The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Presentist Shakespeare

Catherine Tate (Beatrice) and David Tennant (Benedick) in Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre, London, directed by Josie Rourke. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

 

 

Two very different quotations I came across today get right to the heart of the debate about Shakespeare adaptation:

In the red corner we have Brad Bevitt, who can’t see the point of dressing Shakespeare up in modern clothes and retaining all the original verse. He’s specifically discussing the new Coriolanus adapted by Ralph Fiennes, which from the trailers looks bloody but very intriguing:

If you’re going to adapt a Shakespearean play into a modern age story, then adapt it! Don’t just take the play, use the same words and scenes, put on updated clothes and stand around in updated architecture. That’s just confusing the point and as proven here, results in a film destined for death by boredom.

Okay, so it seems RF is a fan of presentist Shakespeare – that is, his words have a timeless relevance. You can transpose them to just about any period and they have something to say to us. Put your actors in 21st century battle fatigues, give them cellphones and machine guns, but that’s all the”relevance” you need. The language will speak for itself and it’s not for us to interfere. And I must admit, I’ve a lot of sympathy with that view. I love a production where the actors respect the poetry, rather than phrasing the lines like something out of a police procedural on TV.

I’ve seen many productions, and blogged about a good few of them, where the director’s vision was shouting so loudly that the lines Shakespeare originally wrote could not compete. My favourite recent Lear remains Jacobi’s, because it did away with all that noise. Having said that, a well-conceived update can throw the play wide open in a truly exciting way. I’m thinking of something like the RSC/Baxter African-set Tempest last year.

Even a less than 100% successful revisioning can be worthwhile. For example, I had issues with the Eighties vibe in the recent Much Ado starring Tennant and Tate (mainly that it’s hard to accept the attack on Hero’s supposed lack of virtue after a convincing promiscuous drunken stag night scene) – but it gave me lots to think about and shed new light on the military-on-furlough setting of the play.

Yet it can’t be denied that some of the best adaptations take tremendous liberties with the original text, right up to and including a total rewrite. The celebrated Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet had less than 40% of the original lines in it. Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood had none. Yet both felt, in their different way, utterly true to Shakespeare’s vision. And the great man himself would probably have been incredulous at the idea that we should treat his lines as Holy Writ. He must have spent his working life cutting and pasting them.

Before we get too embroiled in the Campaign for Real Verse it’s worth submitting ourselves to the splash of cold water offered by Noel Gallagher. He sat through Jude Law’s Hamlet in complete bafflement and came to the conclusion that the Bard wrote “f***ing gibberish.”

Does it matter what an inverted snob loudmouth musician thinks? I think it does. He may be ranting for effect and to piss off people like Damon Albarn with his John Dee opera, but you can’t deny that he speaks for the vast majority of people outside the charmed circle of culture and academia.

I’d love to know what he made of Hamlet, House of Horror. At least it’s only 75 minutes long. It also happens to be brilliant, and the best scene in it is the 100% rewritten, utterly cynical and hilarious gravedigger’s monologue over Ofelia (sic)’s dead body.

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