Katrina Bennett

Low Fidelity: The Case for Shakespeare’s Reinvention

Perhaps more so than any other Elizabethan writer, William Shakespeare was well aware of the necessity to keep his audience entertained — either that or face a bombardment of rotten fruit from the disgruntled groundlings. This was of course a time when many theatres doubled up as bear-baiting arenas, and the theatre audiences were unique for the mix of social classes and education levels of those in attendance.

Modern directors similarly understand the need to entertain, seeking to make Shakespeare continually engaging for contemporary audiences. The two adaptations of Macbeth that I saw in the past month clearly illustrate this to me: the first was a student production of Macbeth set in modern-day Scotland, where the word ‘c***’ reigned more supremely than either Duncan or Macbeth, and the second was an immersive production in rural Devon, with audiences guided through a candle-lit labyrinth of caves to discover Macbeth’s story. These two wildly different productions highlight directorial attempts to create new spaces in which to experience and understand Shakespeare, bringing something unique and illuminating to a text that is a well-trodden experience for many. However, some theatre critics still adamantly claim that fidelity to the original is the ultimate mark of good adaptation. Adaptation critics have widely dismissed this emphasis though, believing that it is unenlightening to judge an adaptation in terms of fidelity, as all productions are creative in their own right. Indeed, some believe that stories often need updating to find contemporary resonance with audiences. In this way, Shakespeare’s plays find themselves reappearing in all cultures and contexts, but often not to the taste of traditionalists.

In recent years, the Globe has become entangled in fidelity debates. Some believe it is the Globe’s duty to recreate the original experience of watching Shakespeare, particularly as a heritage space. This attitude clashed with the work of former Artistic Director, Emma Rice, who had just two short seasons at the Globe, from 2016-2018, before her acrimonious departure. The Globe’s board deemed Rice’s contemporary productions unsuitable, particularly her unconventional use of sound and lighting. Her Summer of Love season, for instance, brought disco hits and prog-rock to Twelfth Night, and the Village People’s YMCA, strobe lighting and nipple-tassels to Romeo and Juliet. Unsurprisingly, productions like this did not go down well with traditionalists, leading to Rice’s departure following pressure from the Globe’s board and Rice’s refusal to change her artistic style. Yet, we must ask, why attempt to create a production that is faithful to the original experience of attending the Globe? Most other elements of theatrical experience have changed since the 16th century, so why keep the play itself in a 16th century format? Presumably modern audiences would not want to use a cushion infested with plague-carrying fleas, or would feel it was acceptable that only male actors were permitted on stage. Nor would theatre rules still permit the sale of tobacco pipes in the auditorium to be smoked during performances. With fidelity of experience impossible to achieve in its entirety, should the Globe really be striving for a traditional experience at all?

‘Romeo and Juliet’ at The Globe, 2017. Image courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe

The Royal Shakespeare Company, while based in the historic space of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, makes no attempt to produce his plays in a manner akin to their original format, with productions consistently translating the texts into new contexts. This creative approach brings new meaning to Shakespeare’s writing, giving it renewed relevance for a modern audience. The RSC’s 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet, for instance was set in the modern day, making a poignant comment on the issue of gang knife crime in London and the way in which young people become unavoidably entangled within it, much like the characters embroiled into the tribal familial feuds between the Montague and Capulets. Similarly, their 2019 production of Taming of the Shrew swapped all the characters’ genders, bringing a new perspective on domestic abuse to a modern audience acquainted with ‘gaslighting’. In its gravitation towards the uncomfortable rather than the comedic, the production could also be viewed as engaging with current conversations about male well-being, and the possible difficulties for men to speak openly about issues like domestic abuse. To make points like this gave the play a renewed contemporary relevance, whereas a production in the play’s original format as a comedy would have felt incomprehensible, with a modern audience surely unable to laugh at the use of starvation, sleep deprivation and mental and emotional torture to tame a woman into patriarchal submission.

