The Green Room: Is Shakespeare too difficult for modern audiences?

Public Theater’s Julius Caesar in Central Park, New York, attracted controversy for drawing parallels with Donald Trump’s rise to power. Do concept-driven productions make Shakespeare easier for today’s theatregoers to understand? Photo: Joan Marcus

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Ros Clifford

Ros Clifford is 30. Currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

John Pepper is 31 and has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and film.

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road


Peter Quince is a 71-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Jenny If you’re American and vote Trump it seems to be – what about Julius Caesar?

Jon That’s an interesting one, not just for the production at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, but also because it seems to be on at every British theatre at the moment.

Peter It certainly shouldn’t be too difficult.

John I’m not sure the difficulty or ease of Shakespeare has changed much.

Gary Shakespeare is flexible. Overall, it’s as difficult – or not – as you make it.

Ros Understanding and engagement is down to the production. Also, Shakespeare really needs to be taught better.

Peter Yes, there’s a problem with the decline of Shakespeare teaching in schools.

Vivian Like many arts subjects, it really does need to be taught better.

John But now they have access to online resources. NT Live is freely available to schools.

Peter I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. I suspect the audiences are ageing.

Jon I’ve heard countless actors say that Shakespeare is routinely rewritten in rehearsals by directors because they don’t think an audience will understand the original language.

Jenny I’ve heard of people cutting and making the storytelling simpler, but rewriting?

Ros The Shakespeare plays I’ve seen recently that made most sense to me were the ones that relied on the text and simple storytelling. They didn’t need reworking or updating.

Peter Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol has done some very clever rewrites – but for more adventurous reasons than the audience’s understanding.

Jenny There’s an American range of Shakespeare books with the most awful ‘modernised’ text alongside the original. It is painful to read.

John Shakespeare is hard, but with the hours put in for understanding and delivery (and a decent director) it should be understandable.

Gary The people most likely to have the confidence to make Shakespeare productions tend to be too safe and take advantage of an existing, educated audience.

Jenny I wonder if Shakespeare would have been strict about ‘performing rights’. You can’t cut a note of Bernstein’s music or change the choreography, in West Side Story, for example.

Vivian Why not rewrite? Being too reverent can make it too dusty for people to be bothered to engage with it. But of course if it’s a bad rewrite then that’s a different problem.

Peter It’s sensible to cut occasional classical allusions and jokes that don’t work now, but definitely not actually rewriting. Any Shakespeare rehearsal needs to start with table work so that every actor understands the play.

Jenny I often see Shakespeare productions where actors on stage don’t seem to understand what they are saying.

Jon That happens a lot. I once got caught out by a director coasting through a speech without thinking about what it might mean.

John Are you sure you want to admit to that?

Jon Good point. Peter mentioned tweaking classical allusions and topical jokes – how about individual words? Who here would replace, say ‘bark’ with ‘ship’?

Peter I wouldn’t – it’s not a difficult word. And the sound of a Shakespearean line is important.

John A lot of Shakespeare is about context. I wouldn’t know that bark meant ship, but if the line is delivered properly, it should be easy enough to work out.

Jenny Rewriting is a cop out. Tell the story better, make cuts, but no need to rewrite.

Peter “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”. Would you change bourn? I wouldn’t. It would jar on the ears of people who knew the play and any intelligent listener could guess its meaning.

Vivian Replace it with ‘turnip’ if you want. It doesn’t matter as long as you have a reason and the talent and the love of live performance to create something magical for humans to see on a night out away from the telly.

Jon That takes us back to Ros’ earlier point about storytelling.

Ros Exactly. I don’t see why Shakespeare has to be rewritten for a modern audience to understand it. Just listen to the words.

Jon So worry less about the language and focus more on the story?

Peter  Worry about the language a lot. That’s what tells the story. Make Shakespeare clear.

John They have to work side by side. They should complement each other.

Jenny Better teaching of Shakespeare in drama colleges and in universities will enable future practitioners to tell his stories well.

John Done well, Shakespeare is the best.

Jenny But there are far too many productions of Twelfth Night at the moment.