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Monday, August 6, 2012

‘Updating’ Shakespeare–Who Says He Needs It?

In an article in a recent edition of the Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/shakespeare-meets-the-21st-century/2012/08/03/2562cc6a-d4ed-11e1-829d-8eedd9e3ac96_story.html Michael Kahn, the current art director of the Washington American Shakespeare Company argues for ‘modern’ interpretations of the playwrights works.  Having seen three unsuccessful productions of his company and a number of other similarly misguided attempts to place the works of Shakespeare within a contemporary context I could not disagree more – unless the adaptation makes sense and makes the work even more relevant and meaningful for audiences.

Three examples come to mind – The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello.  The staging of The Merchant of Venice had the the ‘Italians’ – i.e. the noblemen of Venice - dress and act like low-life hoods in New York’s Little Italy of the 30s; the Jews, all Hasidic, stereotypically pushed handcarts in the Lower East Side; and Portia and her retinue lived somewhere on the North Shore of Long Island.  Jan Kott, thought by many to be the originator of the idea of modern adaptations of Shakespeare, would have been very unhappy had he lived to see this production.  Kott had always argued that transforming Elizabethan England into some other era was all well and good if there were a good reason – if the staging added to the understanding of plot, character, or context.

Much Ado About Nothing was moved from Italy to pre-Revolutionary Cuba for no discernible reason.  The transformation added nothing.  The play through its costumes, sets, or staging provided no new insights into the antics of Benedick and Beatrice.  She was no more brilliant, mischievous, manipulating, and strong.  He was no less simpering, easily guiled, and enchanted.  Why, then, did the director choose to distract the audience? Why did he turn our attention from one of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines to the names he gave to the play’s lowlifes – Juan Huevos and Juan Frijoles – and create a furor in the Latino community who protested that they were racially insensitive?

The Staunton (VA) American Shakespeare Company produced a forgettable Hamlet last year.  The director did not change the costumes or settings (they were appropriately but not sumptuously royal), but ‘modernized’ Hamlet himself.  “To be or not to be” was spoken like a 21st Century teenager, full of insolence, indifference, and ‘whatever’.  To be or not to be?  Hey, dude, what a question.  I asked a woman who was one of the founders of the theatre about the performance and what was behind what I considered a terrible distortion of a character and a great soliloquy.  “He wants to be relevant”, she replied, the answer given again and again by producers and directors who want to fill seats.

I recently saw a DC production of Othello, and while it was a creditable production, it distorted the words and intent of Shakespeare for ‘relevance’.  Most of the scholarship today assumes that Othello never consummated his marriage to Desdemona.  Despite her vibrant and liberated sexuality and perhaps because of it, Othello finds every reason to avoid the marriage bed.  Yet on stage, before the play really opens, one sees Othello in Desdemona happily in love under the scrim of a canopied bed. 

There are some outstanding productions true to Kott’s vision of modernization for a reason.  Ian McKellen’s brilliant Richard III, set in some unnamed Nazi-like dictatorship was particularly powerful because it suggested how single-minded egomania cloaked with the mantle of supreme authority could easily become perverse, bloody, and destructive. It was fascinating to watch McKellen carry out his bloody plan while the costumes and the sets were transformed from an ordinary, unspecified but timeless era into Nazi Germany.

Peter Brook’s King Lear, a play favored and admired by Kott, was set in the bare, cold, rocky and hostile landscape of northern Denmark.  The actors were dressed in primitive skins and furs, lived in stables with the animals, and shivered against the wind and snow raging outside.  It was a ‘modern’ rendition of English pre-history; and gave the madness of Lear an even wilder, more primitive meaning.  The heath was not the English fens, but the wastes of a barren, desolate, and inhuman North.

There are pitfalls in such transformations, however. McKellen’s performance, however brilliant,  changes the meaning of the play.  The Richard III of Shakespeare’s text is a true Machiavellian character.  He pursues his ends without thought of morality, leadership, or governance.  His full and complete exercise of will is exhilarating.  It realizes the full potential of the human spirit described by Nietzsche.  We are fascinated by Richard, wonder where such ‘evil’ comes from, and are transfixed by his indomitable and amoral pursuit of his ends.  When he becomes Adolf Hitler we necessarily see him as a Nazi, and focus more on the nature of dictatorship than on the nature of evil.  Images of tanks and storm troopers only distract us from the real purpose of the playwright – to continue his story of the long line of English kings who killed for power, killed to retain it, and eventually were killed by others desirous of the same kingdoms.  Therefore, while Richard’s character is enhanced by the new and very familiar context of modern history, it at the same time loses its distinctness.  We see ‘Richard the Nazi’, rather than Richard, the Nietzschean hero.

Michael Kahn defends ‘modernization’ and adds additional nuance:

In a sense, all productions of Shakespeare are interpretations: We do not know the performance style of Shakespeare’s actors, so succeeding generations have adapted their performance to the dominant acting style of the day. In the past several decades, there has been a major shift from the beautifully voiced rhetorical approach, best exemplified by John Gielgud, to attempts to create a more conversational tone that still respects the rhyme and meter. We have no idea how Burbage looked, but the heavily operatic makeup as worn by the Laurence Oliviers and Michael Redgraves (de rigueur for the mid-20th century classical plays) has been replaced by little to none. Even though scholars disagree on what Elizabethan actors’ pronunciation sounded like, the assumption that U.S. actors must adopt an upper-class English accent to be “classical” has undergone a significant revision (as has the British actor).

The results are counterproductive.  The ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in the Staunton Hamlet was so offhand and indifferent as a result of this intent to make Shakespearean speech ‘more conversational in tone’.  The director took ‘conversational’ to mean colloquial, and hence transformed one of the most powerful, introspective, and troubled passage in literature into child’s play.

