Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Much as I love Shakespeare, I do get impatient with him sometimes. Well, not him exactly but the way that he’s being presented in repertory, or more precisely that of the thirty-eight (or so) plays in the canon, only about fifteen are regularly production. Rarely do the likes of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, King John, Cymbeline or particularly since it’s my favourite, Measure for Measure, see the inside of the playhouse. Critically they’re all perceived to have faults, or are generally unknown to audiences, so the playhouses tend to stick to the core repertory because that’s what the people want. Which is fine to a point, but those of us with adventurous tastes, it’s a bit disappointing when the only choice is yet another production of King Lear or Romeo & Juliet. What we need is to find a way of presenting the most popular plays which would attract the more seasoned/fatigued/picky theatre goer.
Sandra Clark’s book Shakespeare Made Fit offers another choice. In the restoration period, just after the theatres reopened in 1660 after the Civil War, to fill the gap in product, theatres were given license to produce Shakespeare. The catch was that by law, the versions put on could in general only be revisions and rewrites. So Troilus and Cressida became a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet lived, Measure for Measure and Much Ado were conflated and as Clark describes in her introduction: “Macbeth was done as a semi-opera with witches in flying machines”. Dozens and dozens of works by famous and infamous writers of the time and audiences flocked to them as texts which by then, to them, had become somewhat archaic were given a new lease of life.
Clark selects five examples providing commentary and a reproduction of the text: John Lacy’s Sauny the Scot, a contemporary retelling of The Taming of the Shrew giving the writer/actor a central role commenting on the action; The Tempest by John Drden and William Davenant prefiguring the text to become a comedy of manners; Dryden’s All For Love retelling the final hours in the lives of Anthony and Cleopatra; Nahum Tate’s notorious Lear in which the King lived to see his daughter married and Colley Cibber’s Richard III which drew from Shakespeare’s other histories to try and put the King’s machinations into some kind of historical context (an idea later borrowed by Olivier in making his film version of Shakespeare’s original).
These adaptations have had their fair share of criticism over the years with respected critics like Dover Wilson using words like “dismemberment” and “vandalism” when referring to them. In the commentary, Clark herself painstakingly notes the imperfections, especially in Lear which keeps large chunks of Shakespeare’s text whilst dropping in the material which changes the tone of the story, noting that in places it reads like two different plays mashed together. The deletion of “Now is the winter of our discontent …” from Richard III is hard to take, especially since the replacement, “Now are out Brows bound with Victorious wreaths …” is so pedestrian.
But, as Clark also points out, what these critics failed to notice, is that these adaptation do not destroy the original, they’re merely variations on a theme, just like the numerous films which have been turned out, and in many cases aren't half bad. True, some of these adaptations, especially Tate’s Lear, were the only versions in production for quite some time, but eventually they were superseded again, the Bard’s poetry fighting back and rediscovered. Many of them can stand separate from their sources, in much the same way that Shakespeare’s rarely criticised for rewriting and modifying some earlier version of Hamlet. I think by now you can work out what I’m about to say in the closing paragraph.
Why not put these adaptations back into production? On the page, it’s impossible to get the flavour of what these plays must have been like in the theatre, but there must have been something pretty entertaining about them if they stayed in theatres for so long. I’d love see how the happy conclusion to Lear worked in theatre and it would provide audiences who are less familiar with the originals an opportunity to see why Shakespeare’s work worked so well, his moral ambiguity and imaginative leaps set against the more linear line of thought here. If a theatre wanted to be really creative and the production team were up to it, original and adaptation could run simultaneously for that purpose. Seems a shame to let this part of our theatrical history sit and gather dust.