I am a sucker for Shakespeare. Whenever I say that to people I tend to be met with looks of disgust or confusion; apparently Shakespeare isn’t an overly ‘cool’ thing to like as an 18 year old. I give the excuse that I’m an English student from Stratford-Upon-Avon so I have no excuse not to like him.
to modernise or not to modernise? That certainly is the question
Working as a Front of House assistant at the Royal Shakespeare Company back at home comes with its fair share of comedy. Being the front faces of the theatre, you get the grinning faces of audiences leaving the theatre, yet also the “that was absolute rubbish – this is not Shakespeare” or slightly ruder versions thereof which, sadly, is becoming a common occurrence. These kinds of complaints aren’t just confined to the RSC; I remember listening to a man shout at an usher after the National Theatre’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ starring Tamsin Greig last year. Learning to smile, nod, and take a lecture from a 60-something-middle-class-white gentleman about Simon Godwin’s production of Hamlet set in an African military state and starring Paapa Essiedu has become unsurprising now. The Royal Shakespeare Company aims for their theatre to reach as many people as possible, and I certainly believe that they have accomplished this. So why are modern adaptations of Shakespeare that inspire a new generation of theatre-goers with their injection of a contemporary buzz into their shows boring so many others?
apparently Shakespeare isn’t an overly ‘cool’ thing to like as an 18 year old
I imagine one of the most frequently bought books in the RSC gift shop is probably one of the ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ translations of plays, which patrons often flick through whilst watching performances. However, the accessibility to Shakespeare’s beautiful yet somewhat alien language is a key reason as to why his productions are modernised. Surely, it’s simple – you allow more young children to access Shakespeare from a younger age and the new generation of theatre goers are born. Not only can people understand the language better, but the characters, plot, and messages of the play are so much more poignant and relatable for modern audiences. Additionally, these modern productions also heighten the themes and messages that are prevalent today. For example, amidst the Times Up Movement and other poignant campaigns in the theatre industry, Blanche McIntyre’s modern production of ‘Titus Andronicus’ explored Lavinia’s rape and torture in such a way that arguably left a more resonating message with audiences than it would if it were in traditional dress. Therefore, modernising Shakespeare surely serves a greater purpose for all ages.
…modernising Shakespeare surely serves a greater purpose for all ages
Although, it is certainly not only the bleak, dark and tragic plays that modernising shows works for. The most recent RSC production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was probably the most fun to work for this summer. Not only did you get some of the more senior patrons leaving with some pithy one-liners said to me at the door, but the TOWIE inspired production by Fiona Laird was an instant success, meaning audiences from a wider demographic, age and culture, were able to understand and fully enjoy the comedy of the show. Modernising Shakespeare has since begun to manifest itself in many other ways. From the production of ‘The Tempest’ in 2016 that worked with Intel to have projections and holograms throughout the performance, to companies such a ‘Sh*t-faced Shakespeare’, a broader and wider approach to enjoying Shakespeare has since developed. So, what is the big issue then? If more people are understanding and enjoying Shakespeare plays, then surely, we are keeping the legacy of some of the greatest works of literature alive for contemporary audiences to enjoy, as well as emphasising his work as an emblem of national pride?
the accessibility to Shakespeare’s beautiful yet somewhat alien language is a key reason as to why his productions are modernised
However, many would disagree. My flatmate, who worked at the Globe Theatre during her gap years relates how: “Whether or not a show is in modern or traditional dress was probably the most commonly asked question at the box office”. Both the RSC and the Globe are globally recognised as being the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s work and heritage, so for many international visitors, these institutions should be there to preserve the typical Elizabethan drama that has since been reserved to the history books, and not many other theatre companies. Interestingly, both the Globe and the RSC have seen a shift in artistic vision when it comes to modernising Shakespeare. Emma Rice’s dramatic exit from the Globe over “modern lighting” was replaced with Michelle Terry’s classical versions of Shakespeare, in addition to the RSC’s transition from Michael Boyd to Greg Doran. Despite the lasting legacy that Boyd has undoubtedly left on the company, he also argues that “you get less juice out of the plays if you set them in the present”. Doran’s latest season ‘Windsor’ occasionally saw senior members of the audiences leaving half way through, clearly due to ‘less juice’ which in particular, Polly Findlay’s ‘Macbeth’ and Erica Whyman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ supposedly lacked.
Is it just stingy to not accept a youthful injection of fun into the bard’s work?
So, to modernise or not to modernise? That certainly is the question. Whilst modernising Shakespeare certainly does attract the next generation of budding theatre goers, it also arguably kills the age of classical theatre and performances of Shakespeare that it is typically renowned for. However, is it just stingy to not accept a youthful injection of fun into the bard’s work? The debate continues…