I understand Kahn’s motivation.  I am tired of declamations in the place of acting.  Anyone who watches Richard Burton as Hamlet understands that he is ‘acting’ and declaiming, rather than speaking from inside the tormented soul of the character.  Olivier turns Othello into a madman, thus degrading the nobility of the man, and turning our attention away from his own troubled psyche.  After watching all 37 Shakespeare plays produced by the BBC, I have to turn the sound off as actor after actor yells and screams. Somehow, directors assume that the intense dramatic nature of Shakespeare’s plays demands a similar intensity onstage; but such intensity can just as easily be portrayed without theatricality and bombast.  It is difficult to convey the inner mind of Hamlet, to be sure, or that of Macbeth, Othello, or any of the other tragic characters of the playwright’s work; but not impossible for a good actor.  So, I am with Kahn in helping to move Shakespearean acting off its traditional characterization; but I am not with him in assuming that making it ‘more conversational’ is the answer.

I believe all theater artists who approach these plays envy that encounter and explore strategies to re-create that experience in their own time. Some do it by erecting a historical space; others through the investigation of new theater practices that help connect modern audiences, raised on film and TV, to the material or that encourage audiences that perhaps have seen a particular play many times to look and hear it afresh.

The aesthetics of today’s directors come from a variety of influences and information: film, visual arts, psychology, sociology and new theater techniques but also iconic and resonant historical periods — the Weimar Republic, Freud’s Vienna, Stalinist, Prohibition, Victorian, etc. Their overwhelming desire is to illuminate the play they have chosen and to see it live onstage.

In principle, Kahn is right.  Directors should be as aware of modern historical, intellectual, and aesthetic trends as critics; but should use this understanding to enhance the play, not detract from it.  Harold Bloom and A.D. Nuttall, two of the best and most erudite critics of Shakespeare do just this – they look at recent and modern trends and incorporate them into their criticism.  Bloom has focused extensively on Nietzsche as a philosopher who would have been cited as an influence on Shakespeare had he pre-dated him.  As suggested above Richard III is a pure Nietzschean character, one beyond good and evil; so is Iago, Edmund, Aaron the Moor; and it is right for any director to be as aware of the moral mind of these characters and to act accordingly.  Frank Finlay, playing Iago to Olivier’s Othello, was brilliant in playing the choreographed, balletic destruction of his general.  Although there are many legitimate explanations of why Othello fell so precipitously from grace (Desdemona’s sexuality, his own, the chance handkerchief, his inability to make the elision from battlefield to civilian life, etc.), once one has seen Finlay’s Iago, the conclusion seems inescapable – there are purely evil men.

It is impossible to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or Othello without thinking of Freud.  More aptly, we can only wonder at the genius of Shakespeare who anticipated Freud by three hundred years.  As mentioned above, Shakespeare’s Histories are stories of political life and behavioral science today.  The endless round of palace plots and coups, expansionism, wars of liberation or terrorism, national defense or naked aggression are no different today than in the periods described by Shakespeare.  McKellen’s Richard III is a legitimate attempt to incorporate this theme – the persistent appearance of evil dictators throughout history – and despite the perils of such a modern adaptation, it is true to Kahn’s principles.

Feminist criticism has been useful in framing the characterizations of women in Shakespeare.  The playwright’s women are among the most memorable in theatre, and are in most cases far more interesting than the men.  One needs only think of the strong, dynamic, alive Cleopatra and compare her with the lovesick Antony.  Or Rosalind, Beatrice, Margaret, or Lady Macbeth. Post-modernist critics have rightly focused on sex and sexuality, sexual roles, and gender politics and have elucidated characters as different as Joan of Arc, Lavinia, Ophelia, and Desdemona.  

Measure for Measure is one of what I call Shakespeare’s ‘political plays’.  Along with Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, this play explores important elements of governance.  Many of the issues facing us today – such as the role of jurisprudence and punishment, mercy, prior history, and repentance – are discussed in this play.  It is a problematic play, for although it is a Comedy, it has tragic elements in it; but more than anything, it is a play about political philosophy.  Distracting the audience from the language of the play spoken by Isabella and Angelo (particularly in the first three acts) is a mistake; for although the play ends with everyone living happily ever after, married to the ones they deserve, it is an intellectual play.  Kahn takes another approach:

I am grateful that, years ago, Joseph Papp of the Public Theater asked me to direct “Measure for Measure” based on my production of an avant-garde play he’d seen off-off-off Broadway. It was important for me to create a decadent and specifically urban environment in which to explore the complex issues investigated in this often-ambitious text. I asked designer Ming Cho Lee to build a brick wall with something that looked like fire escapes to blot out the overwhelming sylvan beauty of Central Park. Papp hated it and wanted it changed, but it was too late. The production worked; the audience got it and so did the critics. It won a bunch of prizes, I began a career and Joe apologized. I felt passionately about the play and its resonance for New York at the time.

This apologia by Kahn says nothing about why he had the brick wall built, what he intended by it, and how it enhanced the play.  He only concludes that if the audience liked it, it must have been a good, faithful, and insightful interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.  I doubt it. From the modern adaptations that I have seen, unless done extremely thoughtfully, set theatricality is damaging and pointless.

Criticism from Hazlitt to Johnson to Bloom has all been enlightened by their times, and have given directors new ideas on which to base their productions.  The best directors have understood that Shakespeare’s plays, for all their external action, plotting, and adventure, are internal plays; and that the way to incorporate critical insights is to manage the soul of actors, not their voices.  In many ways the best Shakespearean sets are no sets at all, for they once and for all place the spotlight on what mattered to Shakespeare – the actors and their performance.






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