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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Theatre For Thought, August 6, 2011

Shakespeare vs. the Modern World
joel fishbane

I often feel sorry for Shakespeare. Not only is he dead, which presumably sucks, but he has to deal with the pain of being widely produced and unable to sue for royalties.’s going to be a long time before I forgive [Repercussion] for setting [Macbeth] in the present day, thereby committing that great sin known as modernization. 

Meanwhile, he continues to have the bizarre distinction of being both celebrated and abused, usually by people who should know better. I had high hopes that Repercussion Theatre would take the high road on this one, but if anything, their latest production of the Scottish Play has taken things one step further. There are plenty of reasons to see the show – the sharp acting, for one – but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s set in the modern day. Like Orson Welles, who in 1937 set Julius Caesar in Fascist Italy, director Arianna Bardesono has a clear social agenda. This is commendable, but I’m not sure it’s forgivable: whatever its purpose, modernization remains one of the great theatrical crimes.

I know, I know. Here we go again, with yet another rant about how we treat poor Will. I can’t help it. I’m a purist, like my father before me. I like my Shakespeare served up in all its 15th century iambic glory. Oh sure, I’ve dabbled in adaptation, but I’ve never gone so far as to modernize, which I’ll define here as wantonly staging any play in an era other then the one the author intended.

“Remember Hamlet? Wouldn’t it be funny if he was on the moon?”

I always have the impression that those who modernize the classics are just Shakespeare geeks who are having a bit of fun - “Remember Hamlet? Wouldn’t it be funny if he was on the moon?” Modernization is nothing but a theatrical in-joke, a sly nod and wink to all those who managed to stay awake during their high school English class. Changing the era is simply a gimmick and it's only amusing in the way a YouTube mash up featuring Captain Kirk / Spock is amusing to Trekkies.

As mentioned, it’s easy to look the other way when modernization has a social purpose, like opposing fascism. Most productions, though, don’t have such lofty goals. Probably everyone in Montreal carries the emotional scars of Gordon McCall’s pointlessly modern-day Romeo and Juliet (Centaur, 2006) – rather then watch the show, most of us just wondered why Juliet didn’t text Romeo to tell him about Friar Lawrence’s plan. As for me, I still harbor resentment for Mr. McCall’s Civil-War Twelfth Night (Centaur, 1997)  in which Sir Toby, a white aristocrat, ran off with Maria, a slave - and everyone on stage cheered.

“Boy I love Hamlet - but I’m so tired of seeing him in Denmark.”

There seems to be an assumption that Shakespeare’s plays need a few bells and whistles, as if some marketing genius realized that this is the best way to sell tickets. It’d be nice if it were true, because it would imply that Shakespeare is so popular that millions of us wander the Earth thinking “Boy I love Hamlet - but I’m so tired of seeing him in Denmark.” Sadly, this is not our world. 

I suspect the only people bored with Shakespeare’s plays are those who produce Shakespeare, because these are the folks who went to school and were forced to chew on the plays until they lost their flavor. Those people will certainly appreciate the cunning and ingenuity going on in Repercussion’s latest offering. But for anyone who doesn’t know the play – and that’s a vast, mind-boggling part of the populace - all the alterations are meaningless. Pity the poor child being introduced to Macbeth for the first time: they are watching a punchline without having ever heard the joke.

...might it not be appropriate for companies to update their shows to prevent a snickering from the masses?

My friend Bennett suggested that theatre companies resort to the modern era because it’s cheaper then finding period clothes. I called him a cynic, but he insisted he had a point (reminding me that, like a stopped clock, even a cynic is right twice a day). Collectively, Bennett said, we have come to the point when no one in a codpiece can be taken seriously, so might it not be appropriate for companies to update their shows to prevent a snickering from the masses? 

I reminded Bennet that in Shakespeare’s time the actors wore their own clothes and so his plays, despite being set in other eras, were originally performed in what was then modern attire. If this worked for the Elizabethans, I suggested, why wouldn’t it work for us? Performing a show in modern dress would be significantly less frustrating than watching people modernize the work itself: one is simply a matter of fashion, while the other severely threatens to undermine the world of the play. 

A story’s relevance is a product of circumstance.

