The Modern Theatre: How Classic Plays Can Be Redesigned for the 21st Century

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Theatre has been a staple of our entertainment since the Ancient Greeks, so we are bound to see the same plays performed over and over again. But sometimes there are performances which really reinvent those older narratives to make them once again relevant to the modern day, a phenomenon more widely seen in adaptations of Shakespeare plays.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: London Bridge’s Theatre (Summer 2019)

This summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Bridge Theatre was an astonishing experience for several reasons which, as I begin to list them, will stretch its concept from ‘creative’ to ‘rather innovative’ to ‘wait, surely not’ to ‘???‘. The production was performed partly in the round; half the audience seated, but the other half standing on the ground, eye-level at the actors’ feet. Said staging would move, four interlocking jigsaw pieces with stairs that would rotate around to form new scenery, necessitating in-costume ushers to gently part the crowd. The actors would get on and off this scenery, moving through the audience on foot as if they’re trying to navigate through the crowd at the front of a gig and not, you know, Gwendoline Christie in a ballgown with a six-foot train. The roles of Oberon and Titania were switched, making Puck into Titania’s knave, who enchants Oberon to fall in love with Bottom instead. Speaking of, Bottom and the other mechanicals are presented as amateur dramatists by way of a Britain’s Got Talent presentation, complete with matching team t-shirts with the name printed on the back in that one font – you know the one. When an enchanted Oberon attempts to woo a sleeping Bottom, the latter replies, “nah babe not tonight, I’m tired”. All the fairies are just casually doing aerial silk gymnastics while delivering their lines. At one point they blast a full Beyoncé song. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It was loud, chaotic, immersive, and transportive. It was glorious and, I believe, exactly what Shakespeare would have wanted.

– Camilla Cassidy

King Lear – Duke of York’s Theatre, London (Autumn 2018)

The recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear proved to be something special. After an initial short run at the Chichester Festival, the play was transferred to London’s West End, completing its run in November 2018. Headed by Sir Ian McKellen, this retelling follows a more modern setting, with the pagan tales of the King and his three daughters still holding significance in the 21st century.

Swords are replaced with guns, the Duke of Kent is the Duchess in this adaption, and for Lear’s three daughters their roles are simply more than the innocent and the guilty parties. The Duke of York’s theatre, in which the show held its West End run sits fewer than 650 people, giving the play’s witnesses a more intimate view of events. You can almost reach out and feel every emotion with them. Lear’s breakdown towards the latter half of the play is painful to watch, the raw emotions on McKellen’s face making you feel everything that he is. 

I found myself moved to tears in its final act, and the plea to “See better” could be moved from the historic politics into the modern. King Lear is one of the plays that everyone should see to learn something from. 

– Louise Chase

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Features Editor 2015/16. PhD student. Sorry I give everything five stars, I just have a lot of love in my heart.

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Second-year archaeology & history student and Culture Editor 2019/20. Loves archery and Assassin's Creed, and still hoping to one day find the doorway to Narnia.

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