An unchallenged assumption made by our society is that, in order to be cultured, one must be nuanced in the theatrical canon; ‘the best’ of our literary past. If you want to build up a successful theatre company, then of course you must dabble with Beckett. Want to make it as a director? Simply litter your career with Shakespeare. Kenneth Branagh has clearly tried to enhance his own prestige in this way, recently staging two successful Shakespearean plays at The Garrick. These so called ‘great plays’ of their respective generations permeate our dramatic culture, being reproduced thousands of times. But is this not to the detriment of 21st century playwriting talent?
Let us take the well-known example of Shakespeare. Our society is hell bent on insisting the mystical qualities of ‘the Great Bard’. Yes, most of Shakespeare’s 37 plays are indeed phenomenally written. His tragedies are highly emotive, his comedies often downright hilarious. However, what compels theatre critics like Michael Billington to insist that six of his plays be featured amongst ‘The 101 Greatest Plays’? What gives newspapers like the Telegraph the right to publish online lists entitled ‘Best plays of all time’, in which Shakespeare dominates? There is undoubtedly an air of pretentiousness that surrounds any casual references made in our society to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chekhov and the likes. However, the words ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ are thrown around far too eagerly in my opinion.
Here in Durham, student theatre companies are themselves often guilty of ‘playing it safe’ and resorting to traditional ‘classics.’ Plays like The Seagull, A Christmas Carol and The Crucible all graced the stage in Michaelmas term, and Shakespeare’s own Richard III was staged just last week.
Meanwhile in London’s theatre circuit, five Shakespearean plays are also being re-staged. These include Othello and Much Ado About Nothing – but most notably another adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by the Almeida Theatre Company.
Ah yes, Hamlet: if one wanted to see the syndrome of ‘trying too hard’ in action, look no further than its recently performed adaptations. In 2008 there was great excitement when it was announced that David Tennant would play ‘the Prince of Denmark,’ but the media had another field day in 2015 when Sherlock sensation Benedict Cumberbatch stepped into the role. Seemingly anyone who’s anyone just has to play ‘The Great Dane’, or are they even a legitimate theatrical actor? But the problem with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the so-called Holy Grail of theatre, is this: the actors are itching to play the one part that will skyrocket their careers, the reviewers are hungry to criticise the protagonist in comparison to his predecessors, and the details of the play itself? Immemorable.
Deadline’s critic Joe Utichi stated simply that the 2015 production ‘knows Cumberbatch’s star is going to draw people,’ and therefore ‘doesn’t bring anything drastically new or profound to the material’. If no one truly cares about the play itself, what is the point in staging it? The accolade of putting on a play like Hamlet – a production seemingly loaded with outdated cultural worth – seems to be enough to drive directors to put on the same overdone material. However, if regurgitation is the norm, there must be something in it. If lack of creativity is the disease, is simple re-invention the cure?
There is obviously something appealing about moulding the oldest of texts to reflect the issues of today’s society. Tracking the metamorphosis of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is perhaps the easiest way to test this theory. First performed in 1611, the playwright’s island setting acted as a microcosm for assessing the nature of power politics, whilst also reflecting the outlook of contemporary audiences towards Native Americans, after the establishment of an English colony in Virginia.
However, as times moved on, so did the nature of the play. In 1988, Cheek by Jowl’s production transformed the male character of King Alonso of Naples into a woman, who embodied the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. No doubt audiences fully gauged director Donnellan’s pointed political message.
2016 then saw something absolutely radical. A production by the Torn Out Theatre Company, featuring an all-female nude cast, was performed in New York. Gina Marie Russell, who played Prospero, stated that by acting in this performance she was ‘making a statement about female sexuality, female nudity and really trying to normalise that and make it non-sexual and non-threatening’. In light of this, perhaps it can be stated confidently that the malleability of Shakespeare’s play is unquestionable. Done in the right way, should there theoretically be no such thing as ‘old material’?
But let me shift away the pretention of playing devil’s advocate for just a few moments. In reality, we know why the West End and student theatre companies are eager to deliver (and indeed do deliver) successful adaptations of ‘the best of the best’. Classics do not appear from nowhere: they withstand because each generation deems them worthy of note. The continued and innovative re-inventions of enduring texts on stage ensures that new audiences are seldom ever bored. The themes change in accordance with society’s relevant political and socio-economic issues, whilst the technical aspects of these productions always aim to break boundaries by utilising the latest equipment and technology. Yes, dramatic déjà vu certainly does exist, but this is only when a production truly fails to deliver to audiences something novel and unique.
Photograph: RSC’s The Tempest (1993) via Wikimedia Commons