Over the course of the last couple of years, I have seen several productions of Shakespeare: 1 in the Globe, 3 in the Swan, 1 in the National, 1 in Trafalgar Studios, 1 in Riverside Studios, 1 in the Minack and 1 on film. Out of these 9 productions, 7 were modernisations and I can say with confidence that I enjoyed the other 2 most out of the lot. This is not a case of better plays happening to be the ones done in Jacobethan costume: Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are hardly considered Shakespeare’s prime masterworks. Location doesn’t seem to be the key element either: Hamlet and Antony & Cleopatra at the Swan (the same location and theatre company as Richard III), Macbeth at Trafalgar and Troilus & Cressida at Riverside were all dreadful.
It seems to me that modernisation is one of the key factors here. Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Iago (at the National), James McAvoy’s Macbeth (at Trafalgar) and David Tennant’s Hamlet (on film) were exquisite. What marred their exceptional performances was Kinnear having to type away at a laptop while protesting to Othello that he wasn’t keeping anything from him, McAvoy conversing with witches in gasmasks in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, and Tennant wrenching a security camera off the wall before declaring ‘Now I’m alone’ with a great emphasis on the first word that doesn’t come across at all in the script (and indeed Ophelia reassuring her brother of the safety of her relationship with Hamlet by showing him the condoms she was keeping in her suitcase). What didn’t do any harm at all to the Swan Theatre’s Richard III was the fantastically choreographed battle scene at the end, full of the deafening clash of swords rather than the chatter of AK-47s.
However hard these directors try to tie up all the loose ends that inevitably result from trying to modernise such period pieces as Shakespeare’s plays (paradoxically despite almost all being set in times and places besides Jacobethan England) undoubtedly are, they invariably fail. In an interview about the National Theatre’s 2013 production of Othello, the director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, admitted that according to their military advisor (for modernisation to 21st century warfare in the Middle East), the idea of Desdemona accompanying her husband to a campaign was simply impossible, rather than merely frowned upon as an Jacobean production would have conveyed. The BBC’s Hamlet makes quite a point of highlighting the supernatural state of the ghost of Hamlet Senior by showing that no image of him appears on the CCTV cameras, but far from recreating the shock factor of Dracula not appearing in mirrors (as it seems to me was intended by the director) this cunning detail only served to highlight the ludicrousness of a clearly 21st century cast of characters being so quick to accept the existence of ghosts (along with many popular Jacobean ideas about ghostly ways, such as the ghost’s inability to speak until spoken to). Like them or loathe them, modern vampire and ghost movies by contrast usually take at least half an hour for the common mortal protagonist to process the existence of such entities, a far more plausible reaction.
It must be noted that there is a spectrum of implausibility and difficulty caused by these modernisations. Some, such as the above, are questionable, but avoid downright stupidity. Tarell McCraney’s decision to set Antony & Cleopatra in the Haitian Revolution, featuring the Romans in ridiculous Napoleonic outfits, a Cleopatra who pronounced the name of her servant ‘Char-me-en’ (thus destroying Shakespeare’s carefully constructed meter) and thoroughly inappropriate bursts of calypso music, together with the Wooster Group’s modernisation of Troilus & Cressida to the colonisation of America, featuring native Americans for some reason unbeknownst to the audience timing their every movement on stage to TV screens around the room showing footage of Inuits having sex (I am not joking), makes Hytner’s transgression seem minimal, but the point still stands:
Watching Shakespeare in the modern age is demanding enough. Attention spans are quite simply not what they were. Widespread groans were heard when Peter Jackson compressed Tolkein’s The Return of the King into a little over three hours. Three hours is the minimum to be expected from an uncut Shakespearean tragedy. Then there is the language barrier of Jacobethan English, predominantly in the still less intelligible syntax of verse, and on top of this the low-tech nature of Shakespearean theatre, which makes its mark on text written in a time of little to no special effects, where grand-scale fight scenes were completely out of the question, and everything depended on dialogue (indeed most of the stage directions found in modern editions of Shakespeare’s plays were added later, deduced from clues in the characters’ speeches, and are still debated). A Shakespearean play, at at least one and half times the length of a standard motion picture, in a semi-foreign language without subtitles, featuring hardly any bangs and whistles, is a strain on the modern viewer, there’s no getting away from that. Adding yet another layer of suspension of disbelief in the form of the crude (without exception) modernisations directors are twisting these plays into does nothing to improve the spectator’ chances of being engaged. For a small theatre company on a tight budget, I can understand that perhaps a modernisation is the only possible option, but some of these modernisations are so elaborate (and all the more convoluted for that) that I am hard pressed to grant them this excuse, and there is no excuse at all for companies with the budget of the National Theatre.
I can say without any exaggeration that of all the modernised productions I have been to, every one of them suffered for their modernisation, and not one of them benefitted to the extent of making up for it. Exquisite though Kinnear, McAvoy and Tennant certainly were, their productions let them down, and in the case of a production like the Wooster Group’s Troilus & Cressida, devoid of both intelligent setting choice and skilful acting, I am proud to say that I walked out during the interval.
In the end, what is the point of modernisation, especially for a wealthy theatre company? Othello is a play about race – setting it in the present day undermines its message. Macbeth is inextricably linked to the political context of the Stuart succession and James I’s interest in demonology. Hamlet was written three centuries before the invention of CCTV and condoms – Shakespeare had nothing of the sort in mind when he wrote Hamlet and Ophelia’s lines. Shakespeare was the greatest writer the English language, if not global literature, has ever seen. If he did not intend his words to be given a particular meaning, I don’t want to know anything about it. His words may be timeless, but that doesn’t mean that they can be twisted to apply to specific 21st century innovations no man, however devastatingly intelligent, could have foreseen.