For RSC, the play's the thing
by Ben Hoyle
MODERN DRESS productions of Shakespeare’s plays sacrifice much of his intended impact and risk triteness, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company said at the weekend.
Speaking at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, Michael Boyd said: “You can’t divorce the plays from their historical context or the present. But for me you get less juice out of the plays if you set them in the present. You lose shed loads.”
Setting a play in a specific contemporary scenario can encourage the audience to draw overly simplistic, distracting links between it and Shakespeare’s words, he said.
However there are also, he acknowledged, clear benefits to adapting Shakespeare’s work to the present “if you are really alert to the major pitfalls.”
“You can gain an enormous amount. The gain is immediacy and availability.
“It’s a viable way to go and it has integrity. The problem is that you are stuck with the contemporary references.”
The National Theatre staged one of the most provocative modern dress history plays of recent times in 2003, transposing Henry V to Iraq and strewing the stage with the jeeps, machine guns and television cameras. The critics unanimously saluted Adrian Lester’s performance as the king but were split over the success of the adaptation.
Mr Boyd belongs in the camp which thinks that giving Shakespeare such a specific fresh context is fraught with difficulties. “I don’t think we have gone into Iraq “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” which is the motivation passed on to Hal (the future Henry V by his father Henry IV).”
Directors of Shakespeare have to navigate between three periods- when the play is set, when it was written and when it is performed. Rupert Goold’s acclaimed Macbeth, which stars Patrick Stewart as the ruthless Scottish king and opened in the West End last month, is a good example. It is styled after Stalin’s Russia, with video projections of troops marching through Red Square and the murder of Banquo carried out on board a packed train carriage but at the same time an essay in the programme emphasises the play’s multiple references to the politics of the time, including the recently discovered Gunpowder Plot.
“Shakespeare himself had a very bifocal view,” Mr Boyd said. “When he is writing about Athens it’s not really about Athens. When he is writing about Egypt it’s not about Egypt and when he’s writing about the 1400s it’s really about the 1590s or the 1600s.”
Mr Boyd is credited with revitalising the RSC since he took up his post in 2003.
His crowning achievement has been the Complete Works Festival which saw all of Shakespeare’s plays performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in a single year, including an Indian production of A Midsummer Night's Dream spoken in eight languages, an Arab Richard III and a puppet show Hamlet.
The eight Wars of the Roses history plays are Mr Boyd’s current project. He has staged warmly reviewed productions of both cycles of four plays in Stratford and next year will present them together in order of composition and then in order of chronological setting.
One of the productions- Richard III- is in modern dress “even though it follows directly on from a medieval Henry VI part III”, alerting Mr Boyd to the hazards of drawing too many contemporary parallels.
“I always start from the premise that there’s got be a very good reason to try and be very specific culturally outside of Shakespeare’s time.
“My approach is to try and imagine that Shakespeare is in the room, to try and get inside his head. Therefore historians and the research they do into the period are very useful to me, helping me to put myself into the religious and political landscape that he might have been in.
“On the other hand if I pretend that I can make myself, or my cast or my audience come with nothing (of the contemporary world) in their heads I would obviously be being foolish. If they (the plays) are to be put on the stage now they have to come from where they came from- Shakespeare’s brain- and speak as clearly as they possibly can now.”
October 8, 2007
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Quote:[Mr Boyd belongs in the camp which thinks that giving Shakespeare such a specific fresh context is fraught with difficulties. “I don’t think we have gone into Iraq “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” which is the motivation passed on to Hal (the future Henry V by his father Henry IV).”]
I wonder if Mr. Boyd reticence to accept the value of historical relativity has to do with the fact that perhaps he never turns on the telly?--also, has he read anything written by Orwell?
Perhaps he's concerned with Cultural Relativity, another thing altogether. "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" may not be the ultimate end result desired by those who pressed for our involvement in Iraq; but it certainly can be said to be a chief means of distraction for "giddy" minds. [inconstant; fickle] is one of the definitions provided by Mr. Onions' glossary, quoting Henry V, I, ii. . Not until much later, in James I, would the English Crown be able to expect any kind of steadfast Allegiance from the Scots; and allegiance to a cause produces a single, more steady mind in the bosom of a "giddy" populace, through which means to an end, the job of governance can get on with its true designs.
I realize the extent of the extrapolation I've performed might cause one to suspect that I might have stretched the point into the realm of cultural relativity. But having much the same influence as period or modern dress has, in its ability to define historical perspective, definitions of the meaning of words and phrases, and their relation to a particular subject, can also influence perspective. History Repeats Itself--constantly; and many times, unfortunately. And definitions of words or phrases will--if they are allowed-- hold their meaning in their relation to it. So I believe if the reference points haven't been altered simply to affect a means to an end, but only employed as a way to point up a striking historical resemblance (and a resemblance that can be concurred upon by a majority of observers without brow-beating being necessary) then modern dress does no harm. Personally, being the schizophrenic purist that I am, ( I've modern- concepted plays as a director; even going to the extent of mixing thematic metaphors) I think any similarity to modern events, even with actors dressed in period costume, will bleed through the fabric in most cases--although nowadays, being the jingoistic crowd-pleaser it is, Henry V might have an "anti-giddy" effect presented in any garb or setting.
So, if "getting into Shakespeare's head", to paraphrase Mr. Boyd, is the governing influence on faithfulness, then he has what would seem to be an impossible job description. Even the Philosopher for all time, whose open-minded judgement is blatantly evident in much of his other work, jumped off the fence for this one. The power (and blindness) of single-minded Patriotism, not for the first or last time, reared its ugly head. I wonder what Shakespeare's true feelings were about what he obviously allowed it to do to him? --Interesting that Henry V isn't one of his better-written plays--by a long shot. But of course, that's just an opinion as well.
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