The last time I mentioned the subject of editing Shakespeare quite innocently on FB there was quite a strong reaction – a ‘don’t mess with the Bard’ reaction. These remarks made me feel quite the revolutionary! For the last two weeks, on and off, I have been cutting and shaping a production of 12th Night which I am doing with college students in Valentines week 2018.
So how does “messing with the Bard” work so that we don’t make a mess of it? First of all we need to acknowledge a few things.
1) Shakespeare did not write all of the plays alone nor were the plays fully written down so certain errors are inevitable. This co-writing frequently makes for whole sections of repetition which to my mind is not just reminding the audience about situations but it happened because the plays were sometimes written piecemeal by different people. The brothel scene in Measure for Measure is classic, where the same information seems to go round and round and lines have to be cut and reassigned for the scene to make any sense at all.
2) Why are key players in the stories frequently missing from key scenes? Answer most probably because they were playing another character in the scene. (why is Maria totally absent from Act 5 of 12th Night? Why is Cassius missing from two key scenes before Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar.? Could it be that he is playing the ailing Caius Ligarius?
3) Most scenes have very long lead-ins because in a stage with no ‘lights up/lights down’ actors needed to keep the energy going and so they enter talking -.often these intros are simply to get the people on the stage and the scene really starts about 8 lines in. This is not true of every scene but it is true of many.
In Peter Brook’s fabulous slim tome Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare,(Nick Hern Books) he talks about what we do when we, as directors, change things. He says directors can do what they like, yet there is always a trade-off with every single decision made. If you modernise a design too specifically the play is inevitably not illuminated but reduced. That’s his view and I share it.
If you change the order of something, there are consequences. Let’s look at Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the RNT which originally began with ‘To be or not to be’ instead of the ghost scene on the battlements, which I understand was returned to its traditional place after some kind of outcry. I never saw this production but let’s examine what changing the position of this speech says to an audience. It says clearly, ‘This play is about Hamlet, and everyone else is relatively superfluous’. It says ‘this is not about a world of corruption but an individual’. It’s about a star role not a world. In Zefferelli’s Hamlet , which starred Mel Gibson, the Ghost did not appear until Hamlet met him. This made for a tension and apprehension for anyone not familiar with the story and enabled the audience to play with the idea that Hamlet is imagining, or maybe he isn’t. It gave the play more of a kind of ‘thriller’ engine. Unfortunately, I felt this engine ran out of juice before the end. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, these two examples of textual adjustments have a profound effect on the response of the audience and the trajectory of the piece. So Peter Brook is right, you have to be careful ….
I don’t know about you but I get heartily sick of Shakespearean productions in which actors crack dirty jokes which no one understands nowadays, then in order to help us understand the actors laugh lasciviously and make some kind of crotch-grabbing gesture to which everyone onstage responds with hilarity. The audience then laugh and everyone thinks they did their job. This tedious behaviour has been happening for decades! Therefore something is revealed; many of these jokes have to be cut because no one, including the actors, really ‘gets’ them. THIS IS NOT A CRIME .It is simply facing the facts that some of Shakespeare’s work is really hard to communicate to a modern audience. Some jokes are still funny but some have to go; you have to keep some because if you don’t then the flavour of the text would be gone and anyway some are more accessible and are funny. However, care is needed.
And then there is the quality in Shakespeare’s writing which is lampooned, occasionally effectively, in Ben Elton’s TV sitcom Upstart Crow, which centres on the ups-and-downs of the Bard’s life. Very often he takes a long flowery paragraph to say something incredibly simple. When you start to dissect some of the actual Shakespearean text you know when the imagery takes you somewhere amazing, illuminating the character’s psychology and when you just feel it is decoration. You have to use your own judgment and, as Brook says in his book, be very careful how you edit. We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, language was literally magic, a fabulous tool which charged our imaginings. So not only the descriptive power, but the punning and wordplay were like crackling conjuring tricks. These days we do not respond in quite the same way.
I have found that European companies are not so precious about the text. I remember seeing a splendid Latvian production of Romeo and Juliet with raunchy street boys at the Dublin Theatre Festival some years ago, where the two families ran pizza factories (much more successful than it sounds). One of the highlights of the production was the Queen Mab speech which became a strangely pivotal tragic moment as the whole ensemble was consumed by sleep, only to awaken and set the whole tragedy in full swing.
Michael Chekhov, whilst highly respectful of form and wholeness (two of the planks of his Technique are built upon this) nonetheless was of the opinion that we could be robust with Shakespeare. As someone who has done a lot of adaptation and dramaturgy of plays of this period, I most heartily concur.