The play’s the thing

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This autumn the BBC is laying on a lavish feast. Aas Rradio 3 announces a four year project to dramatise seventeen of the bard’s best, BBC Ddrama launches its Shakespeareseason on television.In much the same vein as last Christmas’ adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, the TV series puts a contemporary spin on the major texts: Much Aado migrates to the less rarified atmosphere of the regional newsroom; The Taming of the Shrew is transposed into the high-powered register of Westminster politics. Such reworkings are nothing new: indeed the continued appeal of Shakespeare’s plays arises partly from their unparalleledapplicability to different social and historical settings. What the BBC’s approach indicates, however, is the modern readiness to absorb and appropriate aspects of the bard’s outputfor personal artistic ends which is so endemic: “60 second Shakespeare”, devised to complement the TV series, is marketed as “your chance to give the world your interpretation of the great man in sixty seconds”, and represents the logical extreme of the trend for “potted Shakespeare” which has spawned endless reinterpretations across the gamut of the arts.The manner in which his works have diffused through our cultural consciousness is something, one suspects, the bard himself would have approved of – the plays delight in toyingwith and breaking down generic boundaries. However, in this frenzy of reinterpretation one cannot help worrying that we risk losing sight of the essential theatricality of Shakespeare. TV and film offer myriad new perspectives, but while it is stimulating and exciting to witness such a proliferation of new readings and interpretations, we should not lose sight of the fact that the plays were conceived not just as texts but as pieces of theatre: all the world’s a stage, rather than a screen. Historically, Shakespeare stands apart from his Rrenaissance contemporariesin bridging the gap between actor and playwright with ability and agility, being the only writer of the Eelizabethan stage to be the equivalent of a fully paid-up Equity member at the same time. Consequently he puts much into the dramaturgy of his plays – though directions such as “exit pursued by a bear” may prompt a smile, such details take on immense significanceelsewhere.This is not to insist upon tedious faithfulness to text or stage direction,however. The traditional is still very much in evidence: Stratford does a roaring trade in period-costume productions, but while the prospect of Sir Ian McKellan’s Lear as part of the RSC’s forthcoming all-star cast, no-holds-barred “Shakespeare retrospective”has luvvies up and down the country licking their chops, the zany also has its place.While Stephen Ddillane’s new one-man Macbeth at the Aalmeida may have traditionalists tutting into their pre-show gin and tonics, what it does demonstrate is that there are rich and original veins of Shakespeare interpretation yet to be mined in theatre. Dillane’sdeft drawing out of the sense of “a mind diseas’d” highlights the need to see Shakespeare’s plays not simply as stories subject to multiple retellings, but as imaginative acts requiringthe participation of the audience: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, asks the prologue to Henry V, and while Ddillane’s performance represents an extreme, leaving one slightly dazed by the level of concentration it requires, this is an aspect of drama we should not neglect. It is not only his spatial sense which sets Shakespeare apart, but his acute aware of the artificiality of his medium – his plays are intensely alive to and indeed comment upon the limits of dramatic representation, and there is a danger that in the new emphasis on the naturalistic,we may neglect not only the physicality, but also the imaginative suggestiveness of the staged performance. While new media may make valuable additions to the cult of the bard, we must remain alive to the challenge of the theatrical that Shakespeare offers the modern audience.ARCHIVE: 4th week MT 2005

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