Where should we draw the line when performing and interpreting Shakespeare’s works in the modern day?

Since the recent media attention and controversy around the artistic director, Emma Rice, having to step down from her position at the Globe Theatre, for apparently pushing her modern ideas too far, many questions have been raised as to where we as actors and directors should draw the line when it comes to performing Shakespeare’s works. Should Shakespeare’s works be adapted and reimagined to make them more relatable and relevant to current audiences, or continue to be preserved in their original state, being performed just as they were during the Elizabethan era, like historic artefacts? One of the most important questions to consider is what we mean when we say ‘modernising’ Shakespeare (as there are so many different approaches and levels of adapting the original texts to appeal to our 21st century audiences). While some directors are content on setting the original text to a modern setting with current events; lots of progressive directors feel that in order to make the stories accessible they need to abandon the original text and simply extract elements of the narrative and morals of the plays, using modern colloquial language.

Lots of the media coverage around Rice losing her position as Artistic Director focuses on feminist injustice – blaming her loss of position on her gender and not just her artistic views. Nevertheless, regardless of the politics around this potential gender discrimination, the Globe are insisting on the reasoning behind Rice losing her position being because her ideas are not fitting to the ethos of the globe around preserving traditional Elizabethan theatre. Although this is understandable to some degree, many disagree, expressing that she was not ignoring the traditions of the Globe and Shakespeare’s work but rather investigating ways of keeping the theatre relevant and interesting for modern audiences. Furthermore, the fact Rice’s production of ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ (starring Sheridan Smith) completely sold out with questions for returns at every performance, suggests her loss of position is unnecessary, especially as the Globe theatre was obviously thriving under her artistic direction. The main area of disagreement in Rice’s directional  choices (and modern stagings altogether) are around the decision to introduce amplification and lighting to the shows. Critics are suggesting that if the Globe persist to refuse using modern technology to support their productions then their only purpose will be to show replications that act as a resource for the academic community, rather than appealing to public theatrical audiences like it was originally intended to be.

In fact, many would argue that by introducing modern production technology to the Globe (or any Shakespeare performance at that matter) to support and enhance the performers, only makes the play more appealing and accessible to 21st audiences, who are used to the immersive nature of today’s entertainment industry. Veritably, several participants of my own survey expressed that they felt it enhanced and assisted the performance , one stating: “using lighting and tech was a way of making the language visual and more accessible for modern audiences”, which proves public audiences are happy to move with the times. To quote theatre journalist, Lynn Gardner, in her 2016 Guardian article: “A theatre is not a museum but a living, breathing thing that must respond to the needs of artists and audiences or face become moribund…Art is about reinvention not replication.”(Gardner, 2016).

Evidently, it wasn’t just the production of ‘Midsummer’s’ that caused an uproar amongst the theatrical community, with critics such as Dominic Cavendish commenting on director  Dunster’s adaptation of Cymbeline (renamed Imogen), labelling the production “criminal”, and arguing that the “intrinsic ambience” the Globe is so well known for has been overridden with “an artificial atmosphere”(Gardner, 2016), despite it receiving a great response from public audiences. Contrary to this, the public seem to believe that Dunster’s modernised imagining of Cymbeline has brought the plays content to life and strengthened the themes and morals of the play; particularly though Dunster’s choice to rebrand the classic as ‘Imogen – Renamed and Reclaimed’. This seemingly emphasises the importance of Imogen’s battle to express her voice in a world of men – much like today where gender stereotypes are constantly being challenged, and women are fighting for their voices. In fact, research Intern Emiliana Russo and Dr. Will Tosh support this notion, suggesting that Dunster is finding justice for the protagonist, concluding that “Imogen  [is] one of the most substantial parts Shakespeare ever wrote – has always been at the core of the play, and Dunster’s production gives the heroine her due prominence”. (September 5, 2016, Shakespeare’s Globe Editorial)