‘The Taming of The Shrew’ at the RSC, 2019. Image courtesy of The Times.

The RSC’s productions gain further resonance with their diverse casts, against what would have been traditionally all White casts, with Othello painfully performed in black-face make-up. As part of the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, the RSC set Much Ado About Nothing in modern day India, with an all Indian cast, and Julius Caesar in an African country, with all Black actors. Such productions cleverly use Shakespeare as a tool to celebrate diverse cultures and talents, rather than remaining constrained by its White English origins.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the RSC, 2012. Image by Ellie Kurttz, courtesy of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

Adaptations of Shakespeare not only bring different cultures to Shakespeare, but also create a space for Shakespeare within other cultures, further widening audience engagement. In its original form, Shakespeare can be pretty incomprehensible to non-native English speakers, and indeed incomprehensible to some native English speakers. Adaptation thus provides an opportunity for Shakespeare to be translated to other cultures, both in linguistic and cultural terms. A direct translation of Shakespeare to another language would not necessarily make it accessible, as often a comprehension of the social and cultural origins is necessary to understand linguistic nuances and the social norms from which key plot points stem. In a breach against fidelity, numerous directors create adaptations to suit a different cultural space, for instance the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, creating adaptations of Shakespeare like Throne of Blood (1957), based on Macbeth. This film translates Macbeth to a medieval Samurai context, drawing on conventions of Japanese painting and Noh drama — a form of classical Japanese musical drama developed in the 14th century which still remains popular today. As Western viewers would miss many of the film’s illusions to Noh, the same could be said of cultural illusions for a Japanese viewer watching a traditional production of Shakespeare. In essence, Kurosawa’s adaptation centres the universal theme of the downfall of men in a context widely appreciated and understood by a Japanese audience. By paralleling medieval Scotland with medieval Japan, Kurosawa shows that Shakespeare does not belong in a single traditional space, but instead quite the reverse, with an ability to be translated to virtually any context and still resonate with audiences.

‘Throne of Blood’, 1957. Image courtesy of Everett Collection/Rex Features.

The relatability of Shakespeare’s storylines and characters mean that they even find a place for themselves in teen rom-coms. For example, while you may assume that romantic relationships and their pursuit would have changed in the past 400 years, the useage of The Taming of the Shrew as a base for the plot of the 1999 motion picture 10 Things I Hate About You would suggest otherwise. What this says about the worryingly glacial rate of progress in gender politics since the 1590s is a conversation for another day, but films such as this undoubtedly have a hand in introducing Shakespeare’s work to new generations, who might just find the plays unexpectedly resonant to their own lives.

It is traditional in itself for directors to tailor Shakespeare’s plays to contemporary values, a fact seemingly forgotten by those who dismiss creative adaptations. For instance, the norms of Victorian England shaped Shakespearean productions of the period. The plays which most adhered to Victorian values became the most popular, for instance his plays featuring independent women appealed due to the parallels that could be drawn with the powerful Victoria. Shakespeare’s plays also faced restructuring, with a general belief that they must be cut substantially in order to be an acceptable length, and a craze for elaborate scenery which greatly slowed the dramatic narrative due to frequent pauses for scenery changes. With a centuries-long tradition of stamping productions of Shakespeare with a contemporary mark, why should that stop now?

A scene from ‘As You Like It’. Image courtesy of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

There is a space for Shakespeare in all periods and in all social and cultural contexts. We can argue that Rice’s departure from the Globe marks a suppression of creative freedom and narrow-minded prioritisation of fidelity which contravenes the development of unique adaptations elsewhere. However, perhaps given that Shakespeare can translate to anything and everything from teen pop drama to Japanese medieval samurai, maybe we should allow it to retain a space within its traditional environment too. While attending the Globe now can never truly embody the original experience, it still is as close as possible, and there is arguably value in experiencing it from a traditional perspective, as a historical symbol of its time. If audiences are hunting for the new and original instead, there are many other spaces where they can find that, and it seems that we must accept that the Globe is not that space.

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