Updating the Bard whether he likes it or not

Written for The Collective Review, 11 June 2009

In the past month both Theatre Delicatessen and Love&Madness have set Shakespearean plays in 1960s gangland London.  Updating Shakespeare’s plays to a modern setting inevitably renders the language anachronistic and some lines nonsensical, but it’s such common practice that audiences tend to forgive even the most grievous inconsistencies.

Being a national watchword for timeless and universal quality, Shakespeare is a reliable fallback for any British theatre company.  Audiences know what they’re getting with the Bard, and that makes marketing a production a good deal easier than with new writing.  Plus, the ensemble get to show off how skilfully they can wrap their lips around an iambic pentameter.

But precisely because his canon is so well-known, it’s difficult to make a Shakespeare play stand out in the listings, or to differentiate your production from the many previous productions of the same play.  Besides an injection of star power, probably the most popular way of refreshing the material is to update the setting.

But – again thanks to the Bard’s reputation – the text is sacred.  Scenes can be cut but the verse structure and Elizabethan argot must remain intact.  Hence any attempt to relocate the play to a real historical period is inevitably limited to aesthetic elements:  set, costume and accents.

If the company’s creative team apply enough thought to the matter it’s perfectly possible to overcome that limitation, so this isn’t to say that Shakespeare should only ever be set in the 16th century.  Too often, though, directors take the audience’s familiarity with the play as an excuse to dress the ensemble in suits or Gulf War fatigues with no consideration of internal consistency.

So Love&Madness’s Macbeth, which begins promisingly by transforming the Scottish village of Glamis into The Glamis Arms, a London pub run by the Macbeths, trips nigglingly over its own transplanted geography once Malcolm and Donalbain start talking about fleeing to England (aren’t they already there? are Scotland and England London boroughs in this production?).

Theatre Delicatessen’s even more troubled version of The Winter’s Tale requires the audience to believe that an East End crime boss grew up alongside the king of a small Latin American country – I think.  While the company’s updated Bohemia has a definite Latin flavour, it’s unclear whether it’s a country or a small village, and the position of “King” Polixines within the production’s internal logic is even less clearly defined.

Even Michael Grandage’s Hamlet, which opened on 29 May, has come under fire from BBC Radio 4’s Front Row for a lack of internal consistency.  Grandage’s cast perform in modern dress, and Adam Cork’s sound design includes car horns, but Hamlet (Jude Law) still sends letters rather than texts or emails; the production uses only those elements of modern life that suit Grandage.

I’m being deliberately nitpicky, of course, but so should you be.  Shakespeare’s exalted position within the national consciousness should not be an excuse for directors to forsake internal consistency, one of the most basic tenets of storytelling.  To overcome the shortcomings of an update by relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of the text is to negate the very purpose of the update, which should be to allow people to experience the play as if for the first time.

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