You might be forgiven for thinking that only certain Shakespeare plays are allowed to be produced in any given 12-month period – for example, last year I saw five different Twelfth Nights, and this year are at least three Macbeths already on my radar… Michelle Terry couldn’t really come up with anything out of the blue for her inaugural Globe season. However, all this repetition does get you thinking about how to keep Shakespeare’s work fresh.
Or should we even worry about that? Judging by some of the comments on the Shakespeare’s Globe Facebook page over the past couple of years, you’d think there was only one way to perform the plays: in traditional dress, with no technological assistance, and by no means amending the text. But wouldn’t that be an incredibly boring world to live in? After all, these plays have been around for over 400 years – that’s a lot of repetition… Shakespeare himself never actually published his plays himself either (it was all done following his death), and there are even slightly different versions of some works, so how can we be sure which is the definitive way of doing things anyway? And, whilst we may hold up his creations as works of pure art now, we couldn’t deny that he was a shrewd businessman and was probably out for as much commercial success as he could get – in the comedies at the very least.
In the past few years I have really stepped up my Shakespeare consumption, and it’s been quite striking how no two productions of the same play have been the same. Invention & innovation, it seems, are alive and well! The RSC and the National are doing their bit, and a wonderful company called Merely Theatre do a great line in condensed, gender-blind repertory seasons.
Obviously the biggest influence on me has been Emma Rice’s Globe seasons; from the first time I gazed in wonder at her Dream, to blinking away the tears after the very last show in the Summer of Love, I was taken on a journey of storytelling at its absolute finest. I truly believe Rice & Shakespeare are on each other’s wavelengths in this particular aspect. The other directors selected for these season, by & large, also seemed to get this, and as a result I’ve rarely felt more connected to Shakespeare productions than these ones.
Though where I draw the line is innovation for innovation’s sake. Joe Hill-Gibbins has developed a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a radical, but from the little I’ve seen so far it feels more like posturing than anything deeper. Seeing his muddy version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream not too long after Emma Rice’s multicoloured festival felt like being trampled on by a stray goat in stilettos… It stripped the play of any real meaning, not helped by the fact I didn’t believe a lot of the cast really knew what they were saying (I see that as part of the director’s responsibility) – the whole thing was an insult, frankly. Please don’t let him near Shakespeare again (at least not without supervision).
Another company, GOLEM! Theatre, do their Shakespeare a little differently still… Their idea is to repurpose Shakespeare’s words to find something new – whether it’s telling a similar story but just through the two lead characters (Macbeths), twisting a back story into something more sinister (I Know You Of Old), or creating a completely new story from several plays and sonnets (Tomorrow Creeps).
Just before Christmas I spoke to two of the company’s founders, David Fairs and Anna Marsland, and it was very interesting to hear about the process of creating a piece of work in their style – as well as the use and performance of Shakespeare in general. “Just in terms of the conventional Shakespeare plays, I hate it when a concept is just put on top of something and then they perform the play within the context of this aesthetic or this world, but it really has very little connection, very little relevance, or (more importantly) very little interweaving of those elements”, says writer Fairs. In GOLEM! Theatre’s second play, I Know You Of Old (a twisted Much Ado), the idea of communication was important – this was drawn from the text itself, and they created a “technological backdrop” for the present day setting.
In terms of the forthcoming Tomorrow Creeps, Fairs is unequivocal: “Everything that happens visually that makes this story, all comes out of building blocks within the text; there won’t be any sort of concept that’s just layered on top of the text – it’s all very much an interweaved thing, which I think is really, really, really important.”
The company revel in some members of the audience being completely oblivious as to where the lines came from, whilst others will recognise varying amounts and will enjoy pinpointing them to their specific sources – it celebrates the brilliance of the raw material. Fairs points out that it shows “how language evolves, how one can use language in different ways” and that words are incredibly versatile. “It shows how this language is not archaic – same words, different framework,” continues director Marsland. “He was fast and loose with it.”
So there you have it. Please do try something original with your Shakespeare productions (I’d hate to be stuck with ruff-filled museum pieces), but be clever about it. Make sure it works as an entirely rounded piece, with a focus on effective storytelling, and you will keep me very happy indeed.