Is it Bard to mess with Shakespeare?

Absolutely not, says adaptation advocate OLI THICKNESSE, whilst Shakespeare purist LAURENCE TENNANT thinks if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

adaptations Baz Luhrmann cross dressing Hamlet laurence tennant Lion King oli thicknesse Shakespeare

“Experiment with it. Explore it. The themes are eternal”

Oli Thicknesse

Let’s start with my review of Hamlet from last week. Now, I have seen several traditional performances of the play, all of which were, to be fair, mediocre at best. Too many tights, too many ghosts in white sheets. But in all seriousness, the tendency for directors to lodge themselves firmly in the original context can all too often be dull and uninspiring.

On the other hand, I have never paid as much attention to the meaning of the language in Hamlet as I did last week, thanks to the inversion of the sex of the eponymous Dane. Sure, the beauty of the language wasn’t improved by the different interpretation – and many people will no doubt claim that anything other than the original setting will even distract from the power of Shakespeare – but it did imbue the lines with new meaning and depth.

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To she, or not to she

Call me an uncultured cretin, but who can honestly say that they enjoyed Franco Zeffirelli’s traditional film of Romeo and Juliet more than the Baz Luhrmann equivalent? Trust me, nobody came out of Zeffirelli’s film either quoting large chunks of Romeo’s opening lines (thanks Radiohead), or discussing the meaning of Mercutio’s drug-addled ‘Queen Mab’ speech. Sad but true.

Context creates interest, because you have something against which you can pit the drama in front of you. It has been done countless times: Throne of Blood, Forbidden Planet,O, Ian McKellen’s Richard III. Why would you shy away from bold interpretations of Shakespeare, when you can comment on racism in modern day America, or the nature of fascism in the 20th century?

In my view, it is rude not to do the following to the work of the Bard: mess around with it. Experiment with it. Explore it. The themes are eternal, and subsequently you should be allowed to do with it what you will. Why would you give yourselves limits, when the playwright has given you all the world as a stage?

Plus, if you claim that you don’t approve of messing around with Shakespeare, the logical inference is that you don’t like Walt Disney’s interpretation of Hamlet, The Lion King. And that would make you a bad person.

"A little more than kin, and less than kind"

“A little more than kin, and less than kind”

Keep it simple and “focus purely on the plays themselves”

Laurence Tennant 

The great Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson famously proclaimed that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!” Yet Jonson had not seen some of the bizarre modern travesties of Shakespeare: Hamlet as a boring corporate drama, The Tempest as SFX-saturated science-fiction or Macbeth as an awful Australian gangster film.

Anyone who has read and loved Shakespeare knows that there is a particular power and majesty to his language. Adaptations threaten to obscure his rhetorical beauty and foreground costumes, settings and starlets instead. Take Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, where lines are shouted and screamed in front of overwhelmingly kaleidoscopic backgrounds, to the extent that it is a farce to brand the movie a ‘Shakespearean’ adaptation at all.

Hawaiian shirts were all the rage in the Renaissance

Hawaiian shirts were all the rage in the Renaissance

Shakespeare wrote for a virtually bare stage, with the occasional coffin, throne, bed or rock functioning as a minimal prop, and fortunately several traditional adaptations today adhere to these conditions. This way, the audience can focus purely on the plays themselves – and when we go to see performances of the masterpieces of the Bard of Avon, Britain’s best playwright and poet, why would we settle for anything less?

I am not suggesting that we should obsessively try to copy Renaissance theatrical circumstances. After all, women tend to play women better than young boys do.

I just oppose Shakespeare done entirely in drag, say, if this novelty threatens to blunt the force of Shakespeare’s words, which already have a kind of universality and freshness built into them.

Olivier: pure and simple

Olivier: pure and simple

Barack Obama’s election rallies wouldn’t work if he gave them cross-dressed. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be the same if it was adapted into a New York mob thriller. So why do directors think that they can transplant Shakespeare onto the most ridiculous contexts successfully?

It’s often an attention-grabbing stunt, but Shakespeare purists like Laurence Olivier who deliver the lines with perfection will always be remembered before those with no respect for the poetry that, in Coleridge’s words, “never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place.”