Is Shakespeare dying?

In 200 years, Shakespeare will be faintly visible, like Chaucer.  He’ll need translating. – Peter Hall (2003)

The 1960’s.  Looking forward to the white-hot technological future, whilst celebrating the glories of the past.   A second Elizabethan Age!  (Scotland, of course, never had a first one). 

Shakespeare’s plays had always been staged across the world, but the sixties were a new dawn for the old bard. 

He would speak to us afresh.  Shakespeare Our Contemporary.  Shakespeare – the living, modern playwright.  The Royal Shakespeare Company was set up in 1961.  Rooted in the notion of his relevance to us all, here and now.  Shakespeare’s plays have enjoyed an unbroken run in theatres ever since.

Will – the man – shuffled off this mortal coil in 1616, but you can still hear his heartbeat:

ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM/ ti-TUM.

Five feet, each with two beats, to the line.  Each foot has a soft beat, then a hard one.  The iambic pentameter.

Not only the beat of your heart, but the length of your breath.  Blood and air.  What could be more natural? 

Like the opening line of Twelfth Night:

if-MUS/ ic-BE/ the-FOOD/ of-LOVE/ play-ON

Or, the most famous one of all:

To-BE/ or-NOT/ to-BE/ that-IS/ the-QUESTION. 

OK, so that last foot has 3 beats, but don’t nitpick – it just shows his flexibility!

It’s all about stress.  And iambic contains the phrase I am.  Surely, he should still connect to our me generation!

Or could things be changing?  Great characters and plots, but what if the rhythm of the language doesn’t work anymore?  If the music dies, can the heart beat on?  Has death sucked the honey of the breath?

Young actors are no longer versed in Shakespeare, says the current RSC boss, Gregory Doran.  The company’s setting up a Shakespeare Gym, a sort of treadmill for the voice, so that everybody has iambic pentameter in their bloodstream.

If you train to be an actor, with an eye on Netflix and movies, do you need to be able to speak this kind of verse?  Def-i-nite-ly, opines Dame Judi.  Can drama schools, academies and conservatoires be expected to teach this peculiar language?

Giles Havergal, former director of the Citizens’, now teaches drama students and opera singers in Glasgow, London and San Francisco to speak Shakespeare.  His approach is to get the meaning right: The important thing is to know what you’re saying – then the rhythm can take care of itself.

Giles thinks the advantage of understanding Elizabethan verse goes beyond the bard (who, he adds, is still very popular with audiences).  Speak Shakespeare and you can do Pinter, Stoppard and, especially, Beckett.

Two friends, both theatregoers, hear the word Shakespeare and make the over-the-top-of-my-head gesture.  Thousands – based on school experience or visits to worthy, dull, remote productions – feel the same.

Is it all Greek to us?  If Shakespeare’s worth keeping, should we stop worrying so much about how the lines are spoken and find 21st century ways to bring the scripts to life?  Ditch the impenetrable words and use modern ones instead?

Perhaps the memorable Shakespeares are the ones that reinvent the plays, so that they get through to a broad audience.  If you’re a director or an actor, that’s the job: find ways of interpreting these 400-year-old scripts so that they come to life for people today.

The impossible-to-stage Taming of the Shrew (too misogynistic) was given a powerful turn-it-on-its-head production last year by the Tron, Glasgow and Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, thanks to Jo Clifford’s radical reworking of the script.

The Citizens’, in 2017, distilled the Scottish play down to just 2 actors in The Macbeths, intensifying the tragedy into a compelling studio version, adapted by Frances Poet.

Mark Rylance played Richard III at the Globe, London, in 2012.  I’ll never forget how his comic brilliance almost sent the character up, yet connected to the audience.  When a plane flew over this outdoor venue, he pointed up, in anachronistic wonder!

The Baz Luhrmann film of Romeo and Juliet, with Mafia Montagues and Camorra Capulets, grossed millions.  And every single line was the original text.

The imaginative, inventive and irreverent approach doesn’t stop with Shakespeare.

Hamilton, the most successful new musical this century, mashes up history using rap and hip-hop.  Having the founding fathers of America played by a non-white company only heightens its message.

Glasgow’s Blood of the Young company are touring to packed houses in Edinburgh, Oxford, Bristol, Leeds and beyond with Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of).  It cares not a jot for authenticity, yet brings out the themes of the original stronger than ever.  I don’t recall Jane Austen having D’Arcy say Fuck Lady Catherine de Burgh! but it makes perfect sense in this version.

Less respect towards the bard’s words, in order to make his ideas survive?  Need 17th and 21st century language be strange bedfellows?

The technique, the music of verse, will always be a challenge.  But if we want to keep Will’s power, don’t productions need to go further? 

Usurp the bard to keep the bard alive.  Sounds almost Shakespearean!

by Paul BassettGlasgow, February 2020.

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