Play-doh and the bard
Perhaps it is about time that we put Shakespeare to rest. Not for eternity; a decade should do, a generation at most. I’m sure he’d appreciate the respite, having been prodded, poked, pummelled and generally pushed about for the best part of 400 years. It’s not just Will I’m thinking about, either. We’ve come to rely on him for so long that there are times when I think that we’ve forgotten how to stand on our own in the footlights. There’s scarcely been an issue we haven’t turned to Will to explain or expound through one of his plays, whether or not he had anything to say on the subject.
Heaven forbid that we should do away with him forever; he’s literature’s most precious gem; his plays our crown jewels. Theatre without Shakespeare would be like the Crown of the Queen Mother without the Koh-i-noor diamond. He’s the really sparkly bit.
He’s rightfully respected and often revered; too often revered, I fear, not because of his magical imagery, his sublime orchestration of language, his wit or his silvered mirror of humanity but because we can make him say whatever we want we want to say. His plays are putty in our hands, a director’s most pliable play-doh. Give us an axe to grind and Shakespeare’s a waiting whetstone.
Re-structuring and even re-writing Shakespeare is nothing new and it didn’t take long after Shakespeare had left the stage to join Yorick and Banquo that it started. In the late 17th century both Nashum Tate, and that most ‘celebrated’ of Shakespearean improvers, Colley Cibber, set at the plays with a will. Since then, creating Shakespeare in our own image has been a habit.
It’s the job of every director to approach Shakespeare so that the play is presented in such a way that it connects more forcefully and directly with the audience. Sensibilities change, even from generation to generation and what provokes a response in 2012 may not be what does so in 2032. Putting Macbeth in motorcycle leathers, Hamlet in the boardroom of Elsinore Plc or Rosalind in Disneyland rather than the Forest of Arden are all well and good provided they don’t alter the play or corrupt its heart.
But these are simply different ways of teasing out the same meaning. The attempt can be ham-fisted at times, especially when the director under-estimates the audience and wants not only to join the dots for them but to colour in the picture as well. Unfortunately, some don’t want to stop there. There are those who think that the best Shakespeare is the Shakespeare that speaks for them; or rather, provides the pulpit from which they can speak to the world.
Whatever we want to say, there’s one of Shakespeare’s plays handy, ready to say it for us. And if you’re handed one at random, it isn’t hard to find something in it on which to hang your favourite hat. There’s a Macbeth for every ideology, a Hamlet for every philosophy. ‘There are more Hamlets in heaven and earth, Will, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
There’s a great difference between revealing the relevance of a play, and extracting relevance from it. Whereas the first requires the whole of the play, the second relies only elements of it, and not necessarily those which are at the play’s core. Othello is no more about domestic violence than Lear is about gender, though to a modern audience those issues are woven into the fabric of the drama; we can’t help but notice them on the sidelines as the drama unfolds. Yet, to raise such peripheral issues to centre stage not only threatens the unity and meaning of the play but it inevitably lessens the impact those issues deserve in their own right by placing them within a vehicle not intended to carry them.
We do things to Shakespeare that we wouldn’t do to other playwrights and their works. Imagine a director who wanted to revamp Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children into Father Courage and His Children. Who wouldn’t be scornful, if not outraged? The change in gender changes everything, just as it does by transforming King Lear in to Queen Lear. Yet, in neither play, is gender a theme. Yes, of course both plays are plagued with gender-related issues that we can see and which may even disrupt our full appreciation of the play. But that doesn’t mean that gender analysis should become a purpose of either play. They are built for something completely different.
(Co-incidentally, there is a production of Queen Lear currently in season, which has proved more valuable by the off-stage discussions it provoked than any point it hoped to make. The review and subsequent comments and articles on the Theatre Notes site are well worth reading.)
I can understand the temptation to use Shakespeare as a blank stage on which to present the issues of the day because well, it never really is a blank set. It’s Shakespeare, after all, the instant dramatic package complete with character, plot and unbeatable dialogue. And no small measure of cultural credibility.
This is not a problem unique to Shakespeare. Greek classics are ripe for modern re-packaging. It’s hard to think of one that hasn’t been used as the dressing for a contemporary concern, especially war. Done well, theme and drama co-exist comfortably; done poorly, the play hangs like bunting on a pulpit.
We don’t need to alter Shakespeare’s plays radically to make them fresh or almost new. Peter Brooks’ legendary production of A Mid-summer’s Night Dream showed that, as have many exciting, innovative productions before and since. All it requires is to start with a vision, rather than a cause. Then add some imagination, patience and respect for the text. Oh, and a little genius doesn’t hurt, either.