To Re-Do, or Not To Re-Do, That is the Question: What would Mrs Shakespeare think?
William spawned an industry. As with Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana - if Shakespeare had not existed, the media world would have created him for his commercial clout. What is more, 'he' would have understood that, for he too operated in a world of patronage and commissioned writing, no stranger to a hand-to-mouth lifestyle. The 'he' is a reference to the urban myth-theory that 'Shakespeare' was a brand name- that no one person produced the vast portfolio of works we now know, but rather a company of writers- true? False? Who knows? Who cares?
Theatre-goers have been ritually exposed to a plethora of imaginative Bard-ick productions - Richard III in motorcycle leathers (be still my beating heart, Mr Brannah), Othello as leader of mercenary soldiers (Lenny Henry- from clownish comedian to chilling actor, superb), The Tempest set against the sinking Titanic (Patrick Stewart, post- Captain Jean Luc Picard, swoony) and, latterly, Much Ado About Nothing set in 1980s, post-Falklands Gibraltar - big hair, Dallas shoulder-pads, Wham and Abba music (David Tennant/Catherine Tate -prolonging their Dr Who relationship - golly gosh and wowee!). West Side Story, of course, provides the benchmark for any Romeo and Juliet-esque attempt, if you so dare to try and follow Leonard Bernstein. Counter-balance all above with a young Derek Jacobi as 'traditional' Hamlet, in the 1970s - memorable, decades later, for its sheer gothic horror-ness.
As with any canon, the pen-twitching purist/modernists camps adore to wrangle. My old drama teacher would not compromise on ' traditional tights and codpieces' for our Shakespeare productions - even for the girls. Othello, for her, meant only Larry Olivier. The modernisers, on the other hand - Shakespeare in space-suits, naked, on stilts, on a trampoline, all-female Hamlet, set in cold-war Eastern Europe, Romeo and Juliet rap-style.. etc…etc….can be as creative as the modern-day patrons of the arts allow. But what is the true essence of The Bard, that he sustains down the years? Why DO we perpetually re-package his words- we seem unable to leave him unabridged, cannot resist tampering with him, like a hair-style that just will not fit the face, a hat that does not flatter its head….we twist him, curl him and fiddle with him, cut him, lengthen him - how much of him do we adapt, before Mr S disappears altogether?
Still buzzing from the recent Much production in London, I finally realised the wonder of Shakespeare (which my 'A'-level English Lit. exam failed to provide) - the ubiquity of Billy's words. Yet, my epiphany came through the wit and humour of one of his 'frothiest' works - Much is not a complicated plot, yet has to be executed with every inch of the acting craft demanded by Shakespeare - get it wrong and it is a poor school production. This current version reminds us how stupid we - the naked ape - can be when we allow our soul to be taken by others, be it for love, jealousy or the pursuit of wealth and power (are you listening, media barons?). We are stupid, yet we (mostly) plunder through another day… not to have these experiences would be even more tragic - we would be zombies, who feel and learn nothing.
Wills forces us to accept our humanism - fall down, get up again, survive, sometimes, die. His genius is how 'other wordly' he portrays us - mortal idiots - especially when we are at our worst- when we have murdered (Hamlet, Macbeth), betrayed (any of the histories or tragedies), destroyed those whom we once loved (poor, poor Ophelia and Desdemona)..He not so much 'borrowed' intellectual property from others (Greek tragedies, Middle East fables), merely continued to tell (re-tell) the story of humanity. Every time Shakespeare is 'done', the tradition is continued.
That's the chaps side of things-what about the 'girlies'? If you have not read Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife, please do. I sparked off a moderate storm by recently suggesting - to more qualified literature experts than I - that Billy does not always portray the stronger side of women. His use of 'women' in (some) plots, for example… ranges from pre-Pythonesque, parodies to victims, then harridans, plotters, schemers- usually involved in a conspiracy of some malfeasance. But there are many truths (thanks, Plato). Gertrude, for one, conspiratorial yes, but also held the 'project' together, as did Lady Macbeth- proto-managers? Add in Portia, various nurses or ladies in waiting and yes, of course, he depicts women at their finest too- strategic, eye on the end goal and in touch with their emotional intelligences. I'm pleased that Wills did not patronise the female gender in portrayals of caring, nurturing or passive roles- not all 'frailty, thy name is woman', thank goodness. The tipping point comes in how far he has influenced the male perspective towards the female gender - untrustworthy, flighty, un-serious, etc. Equal to that of Freud's thesis of 'hysteria'? ' . A serious indictment, but the legacy of this gender language application has contributed (if not caused) to the protracted gender-politics challenge over the decades.
So, the question - why 'play around' with The Bard? The answer - why not? I think WS would have approved of the re-branding phenomenon, even approved of some of the adaptations. King Lear as a Skype-d production, bounced to you on your hand-held device? You should STILL be able to get the message….unless, that is, you are stupid- Hey Nonny-Nonny!
Feature contributed by julia moore on September 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm.