Karl Falconer is an award-winning theatre and film director based in England. His work with Shakespeare and classical drama has been staged across the UK and Ireland, and he has produced work in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre amongst others. His work has received support and praise from key industry figures including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Brannagh and more. His production of King Lear will tour in July.
There’s been a lot reported lately about the Pros and Cons of altering Shakespeare for modern audiences. Is it permissible to change a word or cut a speech if there are fears it won’t register with the listener? Or should we work harder and value the text more?
At PurpleCoat, we’ve had a long history of experimenting with Shakespeare. When we first started, my attitude was largely irreverence: it’s only a play. This led to some heavy handed conceptualisation and overt attempts to make the text “relevant”. It signaled us out as doing Shakespeare differently: it felt like a breath of fresh air from the stuffy, black and white Shakespeare we’d been subjected to in school. It certainly wasn’t male, pale and stale.
Yet while I find myself in agreement with Emma Rice, the new artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London, that we shouldn’t treat Shakespeare as a history lesson, our work with Shakespeare never saw us modifying his text. We’ve set Romeo and Juliet in Vegas, Hamlet in the 1980’s, and cut a lot of lines along the way. But never changed the text.
For all of Shakespeare’s virtues, there are times when his plays need work. He borrowed most of his plots, and as a result, they can often feel convoluted or overly complex. Sometimes this is part of their genius and sometimes it is part of their intrinsic difficulties. Whether we like it or not, today we exist in a post-cinema world. Our attention span is increasingly shortening as our culture becomes more reactionary, and the prospect of sitting in silence in a darkened auditorium in a seat with little leg room becomes more and more alien to the general population. Indeed, it’s probably a large part of the preconception which holds many people back from attending the theatre at all.
I’ve never been against cutting Shakespeare down. I think you gain no benefit other than smug points for performing Shakespeare un-cut. My first experience of performing Shakespeare was a thirty minute Richard III when I was in high school. Bums get numb and we are increasingly used to films in the cinema lasting 90 minutes, and a chance to pop the loo in the theatre coming not much after an hour. Forcing people to sit through four hours instead of, three or two,, seems to be making Shakespeare a needless endurance event. And for those struggling with the language in the first place, this could be paramount to torture!
What’s the big problem with the language then? The Globe’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been going down a storm, opening a lot of people’s eyes to the possibility of Shakespeare. When a punchline hangs on a word that we no longer use, it’s been modified. Perhaps substituted for something more contemporary. Perhaps adding lines of modern dialogue to move the action along. The benefits of this are certainly clear, and for anyone desperate to be stuffy about this, we need only look at the results of a recent survey which list many non-English speaking countries as claiming to enjoy Shakespeare more than England itself. In fact just 58% of adults in England claim to understand and enjoy Shakespeare. In India its 85%. The possible link? Many non-English speaking countries teach and introduce students to adaptations and translations of Shakespeare’s plays in their own languages. From Brazil, to India to Russia; the majority of productions and films of Shakespeare outside the English speaking world exist in this way. This means that a Japanese production of Macbeth, presented in Japanese, doesn’t sound 400 years old but brand new. The equivalent of us re-writing Shakespeare in modern English now.
For some reason I can’t see that taking off in England: and I think this says a lot about our national stubbornness, which isn’t particularly hopeful. But at the same time as the Globe’s forward thinking attitude is opening people’s eyes to the humour and magic of Shakespeare, a concurrent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Royal Shakespeare Company is working with hundreds of school-children to give them the opportunity to perform the Bard themselves. In the RSC’s Play For The Nation, Midsummer tours across the UK with local school children as the fairies and amateur performers as the Rude Mechanicals. In a recent interview with the Guardian, deputy artistic director, Erica Whyman, speaks of her enjoyment of seeing the children understand Shakespeare, ‘They have no sense that they shouldn’t understand it. They haven’t yet lived in the world that tells them it’s not cool to understand it or the majority of the population don’t understand it.’ This is Shakespeare, raw and emotionally charged. This is the Shakespeare that Shakespeare wrote.
There’s an inevitable sense that something special has been lost if we change Shakespeare’s language. Most of his plots and characters were second hand, pieced together from lesser plays and chronicles. His genius was in the voice that he gave to these characters, and they find their extraordinary depth and feeling through the words they find to express themselves.
Shakespeare can be difficult. Tackling a play like King Lear, you become aware of how emotionally draining and simply… full… the language is: but this makes our role as tellers of this story even more important. It is our job to focus your attention on the words and on the emotional intensity of this beautiful poetry. When the words are handled sensitively and delivered properly, Shakespeare can make you listen and understand him on a level beyond anything else. It enters your heart and soul and you find yourself moved because of the language, not in spite of it.
We look forward to speaking Shakespeare’s most intense poetry in King Lear next month.