Are we in the middle of a golden age of Shakespeare productions?

In Features, London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre by Debbie Gilpin

If you mention the name William Shakespeare to someone, there’s a good chance the first word that pops into their head will be ‘boring’. (Or ‘who?’, in the case of a worrying proportion of school children.) This word association likely harks back to school days, being forced into writing essays on one of the Bard’s many plays, struggling through the old-fashioned text and not really understanding a lot of what is said.

Particularly these days, where exam results and grades are prioritised ever more over comprehension, and so these great works of literature are linked with an incredibly pressurised and stressful time in life. It took me several years to really appreciate John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for example, as studying it line by line definitely made it harder to get involved in – though Shakespeare (and plays in general) thankfully didn’t fall victim to this.

So what can be done to make Shakespeare less boring, or prove that Shakespeare isn’t boring (depending on how you look at it)? Obviously I can’t really comment much on the situation going back in time, but it does feel to me that we’re in the middle of a golden age of Shakespeare productions. Whether they hit the mark or not, a considerable amount of thought is going into the relevance of plays to current affairs or the mood of the nation, as well as how they could be brought to a wider audience – be that in terms of accessibility, how engaging they are for different demographics, and making sure there’s life outside London.

Love her or loathe her, I think it’s fair to say that Emma Rice’s tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe was a necessary and revolutionary one. Over her two years in charge, she brought incredibly diverse casts to the stage, testing the boundaries of Shakespeare’s work, and opening it up to people outside the theatre’s usual demographic. Imogen was a prime example of this; it’s sad to think that there’ll never be something quite like that at the Globe ever again. However, I’m certain that this helped to open the door for Michelle Terry, whose opening season did at least try to experiment with things, only in a slightly different manner – as long as she’s allowed to continue in her own way, I’m sure it will continue to go from strength to strength.

One way of making things less boring can be to abridge the plays – Merely Theatre do this very well with their smaller casts, and Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre also did this brilliantly (the very immersive feel for some members of the audience definitely helped too). However beautiful the poetry, there is a lot of filler in Shakespeare; if a section doesn’t advance the storytelling, and is largely unintelligible to the non-academics in the audience, then directors shouldn’t feel obliged to keep them in. The National’s current production of Antony & Cleopatra falls victim to this ‘Shakespeare as sacred cow’ idea, coming in at an excruciating 3.5 hour running time – the RSC (perhaps more understandably) regularly churns out epics, with varying success.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Even more shockingly (to some), shows may eschew the Shakespearean language almost entirely! The Young Vic’s musical adaptation of Twelfth Night does this, but in my opinion this is what makes it a great introductory production; the songs basically paraphrase the original text, and help explain the characters’ intentions & feelings, so you clearly know what is going on at any given time and you’re able to sit back & enjoy yourself. So you lose some wonderful text – big deal. For me, Shakespeare is as much about the storytelling as the language (even if he stole the original ideas from literature he could lay his hands on at the time), and if this approach helps get more people interested in his work then I’m all for it. Even if my favourite of his plays gets this treatment!

Demonstrating the play’s relevance, in terms of its themes & figures, can also be eye-opening – and more of a hook than you might expect. I want to draw on the Bridge’s Julius Caesar again here, as that play can seem quite dry and very wordy, but when you make a section of the audience feel very involved (and bring in high calibre actors to bring it to life) it totally changed the way you looked at it. Part thriller, part political rally, it was gripping & engaging from the moment you walked into the auditorium. Sometimes this doesn’t work out – the RSC’s current modern dress production of Romeo & Juliet seems to want to look at knife crime & gang culture, but doesn’t really pay off. While modern dress is a definite help with the less obvious themes & parallels, sometimes historical dress (whether it’s closer to traditional Shakespearean, or a different point in time) can do the job equally well. Antic Disposition’s ever popular First World War Henry V shows this perfectly.

I know there are some people who will never be convinced, whether they’ve been scarred by schooldays, a bad production, or just an innate dislike, but if you keep an eye out then you may just find the Shakespeare production that changes everything.

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Tags: #MTBChallenge18, Antic Disposition, Barbican, Bridge Theatre, Cymbeline, Emma Rice, Globe Theatre, Henry V, Imogen, Julius Caesar, London, Merely Theatre, Michelle Terry, National Theatre, Off West End, Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC, shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, theatre, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare, Young VicCategories: all posts, challenge week, shakespeare, theatre

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Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.
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Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.