Leaders of Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company have countered claims by the Guardian critic Michael Billington that the quality of Shakespearean productions in British theatre has declined in recent times.
They refuted the idea that standards were slipping but acknowledged the importance of protecting the legacy of Shakespearean performance and the challenge of an expectation to be “definitive and relevant”.
Billington sparked a debate last week when he said the level of Shakespearean acting and directing is not what it had been in previously decades, and argued that directors now approach the texts “as if the audience is going to be bored and they have to find ways to popularise the plays”.
Speaking at a Q&A event, he said he was worried about the current practice of staging Shakespeare plays, and questioned “whether we have the capacity to relish the language of the classics”.
His comments were backed by Judi Dench, who said she felt there was an attitude among today’s directors of Shakespeare that they “have to do something different to it”.
Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran disputed that Shakespearean standards were declining, arguing that several recent portrayals rivalled those that Billington said he admired, which included those by Peggy Ashcroft and performers in the 1950s to the 1980s.
“I would say some of the performances of the canon we have gone through – David Tennant as Richard II, Tony Sher as Falstaff, Lucy Phelps in Measure for Measure and Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet – I think they stand with any of the great productions, the great performances, of all time,” Doran told The Stage.
He also addressed Billington’s claims that contemporary productions tried to popularise the work.
He said: “There are of course directors who want to use Shakespeare to say something, and interpretation is a very challenging and interesting thing. I employ directors who want to direct Shakespeare, but not like I direct Shakespeare. I want them to do it differently.
“You can’t just do Shakespeare, you have to understand what it is, how that language is crafted, and that takes time, effort and discipline, and we have to be alert. So I think both Judi and Michael are right to make sure those standards are upheld.”
Doran referred to the RSC’s ‘Shakespeare Gymnasium’, which the company runs with actors to ensure the legacies of individuals such as voice coach Cicely Berry and RSC co-founder John Barton, who both died last year, remain strong.
Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, said the plays would “always struggle under the pressures of literalism and colloquialism and an expectation to be definitive and relevant”, but suggested that “maybe it’s more useful to be necessary than relevant”.
“Honesty and true presence are of course frightening and really hard to achieve, but I’m not sure there is a ‘right’ way to speak those dialogues, to speak Shakespeare,” she said.
“There are no theories or rules. Are you telling your truth or aren’t you?… That’s far more important, transcendent and, I would say, necessary, than whether the words sound right.”
Billington claimed there seemed to be a diminished appetite for Shakespeare among contemporary practitioners, and that he felt they were “apologising” for staging the plays by introducing choices such as “panto-style” interaction with audiences.
Stanley Wells, a leading Shakespeare scholar, agreed with Billington’s arguments, and said: “There are still fine Shakespeare productions and performances from younger, as well as more seasoned, actors, but there is also a tendency to sacrifice artistic to social considerations, which results in a superficial modishness rather than a genuine engagement with the Shakespeare text and its values.”