This month I’ve been doing Shakespeare for the first time. The shows are currently in rehearsals, having the concept rigorously and rightfully put through its paces. It is set in 2019, and so I have become obsessed with modernisation.
I’m becoming acutely aware of two different issues with time-transplanting classic plays: one is about reinvigorating a potentially dusty piece of text, the other is about sidestepping the inherent ‘ye olde’ textual references.
To illustrate, I turn to two moments of modernisation from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
The first is Mercutio’s Queen Mab monologue. In the film, Romeo is given an ecstasy-like drug in the form of a pill. The prop is devilishly clever. The scene is exciting and epic, and it foreshadows the swift, uninhibited dive-turned-fall into love that Leonardo DiCap…, I mean Romeo, is about to take. It drives the story.
The second is in the opening scene – plunging the audience straight into this new Verona, Benvolio whips out a wonderfully gauche handgun. The imaginary all-knowing Shakespeare anoraks (our industry’s version of trainspotters, who we must constantly worry about upsetting) know that the next line is: “Put up your swords.” Luhrmann sidesteps any weapon confusion by zooming in on the gun to reveal the brand: “Sword 9mm”. Touché, Baz. You live to modernise another scene.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the sword/gun switcheroo. It sort of works, but it is a bit forced. And it makes me question the world of suited and pop-culture-booted Shakespeare plays.
In Richard III, should all five messengers be replaced by a single mobile phone with “Messenger 11Pro” engraved on the back? Could the line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” be aimed at the Uber app loading screen? Do we show commoners as Twitter followers?
When I saw that film version of Romeo and Juliet, back at school, I felt for the first time that this Shakespeare thing people were always harping on about made sense. And no, I’m not saying everything has to be modern to make sense – in fact, the idea that characters in T-shirts and jeans is what makes stories relatable is insane. So why have that concept, and have to sift through all these fiddly sword issues?
Mercutio’s drug-induced Queen Mab monologue isn’t about translation, it’s just damn good storytelling. Good design ideas are about driving the story forward. Yes, a re-imagining involves having to do some imagining, but the pay-off can be enormous.
By casting off the confines of what plays ‘should be’ like, you can grab a whole new audience, find a whole new storyline, create a visual world the likes of which no school kid or Shakespeare anorak has seen before. It’s about allowing us to see the story afresh and from a new angle. And who says modern-day folk in suits can’t just whip out a big sword?
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart