shakespeare’s company did it often to fit the play into a time frame or allow for a missing actor. It was entertainment, not literature. Putting a play into a modern setting that fits the mood and characters of the play will help an audience to “get it”, mucking about with the lines won’t.

  3. John Howard says:

    Oh God, I feel so old… Phrases like “when I was at school” and “lower standards” come bubbling to the top but i think that is part of what is being said here.
    Even thought my wife is a primary school teacher, I only discovered last night, whilst talking to friends, that in our secondary schools, essays and exams do not encourage comparison and discussion within them any more. In our conversation the only reason we could come up with for this is that examiners no longer know their own subject and are just looking for a series of statements that have been taught and not for any one with a thought of their own.
    The “History Boys” writ small maybe. Is that whats helps drives todays crop of directors to go mad. Finally let loose with the paintbox instead of having to paint within a very proscribed line.
    Having said this I have no idea how old the guys that admin mentions are but if they are as old as he and i are then they should know better… We were taught proper.
    Told you I was feeling old.. 🙂

  4. brooke says:

    I think these new productions have more to do with the desire to create a copy-righted revenue stream than with creativity and standards. What producer doesn’t want a gold mine like Les Miserables or Elton John’s version of Aida? Long running on stages of major cities, then the movie and the emerging markets (who don’t care about the language) and the royalties from all the small theatres.

    Same in the US…too sad.

  5. Karl says:

    I’ve been to quite a few of the Rice-era Globe productions having been a regular attendee in the past, and it’s not just been the more imaginative plays that were tinkered with. They mostly give the impression that the director hasn’t actually listened to the words, but they know the most important thing is to jazz it up like a panto so the French-exchange students in the audience don’t get bored.

    Last year’s Macbeth, for example had four witches (who still said “when shall we three meet again”), and also had Macbeth and his wife’s non-speaking infant son on stage, for comic relief (gurning when they kissed, that sort of thing). The play ended with the son climbing up into the empty throne – completely at odds with the witches’ predictions. It just didn’t make sense any more.

    I always found the joy of the globe was that it had such confidence in the plays that it purely proved why Shakespeare’s considered to be so good. It showed that if you get good actors performing them well, you’d notice ten times more jokes in the scripts and be left heartbroken. By doing it without any modern accessories (lighting, mics, Beyonce dance numbers), you could appreciate the plays in the raw. I know that at the time they were low-brow, bawdy entertainment, and there’s a case for recreating that facet, but it seems like the baby’s been thrown out with the bathwater.

    Sorry for the rant!

  6. John Howard says:

    Rant away Karl

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