When I was a student, I remember travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) latest production of Measure for Measure. Having spent so long studying the play for my upcoming exams, the modern adaptation of the play (it was staged in Vienna during the World Wars) took me aback and I couldn’t quite process it. Did it bring the text alive, or did it confuse me further? I think, on balance, it inspired me to think more creatively about the characters and their relationships, but I could also see lots of other students scratching their heads. Was this the play they had studied for hours on end? Since then, I have seen many more adaptations of Shakespeare’s works and some have definitely worked more for me, as an audience member, than others.  As we approach the end of Shakespeare’s birthday month, we are asking the question–do modern adaptations of Shakespeare work for YOU?

First up, let’s take a look at the facts. Shakespeare was born in April 1564, possibly on April 23, although there is some contention as to whether this is correct (we know that he also died on this date in 1616, aged 52). He wrote his now-famous plays and sonnets during the Elizabethan / Jacobean era and they were largely performed by his theatre company, The King’s Men. This was a time when women were banned from performing on stage and female parts were performed by young, adolescent males. Unlike most playwrights of his time, Shakespeare’s works have not only survived but thrived to become the most performed and studied texts in the English language.

Over 400 years after his death, Shakespeare’s works have been adapted, modernized, twisted, and deconstructed many times over. It is not only time periods that have been switched; genders are often swapped, sexuality questioned, and the text itself is sometimes changed. But are these changes for the better or worse?

YAY – we love a modern retelling of Shakespeare!

First of all, we should remember that adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are not a new phenomenon. The celebrated English actress, Sarah Bernhardt, became one of the most famous female Hamlets in 1899, although the first recorded female performance of the part took place over a hundred years earlier. Bernhardt unveiled her new take on the role in London, before touring with the production across Europe and America. While her performance met with a mixed critical reception and divided audiences, it paved the way for other actresses to take up the mantle of some of the most famous Shakespearean male roles. We are no longer astounded at the idea of a female Shylock or an all-female production of Julius Caesar.

I was in an all-female production of Twelfth Night recently and, in a text that already plays around with the idea of gender and desire, the further possibilities for lightheartedly exploring these themes are intriguing. This year, London’s Globe Theatre has announced that their season will kick off with three of the Bard’s history plays–Henry IV  Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V–with the role of Prince Hal/Henry V performed by a woman. So, what’s the big deal? It’s the twenty-first century and should we / do we need to stick to strict gender traditions if new adaptations offer an exciting, fresh take on Shakespeare’s work? Perhaps no production presently best exemplifies this than Glenda Jackson’s critically lauded take on King Lear. 

Equally, time travel has become the norm. In fact, I would argue, it is now probably less common to go and see one of Shakespeare’s plays staged in its original setting than to see it transported through time and space. The present production of King Lear at New York’s Cort Theater updates the location from Ancient Britain to “a glossy wasteland that riffs on a Trump Tower conference room” (The Guardian April 5, 2019). The current production of Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard’s Theater presents a decidedly modern costume design, with the strains of Enya accompanying the opening scene. And we could go on…..

For many, the modernization of Shakespeare opens the door to an often hidden world. Shakespearean language is suddenly no longer a scary thought, barriers are broken down and cast aside, and classical theatre becomes accessible to those who never thought it possible. (We could also delve into the many contemporary film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works but we don’t have the time!) Modernization also shakes off the mothball-effect. After all, these plays have been around for a LONG time. Shaking them up, changing the dynamics, and re-telling them for a modern audience keeps them vibrant and alive…and relevant.

NAY- leave Shakespeare alone!

However, for some, there are limits to how much you can muck around with Mr. Shakespeare. One of the most frequently asked questions at the Globe Theatre box office is whether a production is in modern or traditional dress. Part of this may be to do with the type of theatre / institution and the expectations that abound from that. The RSC and the Globe are so tightly associated with Shakespearean tradition and history, that a modern day production jars in the minds of many prospective audience member. The joy of classical theatre has gone. And let’s put this in an academic text. As a student, studying the text, does a modern landscape with contemporary costume, set, props etc distract from the important historical context of the play?

Furthermore, some disgruntled critics argue that removing the Shakespearean text from its traditional staging becomes a game to see which director can come up with the latest concept-driven, progressive production–all about the director, rather than the text. For it is undeniable that the joy of Shakespeare lies within the text itself. The beauty, the poetry and the imagery can all be found in the script. The danger therefore lies in losing the focus of these words for the sake of a new concept. Many a production has been criticized for this mistake but is this fair?

The debate continues…Have you seen a modern production that wowed and gave you a different perspective on the Bard? Or, indeed, do you have one production that sticks in your mind as a misguided attempt to revise Shakespeare’s work?

Or perhaps you are intrigued by the different theatrical takes on Shakespeare’s work? Aside from the original plays, there are numerous musicals and operas that have been inspired by the Bard. Why not check out our guides to Kiss Me KateReturn to the Forbidden Planet,  Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical, or perhaps Verdi’s Falstaff?

While you have a think, take our short, fun quiz below to test out your knowledge on Shakespearean productions with a twist (the answers can be found in StageAgent’s show guides…!)

  1. Who starred in Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet alongside Claire Danes?
  2. Which eighteenth-century actress was the first known female to take on the role of Hamlet?
  3. Which actor played Olivia in The Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night in full Elizabethan dress?
  4. Which tragedy was transformed into a British-French-American historical war film in 2015?
  5. Which British writer (often associated with Doctor Who) adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the BBC in 2016?

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