One could argue that the Globe are actively contradicting their intentions of preserving the history of Elizabethan theatre by limiting their audiences and the excitement around theatre. Moreover, Shakespeare’s audiences were traditionally composed of a diverse demographic, offering aspects those from all backgrounds and classes could relate to. Therefore, it seems contradictory that in the Globe’s efforts to preserve the authenticity of a Elizabethan theatre experience they are essentially restricting their audiences to literates and theatre enthusiasts rather than the real people. Neil Constable, CEO of Shakespeare’s Globe – arguably rather naively – went on to praise Rice’s “mould breaking” work for bringing the Globe “new and diverse audiences, [winning] huge creative and critical acclaim, and achieve[ing] exceptionally strong box office returns.”(Ellis, 2016). The evidence of ticket sales for Rice’s production of A Midsummer Nights Dream proves how well the modern audiences of today responded to the modern production choices, suggesting it is in fact helping theatre thrive and should be encouraged rather then kept in the dark ages. This can be supported by the fact 51% of the public expressed that they find a modernised or adapted version of Shakespeare’s plays more appealing than a traditional production, and the majority of other participants stating that it made no difference to them either way whether as they felt it was down to the quality of the acting and reputation of the company rather than the directorial/production choices.

Nevertheless, many (including The Director Michael Boyd) contradict this stating that he believes ‘you get less juice out of plays if you set them in the present’(Billington, 2017) . In a 2007 article with the Guardian he expresses that in his opinion modernising Shakespeare’s plays into the present day, and adding modern dress only becomes a problem when the date and setting of the play is crucial to the narrative, for example in some of Shakespeare’s history plays. However, many believe that by reimagining the texts into more up to date scenarios, it emphasises the messages of the writing and reinforces the idea that Shakespeare was not just retelling events in history but was portraying the internal struggles and moral and patriarchal  injustices the characters experience. According  to David Cote there is ‘no such thing as traditionally staged Shakespeare’(Cote, 2010). In the same article he argues that we are lying when we say we know how Shakespeare’s plays should be staged, and believes that by reimagining and metaphorically translating his works we are in fact preserving these Shakespearean classics. On the other side of the argument the Wall Street journal’s Terry  Teachout stressed that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be “transgressive” in an online article for ‘Big Think’ magazine. He went on to explain how ‘it’s actually now more common to see conceptual productions…[in] which Hamlet is played as a Nazi, or a homosexual’(Cote, 2010). While, Teachout goes on to explain that he feels that many directors and actors alike are simply making these choices for the sake of keeping up with the times, rather than for any artistic purpose or to further the message of the play.

The argument around literally translating the original text of Shakespeare plays to modern language is in my opinion a separate debate altogether. Some directors have taken it upon them to take modernising Shakespeare’s plays a step further and are rewriting Shakespeare’s text and replacing it with modern language 21st century audiences can understand. Admittedly, this is less common amongst live theatre productions, but is extremely common within the film and television industry, who go to various extremities when reimagining Shakespeare’s works. Gil Junger’s 1999 blockbuster,’10 Things I Hate About You’, would be unrecognisable as an adaption of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ unless one already knew the story; which in a way proves how relevant the issues and characters still are to a modern audience and therefore how universal and ahead of it’s time Shakespeare’s writing was. However, this also runs the risk of the youth of today experiencing the ‘real thing’ due to feeling they can access versions in modern cinema.  Nevertheless, the popular BBC television series ‘Shakespeare Retold’ took the rough story lines of several of his most popular texts and set these to modern scenarios, with tenuous links to the original plays, including references to original Shakespearean text dispersed amongst the modern dialogue, while reinventing the characters and situations. This is demonstrated in the reimagined ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (directed by Brian Percival), when Beatrice says “I swear if I were a man I would eat his heart.” which rings rather truly to Shakespeare’s original text “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace”. Personally, by actually translating the original text to a modern version audiences of today can understand  (rather than completely rewriting the dialogue) it stays true enough to Shakespeare’s work to be classed as a reimagined adaptation and may actually encourage audiences to try experiencing live versions featuring the entirety of the original text.  A participant in my own survey supports this view that modern translations and adaptations can almost be used as stepping stone to traditional productions that today’s audiences may otherwise not have the capacity to understand and appreciate; he expresses this by stating: ‘a modern adaption merely brings into focus something which we may not understand in the setting of the Elizabethan time. However with time and an open mind we may easily come to understand the thoughts and feelings of the characters, even in a setting which seems alien or unfamiliar to us.’

