Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Playing with our Willy

David Adams explores the way Shakespeare hass been presented

[This article first appeared in The Western Mail]

It was a packed lecture hall in the main university of one of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. I was there to talk about contemporary British theatre and theatre criticism to an audience of enthusiastic young students – and a front row of stern looking men in double-breasted suits.

I had a pile of video tapes and let the shows do the talking, the selection of short extracts intriguing the audience, who had not only heard very little of Western theatre criticism but seen very little of Western theatre.

It was just after a few minutes of Volcano Theatre’s high-energy version of Macbeth, where they played the original against a backdrop of the story of Fred and Rosemary West’s mass murders, that the men in suits leapt to their feet almost as one.

How dare you, they said. How dare you corrupt us with this filth….

I looked desperately at my hosts, the university professors. They looked back: I was on my own.

What, exactly, did they mean, I asked ?

What they meant was how dare I show a version of Macbeth that was not firmly set in some pre-Elizabethan time. How dare I allow these students to see a production that used rock music and video. How dare I present Shakespeare as if it were about real life.

What, I asked innocently, was the problem ?

The problem, it seemed, was that Shakespeare is even more sacrosanct in the old Soviet Union than here: he, Shakespeare that is, would be horrified to see his work “distorted”, said the suits. How dare anyone muck around with Shakespeare (translating him into Russian clearly isn’t mucking around).

What followed was largely out of my hands. After suggesting that we couldn’t actually know what Shakespeare would have felt, and even if we did surely the ownership of a play is not tied to the author, the students took over. With whoops and cheers my cause was taken up by young people who engaged with the suits so energetically the profs could hardly contain their delight.

The suits stormed out, I was cheered and the university hosts diplomatically scuttled off to sooth their special guests.

What would those apparatchiks make of the Shakespeare that’s heading to Wales later this month – Shakespeare’s R&J, with an all-male cast ?

Would we have to point out that while it may seem radical to conservative Soviet scholars, all-male Shakespeare productions actually date back to… er, Shakespeare. As those who have seen Shakespeare in Love know well, when young Will was churning out his smash hits women weren’t actually allowed to act. All-male versions were what you got, with all the attendant innuendoes and jokes – As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, rely on the audience knowing the girl was played by a lad, made even more gender-bendingly amusing by having the boys dressed as girls dressed as boys.

But not long after Shakespeare died, during the Restoration, as soon as those darned feminists started clamouring for their rights (or was it the lecherous men demanding the girls got up on stage and showed their powdered décolletage ?), females were generally played by females. In fact males have been played by females sometimes, too, as in Sara Bernhardt’s classic Hamlet, then Sybil Thorndike’s Prince Hal and Lear’s Fool and not so long ago Fiona Shaw’s Richard II.

More recently there’s been a postmodernist twist on it all with men playing women again – they say postmodernism is revisiting the past, but with irony. That was presumably the purpose of the notorious Cheek by Jowl productions in the late 80s and early 90s of Shakespeare with an all-male cast, with maybe just a soupcon of gay politics. Cardiff’s own Mappa Mundi did the same thing with Taming of the Shrew.
Romeo and Juliet is, of course, often mucked around with – it’s yielded films like West Side Story as well as Baz Lurhman’s modern classic and several ballet versions.
Shakespeare’s R&J is clearly something else, a production that after great success in New York came to the UK for the Bath Shakespeare Festival before taking the West End by storm in September last year.
In Joe Calario’s adaptation, four boys, pupils at a repressive Catholic boarding school, find a banned copy of Shakespeare's classic and begin a secret enactment by night. As the boys become bound up in the play's events, they spark new insights into the classic text and create what some critics have praised as a thrilling theatrical experience.
But in Wales, land of rugby, hairy legs and hard men ?

In truth Welsh directors and companies have been mucking around with Shakespeare for some time.

Michael Bogdanov, our only truly internationally-renowned director, built his career on mucking around with Shakespeare – to great effect. His English Shakespeare Company’s cycle of history plays is a classic interpretation, thanks to relocating the plays in more modern times, with punks and modern warfare - Henry V addresses not the troops before Agincourt but a mob of football hooligans while Richard III is a cunning media manipulator.

Bogdonov’s Macbeth stalked a land laid waste by a holocaust while last year his all-Welsh Merchant of Venice was all about contemporary corruption and greed in the business world. Last year he also restaged Moliere’s 17th-century comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as a musical set in 1930s Prohibition America.

Cardiff-based director Jamie Garven has tackled Macbeth at least twice, once making him caught in a very modern conflict that looked like Bosnia, another time a Mafiosa villain. Helen Kaut-Howson’s Much Ado About Nothing at Theatr Clwyd set Shakespeare in the Gulf War.

The Sherman production of Romeo and Juliet in the mid-Nineties set the story in 20th-century Spain.

And while the Americans grab the headlines our children are currently being offered more mucking-about with Charles Way’s take on The Tempest, Eye of the Storm, revived by Theatr Iolo with the aim of “provoking young people to explore the themes of father-daughter relationships, tempestuous teenagerhood, love, trust and independence.”

It’s not just Shakespeare, either: at the end of the month Martin Houghton’s production of Sophocles’ Electra, some 2500 years old, gets a modern make-over at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The same Greek playwright’s Antigone story was successfully transposed to the Valleys by Dic Edwards in his modern version for Spectacle Theatre a year or so ago.

Wales Actors Company is touring the country with Dr Faustus, a play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and friends, Kit Marlow, that is set in a world of CCTV and computers, and which director Paul Garnault sees as touching on the US invasion of Iraq, for example.

The American R&J may grab the headlines but actually our own Volcano Theatre Company are at this moment plotting in Swansea a subversive version of the play that is based on another doomed romance, that of Diana and Dodi. Expect more outrage than when they mucked around with Macbeth, and even with (horror of horrors !) Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, where the mucking around actually got their version banned.

Mucky people as they are, they have also managed to turn the darlings of the middle-class Alan Ayckbourn and Noel Coward on their heads in recent years. Clearly nothing is safe from these mad iconoclasts.

So what are they doing, these theatre-makers, messing around with the classics ? Are they really suggesting that from Sophocles to Shakespeare playwrights are simply offering opportunities to actors and directors to present something relevant ? That the classics are just that, classics, because they have the capacity to yield insights into behaviour wherever we are ? That Romeo and Juliet isn’t just a story about a couple of Italian teenagers living four hundred years ago ? That Shakespeare can still speak to us as fresh and as urgent as a contemporary playwright ?

Well, really. Bring back the doublet and hose. And make the men in suits happy.

author:David Adams

original source: The Western Mail
29 March 2004


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /