Shakespeare experiments for modern times

When can we experiment with Shakespeare and how far are we allowed to go?

By HAILEY BACHRACH

In late October 2016, London theatre—and the world of classical theatre beyond it—was in an uproar: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre abruptly announced the departure of its newly installed and dynamic artistic director, Emma Rice, who had just concluded her very popular first season. The accepted but unofficial narrative formed quickly: Rice had been forced out because the stodgy Globe board was infuriated by her use of electronic music and colored lights. Also, she was a woman. Also, she gave the plays diverse companies and contemporary settings. (Full disclosure: I interned at the Globe for a season, but not while any of this was taking place.)

Rice said nothing to dispel these impressions, and the Globe’s board’s somewhat tepid insistence that the decision was based simply on questions about lighting struck many British critics as just a pretense.

Now that the initial furor has passed, it is easier to accept that the most likely version of the Rice/Globe saga is also the most boring; that it stems, ultimately, from a failure to communicate. The Globe did not adequately express the importance of the shared lighting rig and other elements of their image of the Globe’s as an ‘authentic’ Elizabethan playing space, and likely Rice did not make perfectly clear her intention to challenge that vision.

That’s not to say that the outcry didn’t raise a lot of interesting questions about the state of Shakespeare in Britain. Rice’s work had not been as universally positively received as the horror at her dismissal suggested; more conservative members of the British press had their fair share of pearl clutching over her use of the aforementioned lights and music, not to mention filling her casts with women and brown people and queer people and the odd soap opera star.

In the end, however, Rice’s supporters had the last word (or at least, I wasn’t able to find any major publication crass enough to celebrate her departure), albeit a word of mourning for the bright theatrical future, the revitalization of Shakespeare that might have been.

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It’s fascinating to set these manifestos in defense of Shakespearean experimentation beside the horror and vitriol inspired by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project. When the project was announced in September 2015, and in periodic bursts of fury since, one might have thought OSF had announced their intention to burn Shakespeare in effigy and ban his work from their campus. The program, proposed and funded by a single donor, pairs playwrights and dramaturgs to create a “translation” of a Shakespeare play. Commissioned artists include award-winning playwrights Jeff Whitty, Taylor Mac, and Naomi Iizuka. The whole canon has been assigned, and a few of the translations even have productions planned, though none at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself.

These adaptations will also, apparently, be singlehandedly responsible for the eradication of Shakespeare and all other literary culture from America and possibly the world. At least to hear the critics talk about it—like Professor James Shapiro, one of the most prominent American Shakespeare scholars, who recently called the project “a deal with the devil.

So there’s experimenting and there’s experimenting. Play On’s critics appear to be most worried that someone will read or see one of these adaptations and thus experience Shakespeare incorrectly. It’s hard to tell what they fear most about this scenario: That someone will see one of the adaptations and decide that Shakespeare is bad (even though the text isn’t really Shakespeare’s), or that they might see one and like it better. Or maybe it’s just horror that someone would dare to tamper with The Bard—as if that’s not what directors are doing every time the plays are performed.

Emma Rice’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Globe had Bollywood inflections./Courtesy Shakespeare’s Globe

This echoes the divide between the pro- and anti-Rice camps. Most of the debates centered around just two productions in the Globe’s 2016 summer season, only one of which Rice actually directed: Her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Matthew Dunster’s production of Cymbeline, which he retitled Imogen. The former took on a fantastical Bollywood-inflected aesthetic, with crazy lights, pounding music, and a male Helena (in this case, Helenus) whose love was rebuffed by a closeted Demetrius. Dunster’s production was set in contemporary London, similarly peppered with music and dance, and starring Maddy Hill, famous for her role in the British soap opera EastEnders, as an Adidas-clad Imogen.

On the one hand, dynamic and diverse Shakespeare that looks and sounds like contemporary Britain, and, perhaps more importantly, gets contemporary Britons excited about Shakespeare—as the box office records for that season suggests they did. On the other hand, the view (correctly or otherwise) imputed to the Globe’s board and implied by the critics who derided the productions: Sure, the shows have people flocking to see Shakespeare, but to the wrong kind of Shakespeare.

