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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
Updating Shakespeare's Plays
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0414  Thursday, 30 July 2009

From:       Robert Projansky <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 03:29:23 -0700
Subject: 20.0402 Updating Shakespeare's Plays
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0402 Updating Shakespeare's Plays

Sorry, but I think "updating" is Newspeak for what is routinely done to 
Shakespeare's plays. Using actresses, typing, modern sets, photocopied 
computer-edited scripts, e-mailed rehearsal schedules, recorded 
music/not-visible musicians, audio amplification, electric stage 
lighting, polyester-nylon-Velcro costumes, turntables, hairspray, video 
projections, dry ice, smoke machines, etc., etc., etc. -- that's 
updating, a whole brave new world of wonderful tools. But planting MND 
in a '70s disco or TS in 1915 Arizona is not "updating"; it is travesty, 
hubris, failure.

If you present "Death of a Salesman", nobody thinks it needs to be set 
in war-torn Kosovo or colonial Bombay or in any place or any time other 
than when and where Arthur Miller put it. So why does it seem necessary 
to so many directors to visit their abusive improvements upon 
Shakespeare? You can never force any of the plays into a director's 
alien place/time "concept" without doing some injury to the play. Trying 
to do Kosovo or colonialism or Vietnam or fascism or the antebellum 
south or the wild west or Wall Street or Miami and the mob just doesn't 
ever work. It can't work. Shakespeare's world is the warp and woof of 
his work. Sad to say, such conceptual hogwash is now the norm and 
Shakespeare played straight the aberration. Stacey Keach and everyone 
else in that DC production deserved a chance to do "King Lear", not 
"King Lear Dragged Mindlessly Into the Balkans". But, you say, you want 
to acknowledge some particular inhumanities of our own age on your 
stage? Great! Produce Caryl Churchill then, or Tony Kushner or Ariel 
Dorfman, but Balkan horrors don't belong in Shakespeare's "King Lear".

I think these kinds of practices usually come either from directors' 
foolish ambitions (Watch clever ME breathe life into this boring old 
thing!) or out of an inappropriate lack of confidence in their audience 
(Dear old Shakespeare won't be enough; we'll have to give 'em boaters 
and seersucker and a brass band too). And sometimes the director just 
wants to see 1920s-30s silk gowns and evening dress onstage -- for no 
good reason.

The only non-period productions I have ever seen and thought a success 
have been low- or no-budget shows, essentially setless with abstract 
costuming (say, all in black but Desdemona in white). Among the best of 
these -- but hardly a low-end show -- was the RSC's MND I saw at the 
Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2000, directed by Michael Boyd. The 
all-white set made no attempt to be the Duke's palace or the forest. The 
costumes I remember were little more than ordinary rehearsal-style 
clothes. The high-energy show concentrated on the language and the 
action, with some brilliant use of props (and Hermia Thrown 
Astonishingly High and Far!), and it was very funny. Michael Boyd, 
however, did not try to force the play into another place and time; 
instead, his very stylish and stylized production scanted illusionistic 
stage elements in favor of visual abstraction that looked like no time 
or place at all. Although the background was different, the Duke's wood 
and the royal trappings and the fairy world, as they would have been 
four hundred years ago, were pretty much left to your imagination. A 
fantasy played as -- a fantasy. I loved it.

Shakespeare's plays present opportunity enough for any director to shine 
without resort to trying to jam the square peg of the play into a round 
hole of the director's choice. Directors who cannot see that shouldn't 
be directing Shakespeare (or maybe anything at all). They are missing a 
sure-fire high concept for success that is always right there in front 
of them:  Shakespeare is first of everything his language, so bring the 
play to life in the language and keep it moving, give them rousing 
fights and good music, and try to find all the comedy in the play. Can't 
miss. No body bags required.

Best to all,
Bob Projansky

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