At last week’s Critics Circle Awards, Juliet Stevenson, receiving an award for her performance in Robert Icke’s production of The Doctor, argued that she only wanted to see Shakespeare in modern costume, “reinterpreted for now”. The historical context did not interest her: what’s most important is how the plays relate to our society. “I don’t care how it was done in his time,” she continued. “It’s not an archive.”
For Stevenson, separating Shakespeare from other writers, allotting his works their own special box, was inhibiting. Reverence, she implied, was the enemy of innovation. I agree to some extent. Some of the most exhilarating productions I’ve seen of his plays have not been in English. Being less wedded to the text is creatively freeing. The plays are liberated from preconceived ideas of ‘correctness’.
One of those productions was Aleksandar Popovski’s 2016 Hamlet for the Yugoslav Drama Theatre in Belgrade starring the wonderful Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac. It reordered and cut scenes to create something that was as much Beckett as Shakespeare. Popovski made the text a character in the play: Glogovac’s Hamlet haunted by words. It was thrilling to witness but would probably have been met with critical resistance in the UK, which is our loss.
I also vividly remember what it was like to watch another Hamlet – Shakespeare’s Globe’s global touring production, again in Belgrade – with an audience that clearly genuinely relished the opportunity to hear Shakespeare’s words spoken in his language in their home city. The transcendent power of his poetry was palpable.
It was another Globe production that first made me ‘get’ Shakespeare: Mark Rylance’s 2002 Twelfth Night. It was a ‘traditional’ production, but also the first I’d seen that made the play feel rooted and human. The way Rylance spoke the verse was revelatory.
There is ample room for both approaches. The idea that there is a ‘correct’ way of staging these plays – be that ‘the way Shakespeare intended’ or with ticking clocks and live video feeds – is limiting and blinkered. The beauty of Shakespeare is his elasticity. Stretching across the centuries, his plays speak to our past and our present. If one production’s not for you, there’ll be another one along soon enough.
We are far from starved of Shakespeare in this country. The recent opening up of who gets to speak his words has been highly invigorating. Theatre only benefits from this polyphony.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/