As the National Youth Theatre launch their Shakespeare masterclass week, our theatre editor takes a look at Britain’s greatest ever dramatist and how not to make him turn in his grave like a ruffled rotisserie chicken…
I spent most of 2001 playing Othello.
An unlikely bit of casting, you might think, for a 15-year old white girl from Oxford. And you would be correct. I was fat, plummy, and the closest I had ever come to military prowess was the day I tore Catherine Sprent’s earring out. But this was year 11 English: my salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood. And my teacher was, presumably, losing his mind.
The thing about Shakespeare is that the sheer genius of the writing tricks us into thinking that the plays are foolproof. If only.
We’ve all witnessed enough buttock-twisting “trendy” Shakespearean updates, slavish four-hour plodders and supremely pork-flavoured flouncing to know that, like a good cheese sandwich, even the great Bard himself can be ruined by people dicking about.
The list of ways that people can kill a good Shakespeare drama is almost as long as the number of words invented by the old fellow himself (and that includes eyeball, gnarled, puking, obscene, gust and hobnob to mention just a tiny few). But here are just a few examples of such cold-blooded savagery (again, those two are his):
Updating the story to modern language.
Hey, guess what? A lot of Shakespearean plots are pretty whack. Richard II? A corporate coup, with beheading. Much Ado About Nothing? A romcom with masks. Measure for Measure? Deal or no deal, with a bit of Semitic wrangling thrown in. And a lot of them aren’t even original. Othello is heavily based on the Italian short story Un Capitano Moro, Romeo and Juliet “heavily borrows” from a short story called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, A Winter’s Tale basically stole the plot from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto.
And so it goes on. And on. The point about Shakespeare, the whole brilliance that beggar'd all description, that ne'er saw his match since first the world begun, that is wonderful out of all hooping, is the poetry. It is the language. Take the Shakespearean language out of Shakespeare and you’re basically left with a flaccid, wax-coloured slab of dreary bugger all.
Not editing the text.
I know what I just said, OK? I know. But seriously, some of Shakespeare’s work has just dated a little. Those hilarious puns that had them rolling in the mud in the 1590s? In 2012 they’re not so hot. It is not murder to cut down a play. It’s not even butchery. It’s just good sense. As Simon Russell Beale told the Guardian recently, “Every time you do a Shakespeare play you have to make a lot of decisions about which words to speak."
Just saying the words.
Okay, dudes, that might work with modern playwriting but to make Shakespeare really sing, you have to understand what you’re saying. A phrase like “bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink” is only funny once you work out that it means a tit grope. Equally, Othello’s “put out the light” is only truly desperate once you realise that this is a man, holding a candle, trying to murder his young wife. If you understand what you’re saying then the audience will too. It’s that simple.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read what @willyshakes is up to on Twitter.
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Illustration by Narcsville.
For more information on the National Youth Theatre Shakespeare masterclass week, visit the NYT page.
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