Any reader with a free moment, and most of us have, can quickly discover that BTG has an incredible wealth of reviews covering the works of William Shakespeare.
A search of indisputably the best-known surname in the theatrical world, and possibly anywhere beyond, will reveal that there are 68 pages, each containing 20 reviews. While a few of these are peripheral, this means that we can offer at least 1,000 reviews of live performances or recordings of plays and operas based on his works.
Primarily, these will be straight renditions of the plays themselves, although some might be adaptations leaving the original behind to a greater or lesser degree.
This article was inspired by the discovery of an online resource made available by the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Judging by the first two random samples, their work is of the highest quality and, some might argue, overshadows even the finest current efforts of the home team led by Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. That debate can wait for another day.
The Stratford King Lear, in the hands of Artistic Director Antony Cimolino, was exceptional and must have made many viewers stop and think about the state of Shakespearean production today. It was presented in dress from Shakespeare’s Jacobethan era and, as a result, had a feel of great authenticity, giving viewers an opportunity to appreciate what the play might have been like when first viewed.
Having become a firm fan of traditional productions in a mere 2½ hours, it was something of a shock to discover that the next outing directed for the company by the great Robert Lepage came from the polar opposite end of the scale.
His Coriolanus, equally fine, took modern day intrusion to its extreme, including conversations in a radio studio, battle scenes using toy soldiers and a video camera and even an interchange in Shakespeare’s language via text messaging.
The question therefore arises as to whether, in an ideal world, Shakespeare should be period or contemporary. However, it isn’t as simple as that.
Lepage chose to set Coriolanus in the 21st century. He could have gone for period, by which we tend to mean the start of the end of the 16th century, i.e. when Shakespeare was writing, but there is a third way. Coriolanus is set in Roman times and therefore rather than flowing hair on men and women, billowing skirts, ruffs and swords, it can surely be argued that togas and sandals should be de rigueur.
At first sight, modernising the works of Shakespeare might have three different consequences.
First, and far too often, it gives directors the opportunity to superimpose their own interpretation on a play, often to its detriment. The reason that Shakespeare is still popular after 400 years is that he generally got it right. Therefore, trying to “improve” his works is often a recipe for disaster.
Secondly, for reasons that may well be subconscious, modern dress makes Shakespeare seem more accessible. It can often be easier to tune in to his language faster and understand the messages more clearly, particularly in the hands of an adept director.
Thirdly, although many of the plays are timeless, they can speak more easily to current viewers if they are presented in a fashion that is familiar.
You might therefore very reasonably conclude that where the second and third points override the first, modern productions are good news. This is certainly where the vast majority of Artistic Directors seem to have ended up in recent years.
The problem is that too many directors overstep the mark, spoiling a good play in their desperate efforts to make it a better play.
Dressing up the actors in Jacobethan garb can work perfectly for many of the plays, although it is probably often a far from a realistic depiction of the underlying drama. It can be comforting though, to feel that we are seeing something close to the original.
The problem that viewers may have with genuine period costumes and design, picking up on the example of Coriolanus, is that it is then usually necessary to utilise a set featuring towering columns almost overwhelming hordes of citizens wearing togas and this can feel very distant from our own experiences.
There is no perfect solution, but variety makes an interesting life so this critic is very happy to see the full gamut, whether Shakespeare is set in Greek or Roman times, his own era, any time in between or even the future.