Six Damn Fine Degrees #99: “And if you gaze long enough into Shakespeare…”

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In last week’s Six Damn Fine Degrees post, Julie wrote about Shakespeare on film. In the post, she also talked about “less faithful adaptations”, which made me wonder: what do people generally consider a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare? Does faithful mean as close as possible to what those performances at the Rose Theatre or the Globe, back in the heady days around the turn of the century (16th to 17th, that is)? All in one location with minimal set changes, no artificial lighting, all female characters played by boys, that sort of thing? Because, most likely, that kind of stylised, formalised performance would be so alien to many people that they’d consider it downright avantgarde.

People’s ideas of what constitutes a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare, especially on film, probably veer more towards productions that are decidedly un-Elizabethan, un-Shakespearean: the actors may be spouting iambic pentameter, but otherwise we get some form of supposed historical realism that is probably closer to Hollywood’s ideas of history than to the real thing. They probably wouldn’t want those weird mix’n’match productions of Julius Caesar or Cleopatra, where the actors – again, all male – might wear combinations of contemporary costume and what the Elizabethans thought the Romans and Egyptians might have worn.

The thing is, if an actor on the Elizabethan stage wore Elizabethan garb, it meant something else to the audience of the time than it would mean if we were to watch an actor nowadays wearing the same clothes. The actors of Shakespeare’s day and age largely wore clothes the audiences would have considered contemporary – though, as mentioned above, mixed with the odd toga or whatever else they had lying around, to signal that the play was set in the Olden Days, not in the modern commotion of 1599. Therefore, putting Shakespeare on stage, or screen, in some approximation of what an Elizabethan production might have looked like may be faithful in one narrow sense of the word, but it would be anything but faithful in terms of the effect the play was to produce in its audience – and that’s leaving aside all the theatrical conventions and tropes that, differently from most of us, Shakespeare’s audiences would have been intimately familiar with… or even just the vocabulary. I mean, what’s authentic about a clown in a Shakespeare production – whether on stage or on film – delivering jokes that modern audiences only get if there are footnotes or if the actor playing the clown makes broad gestures, the body-language equivalent of talking loudly and slowly at people who don’t speak your language: THIS… LINE… IS SAYING… THAT… THE GUY IS… A WANKER… GET IT?

Authenticity is an exceedingly complex concept if we’re talking about Shakespeare (and not only then), and I strongly believe it’s not only a futile goal for modern directors and actors, it’s wrong-headed, unless it is defined so specifically that you might as well not use the word at all. Shakespeare’s plays have survived for this long because they are mercurial things. They have an ability to move with the times, they survive things being changed, bits being chopped off, they survive having their individual parts rearranged, recombined, recontextualised. And yet, there is always that recognisable core.

Back in the early years of this strange century, I was lucky to have the opportunity to do some directing while at university, and one of the plays I staged, together with a group of talented, passionate co-student actors, was Richard III. Me and a friend, we’d been talking about this for years. After watching Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, as well as way too many mob movies, we had this idea of Richard of Gloucester and his family as the kind of mafia dynasty that Francis Ford Coppola enjoys telling stories about. We liked the idea of criminals and thugs in 1940s pinstripe suits pretending to be all cultured, speaking in thees and thous, while plotting murder and the most hostile of takeovers.

Over time, these ideas changed, mutated, mixed with other ideas – but at their core was always Shakespeare’s text, Richard III. With some cuts, admittedly, because only the most daring and foolhardy should ever attempt staging a Shakespeare play uncut. (Let’s not get into the whole discussion of how there are multiple versions of the plays that are all more or less corrupted, with no actual, confirmed originals existing.) “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun (son?) of York,” and all that. Yes, we dressed Richard III up in our own ideas. No Elizabethan costume for us, no Elizabethan stage. We made it modern, even if it was a nostalgic modernity, looking to a past as much as to the present. But Shakespeare’s plays are no putty. They have a life of their own, they have a pulse, and these will emerge when you’re working with the text. The plays work on you as you work on them.

Sadly, I never found a chance to stage any other plays by Shakespeare. I left university, and it’s difficult to find the time to direct when you’ve got a full-time job. Even if it had been possible, it wouldn’t have been the same anymore: the same people, the same energy, the same sense that, hey, we can do this, right? I had done a couple of productions at Uni by that time, but most of them had been modern plays, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (the first part only) among others. And with modern plays, the text usually gives you a much more concrete idea of what to do with it. Even if you chuck all of these things overboard, you don’t get the same sense of freedom. As much as I enjoyed staging modern plays, working with these texts was very different to working with Shakespeare. His texts are hundreds of years old, there is a strangeness to them, that is part of what’s exciting – but there is also a humanity in the plays and characters that feels rich and almost uncannily familiar. With the modern plays, I usually felt fairly certain I knew where we were going, even if sometimes the path would branch; with Shakespeare, it felt like we were exploring all these possibilities that kept bursting from the text. In that sense, as long as a staging or a film version of Shakespeare communicates that sense of exploration, it feels faithful to me. It’s when it looks and feels like some people think Shakespeare ought to, that’s when you’re likely to end up with dead Shakespeare. And even if Shakespeare, in the most literal sense, is obviously dead, that’s not what I’d consider faithful.

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