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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Theatre for Thought, July 16, 2011

Repercussion's upcoming Macbeth

NOT By Shakespeare
Or How to Succeed in Disrespecting Writers Without Really Trying
joel fishbane

Last week I made a passing reference to the relative lawless nature of the non-professional world – how many community or school groups will alter the text of a show to suit logistical or artistic whims, both without consulting the author and without informing audiences of the changes. Sadly, this lack of artistic respect is not confined to the non-professional world: it can be prevalent in the professional theatre too. 
To witness the most recent case of this, head on down to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival where at least two shows, to my knowledge, have been quietly changed. One is their gender-bending production of Richard III (actress Seana McKenna plays Richard); the other is Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s musical Camelot. In the case of Richard III, dialogue from Henry VI, Part III has been interpolated into the script. In Camelot, one song was cut while another was moved to the beginning of Act II.

The result is a production of Richard III that does not reflect Shakespeare’s script.

I won’t debate the artistic merits of any particular change, but I do take issue with the lack of acknowledgement. To find out why Stratford hasn’t been advertising the authorship of the changes, I went to Ann Swerdfager, the Publicity Director of Stratford. It seems clear that Stratford did not consider the changes significant. “There is no newly written work to assign authorship to,” said Ms. Swerdfager. “Nothing outside of normal dramaturgical work has occurred.”

I disagree with Ms. Swerdfager and I would suggest that the changes made to Richard III and Camelot do constitute the creation of a new work that is different than the ones left to us by Shakespeare, Lerner and Lowe. According to dramaturg Robert Blacker, changes to Richard III were done to help set up the references in Richard III’s opening speech (the famed “winter of our discontent” one). The result is a production of Richard III that does not reflect Shakespeare’s script. True, the interpolated lines were written by the Bard; but authorship of a play constitutes more than just dialogue. It also involves structure and style: as a writer, Shakespeare made a conscious artistic choice to open the play with Richard III’s speech. Altering the opening alters both the tone and style of the play; it is now structurally different than the play Shakespeare wrote. 

Shakespeare’s text has been adapted and altered, often without reference to exactly who is responsible.

I would hope we can agree that it is rankly disrespectful to alter an artist’s work and not inform the audience. Yet all materials advertising Richard III state the show is “by William Shakespeare”, a statement which has the distinction of being both true and false at the same time. Although scholars and Shakespeare fans will know there have been changes, audiences who don’t know Richard III will be unaware of the transformation. They will leave the theatre believing they have seen Shakespeare’s Richard III when they haven’t; they have seen an altered version.

Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company's
upcoming Titus Andronicus
In attributing the new version to Shakespeare, Stratford is presenting an erroneous vision of both the play and it’s author. In the process, Stratford is contributing to a trend that is all too popular in the theatre world - for decades, Shakespeare’s text has been adapted and altered, often without reference to exactly who is responsible. Audiences flock to see Shakespeare and instead get a play the Bard may not have wanted us to see.

The good folk at Stratford seem to know that even small changes are not immaterial, however, because when it came to altering Camelot, they took pains to get permission from the estate of Alan Jay Lerner (an example I would encourage all theatre producers to follow). However, they have not advertised the alterations and only by asking was I able to learn that it was director Gary Griffin who suggested them. Just as interpolating text from another play alters Richard III, I would suggest that deleting/ rearranging parts of the score  have created a Camelot different then the one Camelot’s creators intended. 

A song’s place in a musical is as essential to the show’s rhythm as dialogue, blackouts or fight scenes.

The removal or transference of any song can significantly change the mood and tempo of a musical. Take West Side Story, which features the comedic song Gee Officer Krupke in the middle of Act II. This was a source of debate between lyricist Stephen Sondheim and his fellow  collaborators – Sondheim thought that the comedic moment belied the seriousness of the narrative. When the movie version came along, the song was placed somewhere else, a decision which today Mr. Sondheim isn’t sure he applauds. (“I’m haunted by the feeling that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth” he said.) A song’s place in a musical is as essential to the show’s rhythm as dialogue, blackouts or fight scenes. One cannot rearrange the score without altering the show, a fact which Robert Blecker seems to admit when he told me (through Ms. Swerdfager) that the changes to Camelot were done to make the show “more dynamic”.

Regardless of one’s artistic opinions, Stratford should be acknowledging in all advertisements that the shows they are presenting are different then the originals. It hardly matters that the changes are minor – after all, who, aside from the author, has the right to decide what constitutes a “minor” change? How can we justify attributing a production to an author when it does not truly represent their vision? And where does it stop? Who gets to decide when “enough” changes have been made that we finally have to acknowledge that this isn’t the author’s work?

While I have great respect for many of these productions (Stratford’s included), I would suggest that our producers need to re-examine their attitude towards authors and their work.

I don’t think this is the result of any malice on the part of anyone at Stratford; their attitude simply reflects what has become the normal attitude towards writers across the artistic spectrum. One is tempted to blame the film industry, which celebrates the director at the expense of the screenwriter (the exception being when the director is the writer). But public domain authors like Shakespeare were under attack long before film was invented – consider Thomas Bowdler’s 19th century censored version of the canon. There, at least, the author of the changes was acknowledged (and even got his own word out of it – bowdlerization); but here in the theatre world, the general consensus seems to be that while we’re happy to celebrate authors, we’re equally happy to alter their work whenever it suits our needs. 

While I have great respect for many of these productions (Stratford’s included), I would suggest that our producers need to re-examine their attitude towards authors and their work. Two more productions of Shakespeare’s work are forthcoming here in Montreal: the Scottish Play (Repercussion Theatre) and Titus Andronicus (Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company). Neither have thus far advertised any alterations to their respective scripts;  only time will tell whether they decide to follow the popular trend.


  1. Note to the editor: Please don't make reading your work any more difficult. "... a new work that is different then the one left to us..." And, "... a play constitutes more then just dialogue." Please. It's a simple rule: Use "than" when comparing things.

    On to my comment:
    I remember the heated discussions when Gravy Bath did Coriolanus. The text was not altered. Rather, chunks of text and entire scenes were interpreted with something called "acting".

    Personally, I wanted to see the bloody-minded rancour, that was in the original text, between Marcius and the Senators, his mom, Aufidius and others, But, Madd Harold eventually provided our very contemporary audience with a "show", to borrow a term used early in the above article, that they would go home thinking about.

    Playwrights are special people that need hugs, a thesis written about them and a two column obituary in the Globe and Mail. Theatres, actors and directors need audiences.

  2. Playwrights are people...WHO need hugs. Sorry, Don, couldn't resist.


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