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Michael Coveney: Is our obsession with updating the classics diluting their essence?

Chukwudi Iwuji and Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Contemporary reboots of the great works of world theatre aim to ‘reclaim them for our time’. But is something being lost along the way?

There is a strange fallacy at the root of much theatre production and adaptation of the classics that is currently all the rage, and it pertains to recent complaints by David Hare that we are forgetting how to “do” them and by Michael Billington that the National Theatre in particular (and I’d add the Royal Shakespeare Company) are failing in their obligation to the repertoire.

Even those who see merit in these complaints are not -particularly concerned about them. There’s a mood abroad that the classics don’t matter unless they are rewritten on our terms. This relates to another recent complaint, by Judi Dench, that young actors have no curiosity about the past or traditions of acting they wish either to emulate or obliterate.

Even Nicholas Hytner, in Balancing Acts, his highly readable new memoir of running the National for 10 years, seems scarcely bothered that Wycherley and Ben Jonson are hard to perform because their language – however brilliant, however germane to our own ever-evolutionary tongue – is increasingly difficult and arcane; the same problem, he suggests, will apply to Shakespeare in 30 years’ time.

The relevance of these plays has been diminished by changing the rules of interpretation

What concerns me is not so much that this is happening, but that it is happening without any sort of critical resistance. There’s an arrogance abroad – of course, I mean at home; this is very much a “Brexity” thing, despite Hare deploring a European-style (more German than French) penchant for “infecting” the classics – that, so what, who cares? Richard Eyre thinks negligence of the true meaning of the classics, and the desire to best reclaim them for our times by honouring that meaning, is a cyclical thing: that we will one day return to the worlds of Aeschylus, Ibsen and Lorca by performing the plays they actually wrote rather than peddling modish, possessive and skewed, politically correct rewrites of them.

This is all a bit tricky in a world running riot with unseemly quota demands and bodies like the Arts Council stuck into the language of “provision”, gender-balancing, access and social engineering without understanding that art speaks a language of its own, merit is self-explanatory and audiences will flock to theatres (or not) of their own accord, not in some system of patronising “we think this is good for you” coercion.

There are some now who think we should censor or rewrite, or just ignore, playwrights like John Osborne and Christopher Hampton because they detect (wrongly) misogyny in Look Back in Anger or The Philanthropist. One critic lambasted Hare for providing gratuitous nudity in his adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn without understanding the inflammatory sexual point (sic) the author and playwright were making.

Stephen Boxer in The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Stephen Boxer in The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There’s been a fascinating revival of Jacobean playwright James Shirley’s tragedy The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse recently – the sort of play you’d have expected the RSC to be doing, as indeed they did Shirley’s delightful and prophetically feminist Hyde Park 30 years ago. It is revealed, even in Justin Audibert’s small-scale, bare-bones production, to be some kind of masterpiece, an imbroglio of lust, power and revenge with a monstrously satanic title role occupied with indecent relish and glee by Stephen Boxer. Yet the programme contains this by Marxist academic Terry Eagleton: “Tragedy is unfashionable because it smacks of virile warriors and immolated virgins, cosmic fatality and stoical acquiescence… its tone is too solemn and portentous for a streetwise, sceptical culture.”

I hear a muffled ‘hear, hear’ in the background from playwright Simon Stephens, who says in his A Working Diary, published last year, that he was disappointed in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at the Almeida because he didn’t learn enough about himself in the play, concluding that “this is what I go to the theatre for: not to learn about other worlds but to learn about myself”. Oh, really? It’s sort of obvious that we all do that to some extent, but I always assumed that most playgoers find out about themselves most efficiently by visiting other worlds, other dreams, other cultures, other sets of moral and philosophical guidelines. And this is where the classics come in.

Billie Piper in Yerma. Photo: Johan Persson
Billie Piper in Yerma. Photo: Johan Persson

Billie Piper and Ruth Wilson gave compelling performances last year, respectively, in Lorca’s Yerma and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. But the Lorca-ness of Lorca (his poetry, chants, choric passages, sexual repression, rustic primitivism) was deliberately traded for a ‘recognisable’ cultural update. And the Ibsen-ness of Ibsen (stuffy domestic climate, New Woman radicalism, paternal fixation, stilted expression) exchanged for something looser, limbo-like, art house, with Tesman and Loevberg played by actors perversely cast the wrong way round.

Common to both productions by Simon Stone and Ivo van Hove was a neutralising aesthetic that stripped the plays of their true social context. By which I don’t mean I’m complaining about the lack of peasant smocks in the one and top hats and rib-cracking corsetry in the other. Costume does not have to be ‘period’, nor the furnishings, to convey 19th or even 20th-century meanings. Philip Prowse proved that for years at the Glasgow Citizens. It’s the poetic heart of these plays that has gone missing, and their relevance diminished, ironically, by changing the rules of interpretation.

A scene from Salome at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

When a director like Yael Farber tries something genuinely radical – turning the myth of Salome, as received through Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, on its head in a new play of her own, full of subversive historical assertion and political righteousness – she gets critically lambasted. It’s by no means a perfect piece at the NT, and it’s slow – since when was that a crime? – but the staging is extraordinary, the music and lighting of Adam Cork and Tim Lutkin both beautiful and troubling.

Van Hove – whose work I admire most when performed by his own Toneelgroep of Amsterdam – has been at it again in the staging of  Visconti’s Obsession starring Jude Law at the Barbican. The film is a 1943 masterpiece of neo-realism, about murder and lust, and wanderlust, but it’s mainly about these things in a properly defined social setting. Law smoulders magnificently for two hours. But the friend he makes on the road – in the film, a Spanish Civil War veteran, which explains everything about him – is a gay hustler, the prostitute de-sexualised as a timid dancer “on tour” – in what, and where, exactly? They ‘belong’ nowhere.

Christine Rice, Audrey Luna and Sally Matthews in The Exterminating Angel at Royal Opera House, London
Christine Rice, Audrey Luna and Sally Matthews in The Exterminating Angel at Royal Opera House, London

No such wanton misunderstanding characterises Thomas Ades’ stunning new opera derived from another cinematic masterpiece, Bunuel’s surreal The Exterminating Angel (1962) in which a bunch of opera-going bourgeoisie are trapped in a nightmare stasis of no food, rising stench, strange incursion of dreams, sheep and a small grizzly bear. The tone and temper of the film, its tensions and silences, are matched by the strangeness of the music. The social and political application, the sense of foreboding in Franco’s Spain, is beyond reproducing, as is Bunuel’s final town-square massacre (with the sheep running back into the church). But all that is replaced with something just as theatrical and enigmatic: Hildegard Bechtler’s design swings round and frames the decadent opera-goers – played by Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen – in a frieze, facing mutinous dissenters on the street and, by implication, in the audience. Bravo! And die!

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