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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
Updating Shakespeare's Plays
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0421  Sunday, 2 August 2009

[1] From:   Sam Small <
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     Date:   Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 15:36:43 +0100
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays

[2] From:   Hannibal Hamlin <
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     Date:   Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 16:18:19 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Sam Small <
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Date:       Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 15:36:43 +0100
Subject: 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays

There's nothing wrong with updating Shakespeare as long as the setting 
does not suggest a sub-text that was not in the main text. To give an 
example of a theatrical gaffe which was, in fact, a film. Ian McKellen's 
Richard III portrayed Gloucester as a Nazi general who wanted to be some 
sort of English dictator -- or something. You can see his thinking. 
Gloucester was nasty and powerful. Hitler was nasty and powerful. But 
then the directorial thinking collapses and makes a play into a mockery.

The Nazis were idealists. They believed that with science and the 
military they could make the world perfect; a National Socialist Garden 
of Eden. Goring constantly repeated that the Nazi movement was 
revolutionary; Mrs Goebels killed her children so that they "would not 
see a world without National Socialism". From Hitler all the way down 
they believed in the mad dream. To believe otherwise is not only to miss 
a very great lesson of mortal history but also to be criminally naive.

Gloucester had no Nazi notions. That was the whole point of the play. He 
was a gross, selfish criminal with no regard for human life. He felt he 
deserved the top position but once achieved felt empty and wretched. The 
only antidote was more risk and more fighting. Of course, the Nazis were 
all of this but they were very much more. That's why they were so 
terrifying.

So, set your play anywhere and anytime but don't confuse world politics 
with inner nightmares.

SAM SMALL

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Hannibal Hamlin <
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Date:       Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 16:18:19 -0400
Subject: 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0419 Updating Shakespeare's Plays

Terry Hawkes raises some intriguing theoretical issues, but what is 
fodder for cultural critics is still perhaps inedible for the 
theater-goer. I agree that the presuppositions behind modernizations of 
Shakespeare might, if there were explored, reveal some significant 
popular misconceptions about both Shakespeare and literature-theater 
more generally. I'm not sure, though, that it's quite so neat as the 
historical/transhistorical dichotomy implies. Shakespeare is deeply 
meaningful to me, and this meaning is a mix (muddle?) of the historical 
and the present, in that the more I know about Shakespeare's own time 
and culture the richer my understanding of the plays, but they wouldn't 
mean nearly as much to me if I didn't also feel they explored questions, 
problems, situations and such that I can "relate" to (ugh! horrible 
word), in ways that make sense to me now. To sing praises of the Bard's 
universality is naive and inaccurate; having taught high school for 
several years, I can attest that Shakespeare is not automatically 
embraced by everyone. But still. That Peter Brook, Akira Kurosawa, and 
Gregori Kozintsev were all drawn to make films of King Lear says 
something about the way in which the play addresses a human condition 
that, if not universal, is pretty widespread. Of course, the play means 
different things to different readers, so what these three directors 
understand by the literary entity "King Lear" may not entirely coincide. 
But still.

Shifting back to the theatre experience, what bothers me about many 
productions that drag the plays into one sensational period or another 
is that the directors of such productions show a sophomoric sense of the 
"relevance" of earlier literature. A brilliant production of King Lear 
will resonate for its audience in ways that may well affect their 
thinking and feeling about other human situations of injustice, cruelty, 
suffering, and political and family dysfunction. To hamfistedly bang the 
round peg of the play into the square hole of Kosovo, or 1930s Berlin, 
or Imperial Japan ends up reducing the play and its relevance. It also, 
more basically, results in silliness. I saw a Romeo and Juliet in 
Cleveland some years ago where the young men had their sword fight with 
rapiers, but wearing pajamas amidst a stage covered in mattresses. 
Tybalt stabbed Mercutio in the usual way, but later on Romeo entered 
seeking vengeance and from across the stage blew Tybalt away with a 45. 
Even the inexperienced college students who were with me realized this 
was dumb.

By contrast, when Kurosawa wants to express his thinking about Lear in 
the context of feudal Japan, he makes Ran, an original and brilliant 
work that is obviously indebted to Shakespeare's play but which doesn't 
try to force the 17th century text into a foreign mold. In the same week 
that I saw the DC King Lear, I saw a new play by Sheila Callaghan called 
Fever/Dream at Washington's Wooly Mammoth Theater. The play was 
marvelous, and the production a delight. As all the press for the play 
noted, it was based on Calderon's Life is a Dream, and for those in the 
audience who knew the original, the modern rewriting was all the more 
sharp and witty. Instead of groaning at some stupid attempt to set 
Calderon on Wall Street, one could admire the way in which the original 
work made the transition while preserving so many connections. This 
seems closer to what Shakespeare himself was doing in adapting materials 
for his own plays.

If Shakespeare really is so relevant -- universal if you like -- let the 
audience see how. If he does require so much painful updating, then 
maybe he isn't so relevant after all and needs rewriting. We all dump on 
Nahum Tate for his happy-ending adaptation of Lear, and I'd much rather 
see Shakespeare's original, but perhaps he was at least more honest than 
most modern directors dare to be.

Hannibal

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