‘I just saw the best Shakespeare play yesterday! It was so clever, because it was a modern adaptation.’
That phrase: ‘modern adaptation.’ With a play that has been performed countless times, the options for a USP become less and less tangible. For an innovative production, directors conjure up ideas of Macbeth as a woman, Cordelia as a man (no, wait, that was done before, Shakespeare did that…), Romeo and Juliet set in Apartheid Africa, Troilus and Cressida as a ballet…
But how far is too far? Can you change a play so much it loses the original essence that made it famous in the first place? Or are modern adaptations the only way to make older plays accessible to contemporary audiences?
Updating a Renaissance play is a more popular notion nowadays than preserving the original costume and set design. For example, in adaptations I’ve seen of Henry IV, Coriolanus, and Macbeth, the actors all wore modern military gear. Some plays have transcended context, such as a Bollywood Taming of the Shrew. Yet the common thread through all of these plays is that, however different the visual staging, the directors still preserved the language, characters, and plot.
Recently I saw Doctor Faustus at the theatre, starring Game of Throne’s Kit Harrington. The acting itself was first-class, but the most striking aspect was how far the director departed from Marlowe’s original work. It was ‘modern’ in the sense that Faustus slummed around in jeans and a hoodie, and a female Mephistopheles belted out ‘Bat Out of Hell’ in the interval.
It was not just an adaptation, but an entire reworking. Acts Three and Four were removed altogether and replaced with Faustus touring the world as a famous illusionist, tricking money out of the likes of David Cameron and Barack Obama. Faustus also meets a rock star and his girlfriend, pouts his way through an egotistical bout of air guitaring, and summons Marilyn Monroe from the dead to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President.’ Even more subversively, whilst Faustus uses Elizabethan language in the first and last Act, in the middle two he has a distinctly 21st century tongue, complete with swearing and sexual slurs.
Critic Dominic Cavendish calls this mash-up ‘completely incomprehensible,’ but the political edge in particular appropriately suited the spirit of the play. In one scene Cameron, a banker, and a media moghul were signing Mephistopheles’ contract so they could regain the money they pretended to give to charity in order to impress the audience. When Cameron says ‘I don’t understand this bit about the soul…,’ Mephistopheles wittily quips ‘that only applies to people with souls.’ Controversial as that may be, it shows that Faustus selling his soul to the devil for fame is an uncomfortably current topic in today’s materialistic society.
And isn’t that why, in Shakespeare’s very words, literary works will outlive marble monuments? We still watch these plays because we recognise core aspects of human nature that still exist hundreds of years later. Dressing Macbeth in camouflage doesn’t really make the play more understandable—it’s just a director’s attempt to eke out a drop of colour from a well-washed concept. This Faustus play, however, by incorporating well-known political figures, not only makes a bold statement but also gives the play a modern relevance that some adaptations fail to do.
From ‘to be or not to be’ to ‘out, damn spot,’ it is the character’s dialogue that has stuck in audience’s minds over hundreds of years. Shakespeare, for example, is responsible for coining over 1,700 words in our current vocabulary and Faustus himself has some beautiful lines such as ‘he that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.’ This adaptation of Faustus didn’t completely eradicate the original language, preserving some of the more memorable lines such as the frequently cited description of Dido: ‘was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?’ However, whilst Faustus used an Elizabethan lexicon in the first two Acts, this disintegrated into modern slang in the middle, and when he realised the error of his ways the original language was restored. It was as if Faustus’s moral corruption was audibly reflected in his linguistic corruption; that the purity of the mind is revealed through poetry (which is a popular argument as to why Hamlet isn’t actually mad). I’m also unashamed to admit that Renaissance language can be hard to untangle when performed live on the stage with no handy guide on the page opposite. So, it was a bit of mental relief when the language changed halfway through the play and allowed me to focus more on the dramatic visual effects.
Perhaps this is all blasphemy and Faustus’s director sold his soul to Satan for increased ticket sales. Or maybe it is about time someone was more experimental with plays that we tend to treat like precious glass that will break if treated too roughly. Literary works are tough and can cope well with extreme manipulation, if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is anything to go by. Maybe directors shouldn’t be afraid of angering theatrical puritans and, rather than just swapping the gender of characters, they should bend the entire framework of the play. Whether it makes Renaissance plays more accessible or just causes a stir that removes stars from a critical review, a highly experimental piece similar to this recent Faustus production would certainly make for some riveting theatre.
Photograph: Gage Skidmore