Shakespeare is not some monolithic writer of the Renaissance, belonging only to a period of fan-flapping Elizabethans. He is a symbol of the ways in which drama can change and adapt for the modern period. Shakespeare, arguably one of the most quintessentially British writers alongside the likes of Jane Austen, can also seem a somewhat daunting figure. Whereas in the 17th century his plays would result in raucous laughter, today his verse can alienate some viewers. With the slightly convoluted writing in places, and the dense academia that surrounds his drama – it can result in many avid theatregoers keeping a wide berth. But I argue Shakespeare need not be thought of in this way and that, in actual fact, with modern adaptations from directors and actors alike – Shakespeare can be dragged relatively seamlessly into the modern age. Using examples of the ways in which Shakespeare has been modernised, I hope to demonstrate that the beloved playwright is still entitled to that unblemished reputation.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, directed by Nicholas Hytner
This is perhaps one of the greatest versions of the bard’s beloved fantastical romance that I have seen to date. Hytner, through the medium of acrobatics, trapeze artists and immersive interaction, pulled the audience into the forest setting of the dream. Further, with audience members actually standing amongst the actors themselves, Hytner recreated the stage design prevalent in Shakespeare’s day in innovative ways, with the less well-off 17th-century audience members observing from the pit below. To add additional sparks to the tightly-constructed plot, the roles of Titania and Oberon were switched. This, with the blossoming romance between Bottom and Oberon, added an interesting queer interpretation of the play not seen in Shakespeare’s day. And, it goes without saying, Gwendoline Christie’s (the beloved actress behind the iconic portrayal of Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’) charming portrayal of the fairy queen Titania, juxtaposed with the acrobatics of David Moorst’s Puck, provided observers with hours of frolicsome, frantic fun.
‘Twelfth Night’, directed by Simon Godwin
Brought to our homes via streaming on the National Theatre YouTube channel, Godwin’s contemporary interpretation of ‘Twelfth Night’ had viewers in utter hysterics. ‘Twelfth Night’ is, I must say, my all-time favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies. The yellow stockings, the farcical misunderstanding of identity, and the practical jokes – all combine to create three hours of utter hilarity. But I was very refreshed to hear that the role of Malvolio was going to be gender swapped, transformed into the newly-created ‘Malvolia’ played by Tamsin Greig. As before, this certainly provided an interesting queer interpretation of the comedy, seen with Malvolia’s obsessive interactions with Phoebe Fox’s Olivia. But it also allowed Greig to explore the character in unique ways. Her hilarious movement about the stage, bearing the march of a military general, reminded me, somewhat, of the mannerisms of Jennifer Saunders in the beloved comedy ‘French and Saunders’. Combined with the contemporary stage design of Soutra Gilmour, which brought together flashing lights, bright costumes, scooters and cars, all placed on a rotating stage – Shakespeare was well and truly placed in a 21st-century setting. Watching this performance, one almost forgets the (at times) difficult-to-digest language and the occasionally convoluted twists in the plot. Soup opera meets Shakespeare in this adaptation by Simon Godwin – and I must say, it does not fail to thrill
‘Othello’, directed by Iqbal Khan.
Many already know the story of Othello, the stereotypical ‘noble moor’, who is duped and deceived by his aid Iago into murdering his wife Desdemona. Originally written, perhaps, as a direct assault against Othello’s black skin, Iqbal Khan, by casting Iago as the black actor Lucian Msamati, completely uplifted the depiction of race-relations in the play. Brought to us with modern costumes and stage design, Khan’s ‘Othello’ shifted the depiction of race into a contemporary setting, whilst maintaining the tension between the races clearly discernible between the lines. As well as this, Khan completely shattered the traditional noble image of Othello by having him sanction water boarding in an intense torture sequence between him and Iago. What is clear to see is that Khan’s production is definitely one for subverting audience expectations. There is even a rap sequence, which served to further solidify the racial tensions, particularly between a caucasian Cassio and other members of Othello’s unit. This is not the first play to have subverted the race-relations of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In fact, Patrick Stewart starred in a 1997 race-reversed production which, like Khan’s production, reinterprets the theme of race for the modern day.
‘Richard II’, directed by Deborah Warner
Fiona Shaw astonishes in Warner’s movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s historical play. Stripped to its bare bones, by adapting Shakespeare into the film medium, it allowed the cast to explore the subtleties of their characters, as opposed to the usually rumbustious stage presence of Shakespearean personas. Further, in an interview with Fiona Shaw for Illuminations Media, Shaw remarked that by switching the gender of Richard II, it allowed for a detailed exploration of the character’s femininity and idiosyncrasies that would have perhaps been harder to depict from a male performer. Warner’s production also adds an additional romance into the piece, with the relationship between Richard and Bolingbroke unfurling as the play progressed. As well as merely competing for the throne, then, there was a decipherable sexual tension between the two of them that made their dynamic all the more compelling. Shaw remarked that this allowed them to explore the notion of gayness on a subconscious level. Since Richard II was written as a male character, with the romance of Bolingbroke weaved into the plot there becomes a relationship between the two characters that goes beyond the heteronormative. Perhaps this is made all the more stark with the understanding that Shaw is herself a lesbian, making this modern adaptation a subtle exploration of modern day sexuality.
Shakespeare, then, need not be thought of as a historical relic unable to adapt to contemporary debates and concerns. In fact, he is the opposite. One of the (albeit stereotypical) qualities of Shakespearean drama is their timelessness. Simultaneously entrenched in a rich historical context, yet also universal enough for contemporary consumption, there is still plenty to be explored by directors and performers alike in terms of making and remaking Shakespeare’s works. It seems then, that far from being stuck in the 17th century, Shakespeare continues to extend into the future, which is why he will be discussed and universally acclaimed for years to come.
By Josh Goodwin