Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Staging Shakespeare, Part I: The Bad

If you’ve seen a Shakespeare play recently, you know exactly where this Onion headline is coming from: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Modern directors seem to assume that what audiences find most difficult about Shakespeare’s plays isn’t their language, but the socio-political relevance of their settings. So directors displace the plots, characters, and even the language into what they estimate is a modern equivalent of the original place and time.

A few months ago, we saw a staging of The Taming of the Shrew that maintained the play’s original language, but combined plot lines, altered scenes, and took place in a trailer park in some un-named and stereotypical part of the Deep South. To be fair, the set was impressive, complete with a dirty kiddy pool, a picnic table, and even a trailer with a porch and an old refrigerator outside. But this set underscored the absurdity of the director’s adaption: why set a play in so different a time and place without also changing the language? Presumably because the language is impossible to improve upon. But transferring Shakespeare's language into a totally different setting makes both the language and the setting seem…ridiculous. Neither is realistic, neither is credible. Of course, the director of this version of The Taming of the Shrew had a political point to make. That play troubles modern audiences, so he wanted to emphasize the cruelty Kate experiences. At the same time, as he explained in the playbill, he set it in the present to show that the situation of women really hasn’t made much progress since Shakespeare’s day, and are still treated like cattle. (He actually used the metaphor. Who should be insulted by this remark, the women in the audience or the men?)

In 2005 we saw a performance of Julius Caesar that, while less excessive, was still very frustrating because it was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This production was set in some vague recent time, which we could tell because for the first three acts, the actors wore suits rather than togas. That adaptation doesn’t require much of an imaginative leap, because we have an easy time imagining that today’s politicians don’t differ much from Roman ones. Things became less convincing at Act IV, when the politicians traded their suits for camouflage uniforms and semi-automatic machine guns. Today’s politicians declare wars; they don’t actually fight in them. The people we had been imagining as politicians suddenly seemed like grown men running around in plastic toys. We were embarrassed for them. The director’s decision actually highlighted the differences between Caesar’s time and ours, which we suspect was the opposite of what he wanted.

Perhaps directors make such decisions in part to show how relevant Shakespeare still is. We can appreciate that, because we agree. But displacing the time and place of the original plays without adapting the language—without writing a new script, basically—is a clunky device that makes both the director and Shakespeare seem foolish and irrelevant. (And it’s also a bit condescending to the audience, as if we couldn’t identify the play’s relevance to modern times without the director’s heavy-handed help.) If we wanted modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, we’d rent The West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, or Scotland, PA . The language wouldn’t be as beautiful, but at least we wouldn't get the sense that it was being yoked onto totally different. (And in the case of Scotland, PA, we’d get to enjoy some Bad Company all movie long!)

But the news isn’t all bad. We’ll continue post a heartening sequel to this missive over the weekend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So back in the land of the living.
I hope your summary will give thanks to the poor starving priest who sacrificed his all to buy your ticket!
Your brother should have my current email if you wish to re-establish contact.