It might seem clear from a look at any theatre season that Shakespeare is alive and well – there are more than two Shakespeare plays on this term in Cambridge. Is there a danger, however, that we continue to watch and read Shakespeare despite him having ossified – that really he’s been entombed by our worshipping culture?
The easiest argument to make is to point to the beautiful poetry, but that’s not entirely convincing. Appealing to true beauty (whatever that is) seems to me like a get out: by what criteria are these plays beautiful, and why should that matter? I think parts of them still are beautiful (they may not always be), but in any case that’s an argument for reading the plays, not for performing them. But it’s in performance where the plays have their real potential for relevancy.
Take, for example, Julius Caesar – a play which is in some senses about power and betrayal. It’s been directed by Orson Welles in a 1937 production which made parallels to Fascist Italy and Germany; a 2012 film, directed by the Taviani brothers, set the play (in Italian) inside a high-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia prison, featuring inmates who are connected with the mafia, and it has been put on in a 2012 RSC production set in modern Africa. All of these draw out different contemporary resonances from the play, as does the 2013 all-female Donmar production. The Donmar recently put on an all-female Henry IV and later this year, the Old Vic is producing an all female King Lear, featuring Glenda Jackson. I’d argue that these latter productions are far more interesting than, for example, Mark Rylance’s 2013 production of Twelfth Night at the Globe – the casts of many Shakespeare plays are all but all-male today, without any return to sixteenth-century casting practices.
It’s up to directors to reinvigorate these plays and make them relevant. Certainly there’s a place for traditionalist productions like those at the Globe (although I’d argue most of their usefulness is because they can fit a large audience and have cheap tickets); many of the plays are enjoyable because of their plot and their language. But the most worthwhile and rewarding work to do on these plays is on how to re-imagine and rework them for the modern theatre without losing their language. An imperative way to do this is through colour- and gender-blind casting – there can be few, if any, easier ways to connect the plays to our world.