Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary was on the 23rd of April this year, bringing with it a fresh wave of theatrical innovation. On this occasion The Royal Shakespeare Company has gone further than any before, partnering with Intel and The Imaginarium to render a fully digital 3D character – Ariel the sprite from The Tempest – on stage. Rather than pre-recording Ariel’s movements, the digitally rendered Ariel will interact with actors on stage in real time. How will this work? The actor’s full performance (performed backstage) will be captured using a motion-sensing suit and simultaneously projected onto the stage. Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, explains that “the technology works by capturing an actor’s facial expressions as well as their movements, which ensures that [their] full performance is translated into the animated character.” Doran claims that by “combining theatrical skills with cutting edge technology”, Shakespeare’s work will reach “a whole new generation.” Meanwhile, the iconic Globe theatre, historic home to Shakespeare’s productions and intended as an exact replica to preserve Elizabethan theatre, has attracted scorn from critics and donors following the installation of amplifiers and colourful lighting for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham criticised the additions, saying “It’s pretty strange to have spent years fundraising to build a replica, so you can turn it into a sixth form disco.”
All this begs the question: does increased use of technology or conceptual innovation in Shakespeare’s plays credit his work or does it damage their authenticity? Certainly some think that tampering too much with the Bard’s work belittles his genius. In an interview for “Big Think”, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal complained of concept-driven Shakespeare, arguing that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be “transgressive.” “It’s actually now more common to see conceptual productions… [in] which Hamlet is played as a Nazi, or a homosexual,” he said.
However, there are several immediate problems with wanting to keep modern productions of Shakespeare staunchly authentic. Whilst the Globe was built with the view to experiencing Shakespeare as 17th century commoners did, in reality this level of authenticity is impossible. Modern pronunciation, evolved theatrical techniques and traditions, changed and lost meaning over time, and the presence of aeroplanes flying overhead are all unavoidable elements which destabilise the quest for authentic Shakespeare. For instance, now central to producing his plays, in Shakespeare’s time there were no directors. Actors were not given the whole script but only their their lines and their cues, which would be the last four or five words of the actor who would speak before. The actors directed their own movements, tweaking their gestures and expressions as they saw fit, and the text supplied cues of its own. For instance, Banquo’s “Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear…?” dictates Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’ prophecy. In the world of modern theatre such acting procedures are untenable. There is immense focus on detail; every actor has studied their character deeply and has an awareness of the whole script, with months of rehearsal in advance before the plays. Another, perhaps most important, difference between historical Shakespeare and modern theatre is the audience. The way the theatre delivers meaning and the audience receives it is framed in a vastly different cultural context. For instance, in Shakespeare’s day female parts being played by boy actors would hardly be as jarring as it is to a modern audience. Typically, between the ages of 14 and 22, boy actors were seen as somewhere between male and female. There are even recorded instances of men in the audience falling in love with boy actors, believing they were women. Given all these inhibitions, stagings of Shakespeare that aim for total authenticity in themselves arguably fall under the sphere of conceptual productions. Stanislvaski’s 1903 production of Julius Caesar, for example, aimed for an exact reproduction of the Capital and streets of Rome as they would have been in 55BC. Christopher Innes, a professor of English at York University, Canada, says this approach can be seen as an “extension of 19th century spectacular treatments of Shakespeare.” Modern productions of Shakespeare, therefore, constitute an endless cycle of interpretation. And isn’t this what Shakespeare would have wanted?
stagings of Shakespeare that aim for total authenticity arguably fall under the sphere of conceptual productions
Shakespeare was always deeply concerned that his plays be understood by the commoners who saw them at the time, and so it seems in the spirit of Shakespeare that stagings of his plays are adapted to deliver meaning to modern audiences. Moreover, one thing both 16th century theatre and modern theatre share is a love of special effects. The first-ever storm on the early modern stage was in Julius Caesar, a rolling cannonball was used to sound thunder. Cannons and fireworks were also used. Above all else, in Shakespeare’s time the playhouse was the most significant prop. The Globe had a trapdoor in the roof – ‘heavens’ – from which celestial beings could descend, and a trapdoor on the stage – ‘hell’ – from which demons could enter. The RSC’s Tempest and its digital Ariel, therefore, does not sever the production from authenticity, but continues Shakespeare’s innovative legacy in using the most exciting special effects the playhouse has to offer.
Of course, there should be spaces for truly authentic productions of Shakespeare, since attempts at these represent modern appreciation and understanding of his work in a historic context. However, claiming that increased use of technology in stagings of Shakespeare’s plays damages their authenticity seems counter to the Bard’s playful and innovative spirit. Shakespeare’s literary legacy is invaluable, and finding new ways to deliver his meaning to future generations is integral. In order to maintain theatrical authenticity, all too often confused with historical authenticity, classic works like Shakespeare’s should be kept living as part of an evolving theatrical and literary culture.