An article in the New York Times caught my attention a couple of days ago, Maximum Shakespeare, To Renovate or Not to Renovate. Written by Charles Isherwood, a very well-known american theatre critic, it deals with the hoary old question about whether modern productions of Shakespearian plays should be contemporized. With a slew of The Bard’s plays to open on and off Broadway in the near future, Isherwood and other NYT writers will be
regularly posting commentaries on aspects of them, engaging larger questions about how today’s theater artists approach these canonical works, and inviting you to add your opinions about how vitally Shakespeare continues to speak to modern audiences. (Opera, ballet and movies will come up as well.)
If you read the article below and then follow the link above, you can see the discussion has already begun. I shall be following with interest.
Wherefore art thou riding a motorcycle, Romeo?
So might audiences muse at the start of the new Broadway staging of “Romeo and Juliet,” the first in the season’s plentiful Shakespeare productions, both on Broadway and off.
As the shows open in the coming months, fellow New York Times writers and I will be regularly posting commentaries on aspects of them, engaging larger questions about how today’s theater artists approach these canonical works, and inviting you to add your opinions about how vitally Shakespeare continues to speak to modern audiences. (Opera, ballet and movies will come up as well.)
David Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened on Sept. 19 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, announces its point of view in the show’s opening moments, as Romeo removes his helmet (odd, that, for a swooning romantic; Mercutio, one suspects, wouldn’t bother) and reveals himself in the comely person of Orlando Bloom, clad in ripped jeans, T-shirt and hoodie, plus the kind of assorted man-jewelry you can scoop up by the handful at Urban Outfitters.
DISCUSS: Is Shakespeare better with contemporary imagery, or clad in classical garb?
The question I opened with — why make Romeo a facsimile of an urban hipster? — points directly toward an issue that I suspect will percolate throughout the season, namely whether in producing Shakespeare today the most effective approach revolves around cloaking the text in contemporary imagery, or hewing to a more “classical” line, dressing the actors in what passes for traditional Elizabethan costume.
With its set dominated by a giant Renaissance-style fresco scrawled with graffiti, the new Broadway production didn’t strike me as an ideal test case for the here-and-now approach. The costuming and visual effects meant to reorient this tragic love story as an urgent bulletin from today’s world felt pretty generic, as did his somewhat half-hearted gesture toward infusing the play with an element of racial tension. (The Capulets are all played by black actors, while the Montagues are white.)
But it is easy to understand the impulse, particularly with this play. “Romeo and Juliet” is the ur-drama of young love, and it is often the first Shakespeare play kids read in high school. Young audiences alienated, or at least challenged, by the arcane language of the play may be encouraged to stop texting and give it a more attentive hearing when the drama comes packaged in imagery to which they can relate.
Baz Luhrmann proved the efficacy of this approach in his fiercely imaginative movie version from 1996, with a pre-megastardom Leonardo DiCaprio and a pre-“Homeland” Claire Danes playing the doomed lovers in a Southern California riven by gun violence.
It was a palpable hit, so to speak, and deservedly so. And of course one of the most popular iterations of the story is the beloved musical “West Side Story,” which dispensed with Shakespeare’s language but kept the fundamental architecture of the plot.
But there are many grumblers out there, I suspect, who have had their fill of Shakespeare productions that try to shoehorn contemporary relevance into the plays by dressing the conspirators in “Julius Caesar,” say, in business suits, or “Macbeth” in 20th-century military attire.
In fact these days I’d argue that the default Shakespeare style — at least for the major tragedies, and many of the comedies and romances, too — is contemporary. (With the history plays that concentrate in detail on specific periods in the progression of the British royal line, there isn’t always as much innovation.)
What may get lost in the debate is the fact that dressing Shakespeare in off-the-rack duds is nothing new; in fact what’s comparatively newer is the tradition of presenting the plays in Elizabethan or Jacobean attire. As no less an acting authority than Alec Guinness once pointed out, in a 1953 program for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the plays were traditionally performed in attire drawn from the era in which they were produced until in the 19th century manager-actors such as Charles Kean and William Macready introduced a vogue for historical accuracy in Shakespeare.
Some scholars cite the innovative productions of Barry Jackson in the 1920s at the Birmingham Repertory Theater as marking a true inflection point in bringing modern dress into Shakespeare production. His 1923 production of “Cymbeline” was a game-changing landmark for British Shakespeare staging. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the company was home to some of the greatest British actors of the 20th century, from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft.
The great director Peter Brook was hired to stage three productions there at the age of 20. In America, meanwhile, Orson Welles is often lauded as the radical innovator who yanked Shakespeare out of the realm of fusty classicism, with his famous “voodoo” “Macbeth” and his Fascist-styled “Julius Caesar.”
Many years of Shakespeare-watching have left me agnostic on the issue of “to update or not to update.” Nicholas Hytner’s riveting “Othello,” which I saw at the National Theater last summer (and which will be broadcast in movie theaters beginning Sept. 26), was a superb case in point. Without altering the text, in setting the play in a 21st-century war zone the production made cogent and disturbing points about the way, in a largely male-dominated military environment, women can become the object of repressed or warped violent impulses. (Emilia, here, was a soldier too.)
And perhaps the best overall production of “King Lear” I’ve seen was Robert Falls’s aggressively violent production for the Goodman Theater several years ago, in which Lear’s kingdom was represented as a failing, vaguely Balkan state, illuminating the way in which a power void automatically unleashes violence, which only begets more violence.
But I could just as easily cite any number of bland, unrewarding attempts to dress Shakespeare up in modern garb and gimmicky attempts at relevance, which I suspect some directors impose upon their productions because they (and their actors) are less at ease with the language than they ought to be. The hope is that novelty (although it rarely qualifies as novelty anymore) will prove a distraction from mediocrity.
Fundamentally, a great Shakespeare production will rise or fall not on what the actors are wearing, and whether they are barking into cell phones or slinging swords at each other, but on whether they can infuse these magnificent, challenging texts with the life blood of honest feeling and formal beauty
Are the most memorable Shakespeare productions you’ve seen modern or “classical”? Do you find it jarring when Hamlet picks up an iPad? What did you make of Mr. Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet”?