There is also an argument that modernization makes a work more “relevant”, but I’d remark that if a story isn’t relevant, changing the era won’t increase its appeal. A story’s relevance is a product of circumstance. Earlier this month, in Herat, Afghanistan, two crazy kids tried to get together despite their different ethnicities and family opposition. They were yanked from their car and interrogated by a group of men who called them adulterers and demanded that they be hanged. When the police intervened, a riot started. Now both of them are in jail and the girl’s uncle has told her, in no uncertain terms, that he will kill her for bringing shame to his family. In this climate, would a production of Romeo and Juliet not have tremendous appeal? You wouldn’t need to set it in Herat; the audience would relate to the story even if it was still set in 15th century Verona. 

We can never allow our clever thoughts and stylish ideas to triumph over the play itself. And if we truly feel that Macbeth needs to be jazzed up with cell phones and transvestite witches, perhaps this would be a good time to look at the Shakespeare plays that we’ve ignored. The Montreal Shakespeare Company is already directing our gaze towards Titus Andronicus. Perhaps it’s time someone tried to interest Repercussion Theatre in a nice fat serving of Troilus and Cressida. 


  1. I think I`ve read all of your "rants" about Shakespeare, and while I've both agreed and disagreed with points in all of them, this one resonates most strongly with me. For very conflicting reasons. I certainly agree that modernizing Shakespeare can have incredibly disastrous results, but usually it comes when it's modernized for the sake of being modernized or when it's attempting to be edgy. I too saw the Romeo and Twelfth Night shows you mentioned and was completely turned off by them. I have yet to see Repercussion's Macbeth, but when I first heard the idea I too was taken back, simply because the lure of medieval Scotland seems far to interesting to cast aside, but we'll see how they pull it off.

    That being said: when we tour schools with adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, very often we modernize them, with great success. Above you mention making the plays more relevant, and I think in their original form, most of Shakespeare's plays still are, the reason we choose to modernize the plays is very different. Accessibility. There is a large portion of the population who find the idea of going to the theater inaccessible, that number grows when you tell them that the show is set in 7th century Denmark. Back in 2002 I directed my first Shakespeare play: King Lear(which was awful.) No one I know wanted to see it, until I told people it was set in a "Godfather" style. (probably why it was awful. Modernization for modernization. Lesson learned.) But the Godfather nonsense brought the people in.

    Believe it or not I consider myself a purist. Give me the full text any day of the week, let me see my Richard the II in pantaloons and damnit Lady Capulet better not be a day over 26, but being a stickler for all things Shakespearean can easily produce a product that no one wants to see.I think the gap between the theater community and the potential audience may be wider than we think.

    Wow this has become a rant of my own! All this to say I think it's a fine line one treads when they modernize a classic. I once saw a production of King John in Chicago set on the streets of Detroit that worked wonders, just the same I've seen two productions of Richard the III set in the proper time that just didn't click. (one of them was set in a fort that we were marched around for 4 hours. Yikes!) Shakespeare's view of human nature is what rings most true set in any era. I think in general if we stick to that we'll be ok.

    I do rather enjoy these commentaries from you Joel, it's nice to see someone who shares the same passion as I do. I hope you'll come see Titus, it's set in a basketball court during hurricane Katrina. Just kidding it's ancient Rome, but I did make some cuts though and am uncredited. I know...I'm a douche...:)

    Hope to see you there!

  2. Most everybody I've ever spoken to about Hamlet agree that either the Olivier version or the Branagh are the definitive film adaptations (and unanimously agree that the Gibson version never happened).

    I'm not sure where you stand on the Branagh version, but if you're ideologically consistent you would probably prefer that it never happened. The 1996 film is set in Victorian times, and was therefor modernized by a few hundred years. Now it would be unfair to nitpick and point out that he stayed true to the script. Modernization is modernization. It can be done well and it can be done poorly (as in the case of the Ethan Hawk Hamlet which was fantastically performed but fell apart in the final act, as bullets just can't replace a poisoned blade).

    Modernization is a choice that directors make. It is one that can add to a play or detract from it. But calling it a gimmick? That's just a cheap jab at directors making choices that you disagree with. If you don't like modernizations, don't see them, but to dismiss them entirely snobby and narrow minded. (I'd expect you to be neither of these things)

  3. I have seen modernizations that I thought were genius, like the so-called “hip-hop Hamlet” directed by Bill Rauch at last year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I have seen many disastrous Shakespeares done traditionally. In reality, “every production of Shakespeare is a misrepresentation of the play.” It simply is not possible to do Shakespeare as Shakespeare wanted. All we can do is be consistent and truthful in our playing. If the modernization is a simplistic gimmick, of course it will not work. If the modernization is a well-thought-out approach that shines new light on the work, it wills succeed.


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