I sympathize with theatre critics who write for dead-tree publications.
Where the dead-tree critic has the discipline of precise column inches, I have the pleasure of writing as little or as much as I need. In some columns I get to gas on for pages and pages. Some columns get to be rather short.
And in the summer, the newspaper writer has the necessity of output even though opening nights have dried up for the season.
I refer to Peter Marks' June 29th article in the Washington Post:
"Et Tu, Dude? Why Do Directors Take Shakespeare
So Far From His Contexts?"
In many ways Marks enters a storied chorus of plaintive 20th century voices that said, "Why do they have to muck up Shakespeare?"
Now, please understand I have no particular axe to grind with Mr. Marks specifically. He does open the second paragraph with this thesis, "It is the fashion in these meddling times — now perhaps more than ever — to put the doublets in mothballs and tie up Shakespeare in the threads of ponderous context." Given that he's writing for the general reader, he fails to note the infamous Thomas Betterton King Lear during England's Restoration that omitted Fool and had Cordelia live happily ever after as Edgar's wife. One suspects that Betterton meddled more than the average bear.
But I eschew the particulars of Marks' article to go to the general thesis. Why do they muck about with Shakespeare?
First, we have to note that the "they" of the thesis usually denotes some director, usually of the insane type. A person who is touched more with madness than with creativity. Usually, it's a man (though not always). It's such a meme in the culture that it was a gag in The Goodbye Girl back in 1977.
Stupid directors. They lure designers and actors from the true path and do stupid shows.
Well, let's see if there's a possibility of dis-entangling the threads of this argument.
First, allow a fundamental point. Sir Jonathan Miller (in a lecture I heard him give about 30 years ago) made the obvious point that as art objects go through history an audience's view of the art objects change. So, if my extraordinarily wealthy great-aunt were to sponsor a trip for a crack team to break into the Louvre and add arms to the Venus de Milo and paint it – the crack team would probably be arrested for vandalism, not restoration. In 2012 we don't see the Venus as its original viewers did. And to move to the obvious example, The Merchant of Venice in a post-Holocaust world is going to have vastly different resonances for a modern audience as contrasted with the original audience.
Next, sometimes it's argued that the comedies provide more room for shifts in time and place than, say, the histories. As often as not, the comedies seem to be in made up places that highly resemble Shakespeare's England. But we have actual artwork that purports to show Henry V or Richard III. We know when they lived. So Richard III has to dress in a specific way, thank you very much. Don't muck around with history.
Shakespeare was not an historian. Henry V could speak French just fine, thank you very much. But Shakespeare needed Henry to *not* speak French for dramatic and political reasons. So all of a sudden, Henry is no longer bi-lingual and (probably) tri-lingual (Henry's England included Middle English, French, and Latin). And despite Italian, Greek, or other setting – all of Shakespeare's characters are English. Othello and Shylock may be exotic characters (to name two), but they are in the realm of English exoticism as any reading of continental drama by Shakespeare's contemporaries quickly show.
Nevertheless, why can't we show Shakespeare as he intended the plays to be shown?
This is an interesting question. And, indeed, there have been a growing number of "historical" productions of Shakespeare in which the actors had limited rehearsal, only had "cue" scripts, etc.
So-called "historic" production is, in fact, a picking-and-choosing use of history. We choose to use this bit of historic fact, but not that bit. For example, I doubt many "historic" producers of Shakespeare include a company of about 6-8 men who've each invested several years' worker's wages to buy shares in a company and work together day in and day out over several years performing together. As any actor who has ever been on a stage knows, working with someone you've worked with over several years is different than working with someone you met last week. Also, that issue of ownership is different than being the actor who comes in to work for a salary and leaves when the run is over. (I'm not commenting on the goodness or badness of it – simply the difference of it.) The point I mean by these details is this: when an "historic production" uses limited rehearsal techniques or whatever else people say is an historic production – those productions don't take into account how years of working together, the professional ownership, and (oh, by the way) having your genius colleague write parts in his plays suited directly to your actor talents (c.f. Burbage and "mad" scenes).
So we get to the point of the issue. We can agree, I think, that *all* productions of Shakespeare's plays are interpretations of some sort. Fine. Where does that leave us? Back in the 1990s I used to rail in graduate school against what I called, "Wouldn't It Be Neat-ism." This I think is always a problem. Someone in the project uses varying levels of anachronism as a glib and surface-y replacement for meaningfully engaging with the material. We can all fault that. The problem is that as an audience, we may be unaware that what we took as a glib and surface-y whitewash was, in fact, a real attempt by the producing organization to open up the play in a new and interesting way.
My daughter is nearly two. When she gets a new toy, it really doesn't matter what the toy developers thought the purpose of the toy would be, my daughter will use the toy to her own devices. I think the main difference between American theatre and European theatre is the issue of reverence. I think Americans hold Shakespeare's plays in more reverence than do the Europeans. Recently, I read about a production of Hamlet in which different characters of the play did "To be or not to be . . ." Hamlet was under constant surveillance by everybody, so all of them had heard him say it. So the different characters reported, repeated, or recited what they'd heard Hamlet say earlier. It solves a problem in an interesting way. Derek Jacobi – both when he played the part and when he directed Branagh in the role – had Ophelia stay in the room so that Hamlet said the speech to her. Another solution to a problem.
In the end, changes in setting arise out of ways to think about design. Prior to the early 19th century, Shakespearean production tended to be shown in whatever the contemporary style of dress was. What else would you wear? Antiquarians like James Planche helped theatre companies take the plunge into historically accurate costuming. But it's unclear that Shakespeare and Burbage cared about historical accuracy in the look of King John.
As an actor who has done a fair amount of Shakespeare in his day, I've been in traditional productions and more anachronistic productions. I had a beautifully quilted brown doublet when I played Gonzalo in The Tempest. I wore a gorgeous late 19th century country gentleman's outfit with a wonderful bowler hat as Jacques in As You Like It. Another time I played Duke Senior in As You Like It costumed as a kind of older, wiser Robin Hood. While the costumes helped me with the character (as every good actor knows) I'm not certain it fundamentally changed the relationships between characters – which is the basis of the plays in the first place. (Well. . . . along with some cracking good stories.)
I think the biggest challenge is to remove Shakespeare from particularity in time and place. I don't think most designers like that. When I did Macbeth this last spring, I drove the designers to distraction by saying that I didn't want it in a specific time. How to do that without being in black turtlenecks is tough for some costumers.
So where does this leave us? In the end, whenever we meet Shakespeare in the rehearsal room and on the stage we're working to honestly join with him in the process of making theatre. As a playwright he's utterly mad. Sure have an old king run out into a thunderstorm and argue with the winds. I know what, let's throw in a song. Why not? Losing track of the show? Here's a little fight. Shakespeare will put anything anywhere to keep an audience's attention.
So we work to meet him. He's usually smarter than I am. Outside of that, the rest is fair game. As a great critic pointed out, even if someone has mucked about with the play, the play is still there for the next person to work with.
In the end, I would say that a strong production is a strong production and a weak one is going to be weak regardless of the setting or anything else.
And you can quote me on that.