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Howard Sherman: Shakespeare ‘translations’ can be a gateway drug to the real thing

The company of Play On Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Howard Sherman The company of Play On Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Howard Sherman
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When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced, in the autumn of 2015, that it would be commissioning translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays, battle lines were immediately drawn. Because these translations were not taking the plays into French or Klingon, but rather keeping them in English while revising archaic phrasing or words.

Following the initial news, which was shared in a supportive article from the Wall Street Journal, the highbrow debate was carried out in a range of articles. In that piece, John H McWhorter of Columbia University stated: “I suspect Shakespeare himself, in his eagerness to reach audiences, would be perplexed by the idea that our job today is to settle for half understanding his work. Let’s embrace Shakespeare for real and let him speak to us.”

In the pages of the New York Times, McWhorter’s Columbia colleague James Shapiro took the opposite tack, writing: “This experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent,” before going on to say that the problem with understanding Shakespeare is not the language, but a failing of directors and actors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Publications from the New Yorker and Flavorwire to the Smithsonian Magazine all joined the fray, both for and against.

Richard Eyre hits out at gender-swapped Shakespeare for ‘tampering’ with rhythms of text

Given the high-profile clashes of four years ago, it’s surprising that, as yet, the current New York festival of readings of the OSF project’s works has generated little discussion. Beyond a short preview piece in the Times and an American Theatre magazine follow-up by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner to his original New Yorker essay, the Play On! Festival, at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, hasn’t provoked much comment, let alone umbrage, at the halfway point.

To be fair, the reading festival began in the run-up to the Tony Awards, which tends to obliterate other theatre coverage. These are also single performance readings, not productions, and it’s not fair to critique them as if they were, so critics have likely stayed away. But seeing them is instructive about the results of the project.

I attended two of the readings: The Comedy of Errors, which I’ve never seen or read, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I know fairly well. The former was translated by Christina Anderson, the latter by Jeff Whitty. Other playwrights commissioned include Lloyd Suh (Henry V), Kenneth Cavander (Timon of Athens), Ellen McLaughlin (Coriolanus), Ranjit Bolt (Much Ado About Nothing) and Migdalia Cruz (Richard III).

Both texts I heard were respectful of rhyme and meter, and while on occasion modern words or phrases were apparent (Shakespeare never wrote “Yahoo!” as far as I know), the revised language was overall clarifying without being jarring. The texts would only be construed as sacrilege by absolute purists, who no doubt storm out of every Shakespeare production the moment dialogue or scenes are excised or transposed, a not uncommon practice. Those same strict adherents to original text would presumably also dismiss Shakespeare in anything but English, leaving out a significant portion of the world that also reveres the playwright… in translation.

As it happens, in between the two Play On Shakespeare readings I attended, I saw the Public Theater’s first Shakespeare in the Park production of the summer: Much Ado About Nothing, set in present day Georgia. If there were textual alterations, I was unaware of them. As someone who saw his first (much-pruned) Shakespeare aged 14, I had no difficulty understanding the action or dialogue, especially as I’ve seen the play many times. But it fit neatly between the two readings.

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At the post-performance discussion of Dream, I was struck by a comment from a member of the audience. He noted that when Shakespeare is taught in school, the texts typically have side notes or footnotes that provide synonyms or explanations of obscure words or references, and that the reading he’d heard essentially did the same thing, but in performance. I think he hit the nail on the head.

No doubt the word ‘translation’ is what a lot of people were hung up on originally. The Play On versions might be better called ‘adaptations’, save for the fact that such a word suggests some alteration to the plot or a rewrite that merely references Shakespeare’s original, which is not the case. To say these were ‘edited’ by the playwrights suggests only pruning, and not the more thorough work-through of the text that was obviously undertaken.

I’m not suggesting these translations should supplant our more definitive Shakespeare texts (themselves assembled from various versions and folios) in professional performances. But for those who believe Shakespeare is best introduced in performance, especially for young people, these might prove useful gateway drugs that will facilitate wider acceptance and appreciation before moving on to the hard stuff.

For now, people should not worry about what the new editions are called, know that countless editions of utterly traditional Shakespeare texts are intact, and simply let the OSF-originated translations play on.

Tony Awards 2019: the winners in full

This week in US theatre

Aaron Posner’s adaptation of The Seagull, Stupid Fucking Bird, was widely produced and so he returned to the Chekhov oeuvre by transmuting Uncle Vanya into Life Sucks. Its New York debut was produced by the inventive Wheelhouse Theatre, directed by Jeffrey Wise, and now that production has moved into a second run on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row. It reopens on Sunday.

A Strange Loop, premiering on Monday at Playwrights Horizons, is the story of a black queer writer working on a musical about a black queer writer – who presumably is writing a musical about… well, you get the idea. The book, music and lyrics are by Michael R Jackson, and the production is directed by Stephen Brackett.

As titles go, America v 2.1: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro is as provocative as they come. Stacey Rose’s play about an acting troupe premieres on Thursday at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage, directed by Logan Vaughn.

Too many important stories about the achievements of black Americans have gone untold, yet it’s still remarkable that the story of Toni Stone, the first woman to play professionally in the Negro Leagues, is only now getting told in the eponymously titled play by Lydia R Diamond. Directed by Pam MacKinnon, it opens Thursday at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre.

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