04 June 2007

The Shakespeare of Yesterday—Today!

Another satiric article from The Onion that nails an issue I've had for years. As a Shakespeare-lover, the current vogue of continual "updating" and "re-imaging" of his plays into unusual settings bothers me. Here's a couple of made-up examples, although none of these is actually too far-fetched: As You Like It in a women's prison, Henry IV, Part I in Andy Warhol's Factory, Othello on a mining colony on Titan, or Coriolanus set...well, anywhere. (Does anybody perform this play? Cripes, even Titus Andronicus gets staged now, but not Coriolanus.) The creative and thoughtful setting of Shakespeare in an unusual or contemporized setting can often work effectively (I've always wanted to see King Lear in the American West during the end of the cattle boom, where it would work near perfectly, and I once experimented with a screenplay that used the original language in 1880s Wyoming backdrop) but too often directors and producers do this revisioning just to be "cool" and "artistic" and place a big stamp over the production that says, "This Is Mine." It's no surprise to me that the best Shakespeare productions I've seen have used Elizabethan costumes and set designs, or historically accurate outfits for plays taking place before Shakespeare's own day, such as the Histories and Julius Caesar.

I believe that Shakespeare doesn't need help to be "relevant." He's relevant no matter what. Hamlet doesn't need to wear a black Armani suit and work in a Wall Street company called Elsinore for us to understand him. I think he work best in a late medieval castle in a chill country, or (as would have been staged in Shakespeare's time) wearing standard Elizabethan garb. I've heard people say that since in Elizabethan theater actors dressed in contemporary outfits, contemporizing them for our own time is just following tradition. I don't understand this logic. To me it sounds like the same thinking that leads to colorizing movies. I was once in a small part in a college production of Measure for Measure, done with straight contemporary clothing: suits, etc. And you know what? It was boring. The feel of the bawdy, dirty age fell apart, and we had a story about a dull corporate raider with bad sexual morals, the convent aspect made no sense at all, and the more overtly comic characters felt out of place. (The director also had a projection screen that showed images during the play and completely distracted the audience; I have no idea what she was trying to achieve with this.) Was this production more "relevant"? Audiences would have gotten the themes if the actors had worn proper 16th-century Italian outfits without feeling that the director was trying to hammer them with "Message." Shakespeare doesn't need that kind of help. The guy is the most famous English language author for a reason. Don't drag Shakespeare to your age, bring your age to Shakespeare. He'll take good care of you, I promise.

There's something wonderful, almost ethereal, about seeing Shakespeare staged "Globe Style," with Elizabethan costumes on the traditional open stages (no sets, but plenty of props and platforms and color). You watch another world and time come to life... and speak right to you. So much artificial updating and re-imagining seems to talk down to Shakespeare, and ironically often blocks his language from getting through—the exact opposite of what the re-imagined production is supposed to do.

Again, I don't think there shoud be no updating or revision. For example, Richard Loncraine's film version Richard III based on a popular stage version was done in a 1930s semi-fascist London, and it was brilliant. Some of the Victorian settings for the comedies have worked nicely. Those Peter Brooks stagings in the 1970s sure were interesting. But the whole movement has gone overboard now. Let's see a King Lear in early Dark Ages Britain, a Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. Rome, a Romeo and Juliet in 16th-century Italy, a Richard II in early 15th century England, As You Like It in a late 16th-century pastoral English or French countryside, and Coriolanus well, just Coriolanus period. (Does anyone put this play on? I'm not a huge admirer, but I've never seen it staged and would like to see how it plays. Just curious.)