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Please be creative with Shakespeare so I don’t gouge my eyeballs out

How should one approach Shakespeare?  I don’t want to appear from a mountain bearing commandments written in stone how exactly to deal with the works of England’s most famous and respected author, however I would like to indulge within this little essay a few thoughts of my own on the topic if you don’t mind.  The fact is, Shakespeare is far from uncommon.  His plays are everywhere, like a poetic breeze that blows through the theatres of England.  Naturally many of his verses are the finest pieces of English Literature ever written, the characters he paints dynamically constructed and intriguing and the stories timeless.  Not to mention the fact he gets bums on seats and the very factor:  ‘Written by William Shakespeare’ does nothing if not help the ticket sales.  Therefore, when embarking on a new project with Shakespeare, what would I personally consider with this blank slate before me?  It has to be worthwhile to me.

I don’t care too much for ticket sales, that’s marketing’s problem.  What I do care about is originality.  Because surely that’s what art is?  Originality.  Being creative, new, innovative.  I don’t mean something entirely bizarre, like set the play underwater nor have Hamlet converse in interpretive dance.  I don’t think being creative means giving Richard III the ability to fly, nor having a billion candles litter the stage (that’s just a fire hazard).  I don’t mean coming up with something whacky for the sake of it.  But what it do mean, quite bluntly, with so much competition with Shakespeare’s name, it needs to have some sort of interesting take.  Not a ‘spin’ or a ‘gimmick’, but some creative thought, something the director and the cast have explored, developed, latched onto.  Something in the text that, over these hundreds of years and dry ink, speaks to the cast.

The point in question is The Tempest. I can count Barry Rutter, Patrick Stewart’s and Anthony Sher among the one’s I’ve seen over the past few years that stick in my mind.  And each has something that set them apart which made them very different in their performances.  Northern Broadsides production (as always) employed live music, Stewart’s Hollywood return gave us a performance loaded with mysticism, shamanic rituals and a taste of the ghostly spiritual world.  Anthony Sher’s recent Prospero was a man who found it hard to express love for Ariel amid a backdrop of Post-Colonial South African imagery.  And yet a few weeks ago I saw a performance which wasted my time entirely.  I don’t want to start ranting about this performance like some poor reviewer, but suffice to say (to me personally) the play had about as many layers as a crater.  Prospero was constantly assuming the pose of a verse actor, speaking up high, arms flailing, legs ready as if to take a boxer’s blow.  Costume was limited to the predictable, Caliban predictably angry, the plotters predictably sneery and Trinculo and Stephano predictably foolish.  I felt like I was simply reading the text (which I can do for free at home).

Now, again, I must be clear:  I’m not asking them to do miracles with the set.  It’s not a question of budget.  They don’t have to be whacky or surreal or modern with the play.  They don’t have to walk in the shoes of ‘The Greats’ or analyse the play like some brainbox Oxbridge professor.  But they do need to make some effort in doing something worth seeing, else why not simply just sit down and read the play blankly and mundanely?  To stage it is to breathe some life, take the characters off the page and cast the play into the physical world.  I can say the only thing they did remotely original was Ariel was played by choral speaking by the rest of the cast, which in all fairness I’m sure any A-Level Student could come up with that little trick and only came about through a lack of budget.  I’ve never studied The Tempest, so I don’t claim to be an expert.  But I’ve seen the play and know the themes.  I’m not a professional actor, and don’t consider myself an expert director.  I’m still learning the tricks of the trade.  But even I can think of a few little ideas or areas within the play that can give it that little extra dimension.  Prospero treats his servant so badly, how are we to emphasise with him as a character?  Miranda has never seen another human being expect her father and Caliban.  She’s spent her entire life in solitude; surely she’s going to have strange social skills?  Present to the audience the mystery of this bizarre and fantastical island.  These days webs of political intrigue and back-stabbing are cornerstones of BBC news reports as the daily pastimes of politicians are revealed to the nation, and who better than villains Antonio and Sebastian to explore this?  How do they spin their lies?  How does the thought of bloodshed  affect them?  Stephano and Trinculo are obviously a drunken comical pair, but are they also villains capable of usurping control and murder for their own machinations?  Is it the booze or are they secretly ambitious murderers?

The fact is there are so many different angles and thought processes you can apply to any play, and I merely use The Tempest as an example.  But the complexity of the text allows the director and cast real freedom to experiment and layer and take or emphasise whatever they want with the play.  It’s really very easy with Shakespeare whose work can be interpreted a million different ways.  So essentially the point I’m trying to make is when beginning a project with Shakespeare, when blocking, rehearsing and working with the text, always bear in mind with so many clones infesting theatres across the county try and delve a little deeply to make sure that your performance is individual and fresh.  I implore you, because I can’t sit though another Dull-as-Dishwater play again.