Shakespeare in the Autumn

During September and October I have seen six different Shakespeare productions, each of which has tried to do something different to bring the text to life, or to relate the themes more closely to contemporary issues. What have they done and has this been successful?

Othello from English Touring Theatre (reviewed here) at Oldham Coliseum was presented on a dazzling fluorescent lit stage. Powerful staging but not always the pace to go with it. This was an Othello with the ambition to relate to modern day events, to reflect the challenges we see both nationally and globally of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Although true to the original text, the direction focused on Othello’s race and religion which gave us a fascinating new insight into how he was perceived as ‘them’. But there aren’t enough pertinent lines in Othello to carry this through and the idea seemed to dissolve into more traditional themes towards the end. You can only go so far if you stick with Shakespeare’s lyrics.

In the Royal Exchange’s Queen Margaret (reviewed here) writer Jeanie O’Hare constructed a play where the words are largely Shakespeare’s, drawn from his early history cycle, and created a new role for Margaret of Anjou. An excellent idea, but one that again shows the limitations of Shakespeare’s lines in trying to do something new. The DNA remains from Margaret’s original lines written as a supporting role, often to further the plot as opposed to developing character. I wanted to see much more of who she really was, how she thought. However the play did effectively address contemporary themes around how we trust our leaders to do the right thing, that leaders act in their own interests, and that leaders impose austerity and make people suffer. Perhaps very little has changed over the centuries.

Macbeth at the Lowry from National Theatre (reviewed here) was a hyperreal video game production for the teenagers of this generation and was easily the most technically ambitious of the versions I saw, creating on the stage the same feel as in a video game. Out went the rhythm of the text, although the narrative was true to what we usually see. The witches became all-seeing and the central relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was original and convincing. More a question of appealing to a specific age group than trying to change the message.

OthelloMacbeth at HOME (reviewed here) cut both Othello and Macbeth back to seventy minutes each of the bare bones, then spliced them together to bring the women to the fore. As a result, we looked afresh at what these plays were trying to tell us, and the message was compelling. But doing this carries risks as the key decision is whether to cut character or narrative. Perhaps the relationships in Othello are more complex as the play relies on the interplay of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Emilia to work, so it was inevitable that some of these relationships became too shallow to pay off at the end of the first part. However, by drawing themes of ambition and revenge through to Macbeth, allowing Lady Macbeth to drive the play, this Macbeth was easily one of the best versions I have ever seen. Shakespeare is a complex animal to play with!

At the Traverse in Edinburgh, The Macbeths from Citizens Theatre (not reviewed) cut virtually all the lines outside the private space between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, setting the play simply in their bedroom. Recorded tape stored in a divan drawer was cleverly used to describe the external murder scenes so critical to the development of both characters. Focusing on the dynamic and emotion between the couple set this within a more universal timeframe, reinforced by female actors playing both roles. This became a powerful analysis of the two people, about relationships, power and mental health – a timeless message.

But of the six Shakespeares I have seen in the past six weeks the one that had the greatest impact was the last, Henry V at Manchester Cathedral. It is of course hard not to be impressed with the grandeur of the venue, but it was the humanity of the production that will sit in my memory. Set in 1915 with French and British soldiers re-enacting the Henry V of 1415, this production used perhaps 90 minutes of the original text, yet captured the essence of the world of war perfectly. Armies that once fought each other for France now came together to defend France. What has changed in the meantime? Is there really much difference between our experience of war in 1415 and 1915? Ultimately it is people that matter.

History repeats. People don’t really change. But our societal norms do change and perhaps we should be less rigid in sticking to the original text when that is the change we want to show. The best productions have added to what Shakespeare had to say.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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