The thing about Shakespeare is, because he uses old English, and his work is iconic, and it pretty much defines the theatre world, a lot of people get up in arms about the ‘proper’ way to do Shakespeare. These purists, of which there are unfortunately many, believe that the Bard would be thoroughly appalled at the way in which modern directors, of both screen and stage, tarnish the great original work. Shakespeare should be classy, is the general consensus among these people.
I don’t mean to sound bigoted- but these people are wrong. I mean, I don’t care whether you enjoy modern, or more out-there adaptations; but to say that Shakespeare wouldn’t like them because they lack ‘class and finesse’ is utter rubbish! You’ve read Shakespeare right? You know he’s the king of dick jokes, right? You know the fact that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and the common people? That the theatre, unlike it is today, was actually a pretty common form of entertainment, for anyone from any social background? If you don’t know these things…. Well, I’m sorry I had to break it to you, buddy.
Anyway, now I’ve had my moan about Shakespeare purists; I can get on to explaining what I think is so great about experimental or modern Shakespeare adaptations.
In recent weeks The Nuffield Theatre hosted what was, quite possibly, the most bizarre adaptation of Twelfth Night I ever thought I would see. If you read Robert’s review for The Edge, you can see that I wasn’t the only one who thought that. However, for someone: pizza in the audience and tequila shots on stage might be the thing that connects them to the work of Shakespeare for the first time, in a way that their GCSE English classes never could.
One of the most prolific film versions of Shakespeare will forever be Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which when it was made in 1996, was dubbed as Shakespeare for the MTV generation. This version is probably a lot of people’s first introductions to Shakespeare, or at least an early one, and it is one which is beloved by a lot of people. I think a lot of the reason it is loved is because it updates the setting; it updates the characters; it updates the soundtrack; so that young people feel that the story that is being told is new to them. A story that reflects and embodies the culture that they live in and see around them. If they can connect with those smaller aspects, some people will find that they find it easier to connect with the narrative at the heart of it.
My favourite type of Shakespeare adaptations are the ones which take the original text and place it in a different setting. Baz Luhrmann’s work that I just mentioned is included as this, but so are many others. 2008’s Macbeth at the Chichester Festival Theatre where Patrick Stewart stared as a early 20th century war-time fascist Macbeth, Coriolanus starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, which places the soldiers in modern day riots, or even the SUSU Theatre Group’s 60s set production of Much Ado About Nothing earlier this year. The reason I love this format, is because to me, it highlights the thing that makes Shakespeare so brilliant to me. That thing is the fact that he is timeless: his stories do not lose their cultural relevance today, and they do not lose their importance.
The other main form of ‘unconventional Shakespeare’ is when they disregard the script completely, and transfer the story to a different world completely. Again, I think that these things actually reiterate the timeless nature of these narratives and the way in which we all seem to be able to relate to them in one form or another. West Side Story, The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s The Man… It’s hard to believe that all of these films actually derive from Shakespeare’s work. But how cool is it that they do??? I think it just serves as a reminder of how influential the man’s work was, and how much of a hold it still has on our contemporary literature and media. I think that these versions also just make Shakespeare so much more fun and accessible to young people, which is so important to do.
I can say, with complete sincerity, that I truly believe that Shakespeare would love what the world has done with his work. The thing that makes him such an important literary presence, is the fact that he wanted to connect with the people. By updating his work for modern audiences, that exact thing is being done. That connection is being passed down from generation. Shakespeare probably would’ve got a bit bored in West Side Story, let’s be real, but I reckon that he’d be wetting himself laughing in 10 Things. The thing he would love most though, is the fact that 400 years after his death; people still care about his work. Not just that, but people care about making people care about his work.