Notwithstanding, I appreciate this may make Shakespeare more accessible and encourage younger or less literate audiences to enjoy his plays, yet I feel this could be masking a problem and could potentially discourage people from watching Shakespeare in its original form and learning to appreciate the beauty of his language. In fact, some would question whether ‘Shakespeare’ in this form should even be marketed as ‘Shakespeare’ at all; baring in mind a great deal of his works were originally stories or plays that he himself had adapted written for stage, for example his famous problem play ‘Troilus and Cressida’ was based on Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’. Thus, one could argue that if the language is rewritten completely, then it is simply another retelling of the original story rather than an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work. Alternatively, on the other end of the spectrum, one could debate that it is just another way of keeping the authenticity of Shakespeare alive, as by modernising the stories and language to suit our audience base, are we not just doing exactly what Shakespeare did for his audiences in the 1600’s?

Ultimately, it seems that the debate around modernising and adapting Shakespeare for audiences of today is always going to raise controversy amongst theatre critics and enthusiasts, while the public are more open to experiencing these classics in a new light. In fact only a mere 6% of survey participants stated that they would be less likely to watch a Shakespeare production if it was modernised, while a total of 49% of respondents expressed that they would more inclined to watch Shakespeare that has been modernised and adapted – with the other 44% of participants stated that they are not swayed either way and enjoy the opportunity to view Shakespeare’s plays in both lights. Some would go as far as saying their is an increasing amount of ‘snobbery’ around Shakespeare which portrays his work as almost ‘holy’ amongst literates and thespians; therefore introducing new rules around preserving the traditions surrounding his productions, in a way that would never be considered among other playwrights of his time. It is clear the majority of the demographic are open and enthusiastic to experience modern imaginings of Shakespeare’s works, however the question that still remains is how far does one have to push these adaptions before they are considered tarnished and no longer worthy.

Overall, the research conducted suggests that while audiences appreciate the work of directors who have simply taken the original play and transported this into a modern setting – using modern costume and up to date events and issues as the stimulus and background – they are less praising when the play’s text is literally translated to modern language. A member of the public explained that  “the [modern] language felt odd and detracted from the play” when the transcript was completely rewritten to 21st century English.  Personally, the reasons behind a director choosing to modernise a Shakespeare play should always be to further the understanding of the morals and messages of the original text, by bringing it to life in a way the target audience can relate and connect to. Nevertheless, in an attempt to keep up with the demands of the times, many directors and creative teams are taking it upon them to push their ideas too far and consequently are distancing their from the true meaning embedded in the writing – rather than emphasising this. Another theatregoer supports this observation, exclaiming that “[they] have found it refreshing to watch a modern adaptation and whilst in the main, the language has stayed the same, seeing the characters as more relatable has made the play easier to understand”.

In fact, perhaps we can conclude that the most successful adaptations are those that have met half way, taking only a selection of variables to modernise, whilst remaining true to the traditions of Shakespeare in the other areas. For example, the third year LAMDA students pulled off a successful reimagining of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (directed by ) which was transported to 1950’s America (complete with costume, close harmony rock and roll singing/music, and lighting) but stayed true to Shakespeare’s language. By taking this approach to reinventing the classic, we as audience members were able to understand how universal and ‘avant-garde’ Shakespeare’s work is and how relevant to human nature the themes of his will continue to be, regardless of the time period. Moreover, Reviewer Martine Silkstone (who considers herself a ‘traditionalist’ when it comes to Shakespeare) admitted that while she usually holds “suspicion” when Shakespeare is given a modern twist, she feels this production “converted [her]”(Silkstone, 2016). Perchance the balance between remaining true to Shakespeare’s writing, whilst extracting the motivation and reason behind his writing and applying this to modern circumstances is the most prosperous way of approaching adaption, bringing something into focus which we may not have otherwise understand or appreciated in its entirety.


Bibliography – References


Published by: betheasdown1

I am an acting student at Conservatoire EAST, currently in my 2nd and final year on the Performing and Production Arts Acting pathway and in preparation for moving on to the next step of training and auditioning for accredited drama schools.

Categories Acting, BLOGS, Daily Logs, Research3 Comments

3 thoughts on “Where should we draw the line when performing and interpreting Shakespeare’s works in the modern day?”

  1. Beth,
    A very interesting and insightful essay looking at a range of views and opinions and presenting the arguments for and against in a clear and coherent manner. Your essay meets the required academic standards to a high level, your style of writing is clear and objective. Well done.


  2. I’ve really enjoyed reading your essay – you’ve looked at a good range of sources and opinions and write clearly and intelligently about your findings. The fact that you’ve looked at Shakespeare’s work across a range of media too really addresses a 21st century audience. Well done.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s