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There is another camp of Play On! detractors, who will insist that they having nothing against the project per se, but they just don’t see the point. As Shapiro wrote for The New York Times, “However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow.”

But Shapiro misinterprets Play On’s stated mission: to ask, as project leader Lue Douthit said, “What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way?” Shapiro and other critics substitute OSF’s question (“What if?”) for a statement of their own making (“OSG wants to pointlessly ‘fix’ the plays”), and in doing so, I believe, raise a version of the same question asked above. Is there a sacred core to Shakespeare that we have to be sure the masses experience? Does that make Shakespeare’s plays too delicate to experiment with? If we start prodding at the structure, do we fear it will collapse?

Just as no single production ever claims to be the definitive, ultimate, perfect version of a Shakespeare play (or at least it shouldn’t, and if that’s the goal, it will fail), Play On! does not aspire to supplant or ‘improve’ upon the works of Shakespeare—only to undertake an experiment and see what happens. One single experiment cannot put even a dent in the massive cultural edifice that is Shakespeare. But it can potentially add one more facet to our understanding of his works, and why they endure.

When I heard the word “experiment” in relation to theatre, I always used to think of weird East Village performance art, non-narrative movement pieces or confessional one-person shows. But this quotation from Professors Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper broadened my understanding:

“The methods of theatrical experimentation are not taken from the science laboratory but from centuries of theatrical practice. The workshop, the staged reading, the rehearsal process, the design process, all have established methods that take a creative approach to the practical, yet critical, problem of developing a theatrical interpretation of the plays. To negate this history of practice by eliding it, as funding bodies have, with the scientific method, is to misunderstand the tradition that is under discussion.”

That quotation comes in the introduction to Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment. And that, in turn, is the same language that was used in board director Neil Constable’s statement about Rice’s departure: “The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.”

Emma Rice’s Globe experimented with diverse casting of all sorts, including a gay Helenus./Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe has the right to perform explorations that they are quite literally uniquely equipped to undertake—and, as unfortunate as it is that they and Rice could not come to an accord on that topic, that desire need not be seen as inherently conservative. The Globe was conceived as a laboratory for a certain kind of theatrical experiment, and something will be learned from continuing to pursue it.

(Though I will also say that from the first cast of her first show, Rice completely transformed the look of the Globe company. The casts were immediately more diverse in terms of gender and race, and it’s an admirable example of the kind of changes a determined artistic director can instantly effect. I hope whoever the Globe hires next follows in her footsteps in that regard.)

And the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is undertaking an experiment as well, though of a very different kind. It may be that nothing much will come of it, but if we always assumed results rather than testing them, nothing would ever get discovered. And if one of Play On!’s adaptations leads one person closer to appreciating Shakespeare, isn’t that good? And if one person even decides they like the adaptation better, is that bad?

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No matter how great the writer it’s based on, a theatrical culture that is unwilling to say “Why not?” seems doomed to stagnate. I’ve seen settings and adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve absolutely hated, that made me wish someone would institute laws to protect innocent theatregoers. Such a law would be patently absurd (not to mention elitist and creatively stifling), and it’s equally ridiculous to try and impose the same restrictions ideologically. You can’t draw a line around experimentation with the plays and insist that only the kind you like is allowed.

All of these visions—the Globe’s experiments with space; Emma Rice and her collaborators’ play with casts, setting, and design; Play On!’s investigation of the language itself—spring from the same source: a love for and fascination with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays are not the antique porcelain doll that’s too delicate for the grandkids to play with. He may be 450, but he’s plenty strong. And if your cultural icon is too fragile to survive a little experimentation, if the play can’t stand being played with, maybe it does need to be put back on the shelf.

One Response.

  1. Kent Richmond says:

    Thank you for such a clearly stated defense of those of us who are working on translations of William Shakespeare. The task of translating Shakespeare has been going on for hundreds of years for foreign languages, and now we are seeing more efforts to move Shakespeare to a more contemporary English. I have completed 8 such translations and have had to endure some rather hysterical attacks over the years. You did a good job summarizing the nature of those attacks and calming fears.

    Kent Richmond

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