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Andrzej Lukowski: Shakespeare’s works reflect the best of times and the worst of times

Christopher Eccleston in Macbeth at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, in 2018. The number of Macbeths last year "surely reflected gloom at the crumbling state of Britain", says Andrzej Lukowski. Photo: The Other Richard
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Last year, Macbeth was all the rage. The year before that it was Julius Caesar. In 2019, it’s going to be wall-to-wall A Midsummer Night’s Dreams. Many complain that British theatres stage too much Shakespeare. To them, the regular instances of exactly the same Shakespeare play being performed across multiple theatres at the same time must feel like straight-up trolling.

But what causes these Stratfordian pile-ups? And are they symptomatic of lazy scheduling? Or are they rather symptomatic of Shakespeare’s sheer immortal brilliance, endlessly relevant works that don’t so much get programmed as programme themselves in line with the times? The latter, popular, opinion is persuasive. The glut of Caesars surely reflected concern at the rise of populist politics in the West (if we can allow New York shows, then 2017’s Shakespeare in the Park production did Caesar-as-actual-Trump).

The bewildering array of Macbeths last year, including at the National, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, surely reflected gloom at the crumbling state of Britain. That three major London theatres – the Globe, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the Bridge – will be running concurrent productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer is significant. Dream seems a solid bet for worried artistic directors considering what to programme as Brexit reality bites. It is popular and jolly enough to appeal to a depressed audience, malleable enough as an allegory that you can probably do something clever with it as the uncertain times dictate.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems a solid bet for worried artistic directors considering what to programme as Brexit reality bites

Of Shakespeare’s plays, probably only 20 get staged regularly. There is not going to be a year in which numerous theatres decide to have a crack at Henry VIII. As our national playwright, Shakespeare is staged a lot, and overwhelmingly those productions are drawn from those 20 most popular plays. Repetition is inevitable. Nonetheless, it isn’t a stretch to say: yes,you can absolutely gauge the national mood from Shakespeare. That’s because artistic directors can’t just programme a Shakespeare play without doing something with it, and almost every director will aim to tease out modern parallels.

Regardless of what he was thinking when he programmed it, it was relatively easy for Nicholas Hytner to plonk a red MAGA-style baseball cap on the head of his Caesar and let our minds drift towards the play’s parallels with Trump. It would have been much harder to commission a new play about Trump and have it ready to run during the same timeframe.

Will this summer spell light-hearted Dreams, cynical Dreams, sexy Dreams, avant-garde Dreams? The answer will come on March 29, when we can all work out how screwed we are. But if you hopped forwards six months and watched the shows, you might get more than an inkling of the political climate. In adopting Shakespeare as our national playwright, we strive to keep him eternally relevant – in exchange for his immortality, he is forced to reflect our times, ghastly as they may be.

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