How do we stage Shakespeare in the digital age?

Efforts to combine the theatrical and the digital are shaping how we experience Shakespeare in the twenty-first century

Since the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing in 2016, there has been an increasing pressure on directors to solve a problem. How, four centuries on, and countless revivals, adaptations, and re-writes later, could anyone say anything new about Shakespeare? How does one stage Shakespeare in the twenty-first century?

It’s a tall order. Given the sheer scale of Shakespeare’s theatrical legacy, it is a daunting task to provide an original take on the nation’s most celebrated playwright. Yet, in recent years, a few critically acclaimed efforts have  risen to the occasion, attempting to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays in ways that are innovative and contemporary, whilst still retaining that universality which makes them so compelling. Their solution? Digital technology.

With Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood recognises that weight of expectation felt by artistic directors as she follows a director’s attempt to stage a uniquely interactive production of The Tempest. The novel satirically mimics the supposedly definitive productions of our day.

Hag-Seed ridicules those lofty ambitions. It is as if the possibility of contributing anything meaningful with a modern adaption no longer viable. Instead directors must resort to absurd extremities in order to say something new.

Atwood makes a significant observation: she recognises the potential that digital advancements could have in unearthing unprecedented and authentic truths. “The Tempest is,” she says, “in some ways, an early multi-media musical. If Shakespeare were working today he’d be using every special effect technology now makes available.” And she suggests this in Hag-Seed.

The same year, these ambitions were played out onstage in Gregory Doran’s technologically ambitious production of The Tempest. The RSC painstakingly attempted to provide what they described as “a first-of-its kind live digital performance”. Atwood could easily have scripted Doran’s ambition to stage “a truly unique theatre experience, which marries our distinctive theatre skills with cutting edge technology, to give our audiences something out of the ordinary”.

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Indeed, the use of motion-capture to generate Ariel’s avatar in real time onstage demonstrated a clear desire to do justice to the spectacle of The Tempest; to immerse the audience in “a human-digital interaction that feels ‘alive'”.

It was no doubt pioneering. However, this approach to adaptation is new and  imperfect. As a member of the audience, I noticed a stark disconnect between technological spectacles of storms and enchantments, and those moments of intimate and human exchange. Furthermore, the use of two-dimensional visual projections onto a three-dimensional theatre space doesn’t make it any easier to cultivate an experience that is immersive for a 270˚ audience in the round.

Some critics even dismissed the production as gimmicky, though I feel such a judgement is unduly harsh. The RSC is a theatre which professes to have “always been at the forefront of radical experiment”. It was right to attempt  to cross the digital with the theatrical so intricately. Whilst not an immediate triumph, it was an ambitious and worthy attempt, the first of its kind.

We are still in 2018. We are far from having a holistic view of what the definitive twenty-first century production could look like. Yet in looking at just the last decade, it is impossible to ignore the impact of modern technology on recent adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.

Take, for instance, the 2017 production of Hamlet, directed by Robert Icke. Placed alongside the RSC’s earlier version from 2008, one can see the significant strides that have been made in such a short period of time. Icke’s clever staging more fully realises what the RSC’s Hamlet first put into motion, depicting Denmark as a recognisably modern surveillance state.

In 2008, the RSC dabbled in the occasional security camera, camcorder and false mirror. Ickes production goes all out. There are screens everywhere. The production opens in a control room with security guards closely monitoring dozens of locations on the screen looming large overhead. By its close, Hamlet has to shove a camera out of his mother’s face as she dies convulsing on the ground.

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Icke, was able to more effectively integrate digital technology into the production without it appearing ‘gimmicky’. Instead, its use enriches the production, bringing the idea of the surveillance state into an authentically modern context.

Hamlet and The Tempest demand vastly different kinds of staging. It’s not hugely surprising that the latter, the more visually ambitious, has not yet reached its full potential at this early stage. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to envisage a similar progression for The Tempest, to imagine another director making the same kind of leap forward from Doran’s 2016 production, equipped with the right technology.

Doran’s adaptation is all the more significant for this reason. As a foundational production, it will shape future interpretations by providing that essential, basic template on which later directors will work. In time, it will come to good.