If there’s one thing that really pisses me off, it’s when directors try to trick the audience, but don’t really put any effort into it. Henry IV part II opens with a speech from an anthropomorphised representation of rumour dressed in a robe painted ‘full of tongues’ (a device which sparknotes reliably informs me is singularly Virgilian in origin). In Greg Doran’s production at the Barbican, Rumour wore a Rolling Stone’s t-shirt emblazoned with tongue and lips and chastised us for not turning off our phones, only to be distracted by his twitter feed. His speech “Stuffing the ears of men with false reports” was accompanied by a variety of hashtags projected onto the wall behind him, it was all very ‘modern’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘exciting’ and ‘made me realise just how relevant the bard was in a social media age’ and ‘please don’t cut any more RSC funding’.
Despite my scathing tone there, I don’t in principle have any problem with modernising, as long as its innovative rather than dogmatic – the frankly tiresome repetition of ‘let’s put CCTV in Hamlet’ has got more than a little dog-eared. No, I didn’t have any problem with the rampant hashtaggery of Doran’s introduction, my problem is that it wasn’t build into a coherent narrative within the play. After Rumour’s speech, not a single concession was made to the ideas that this decision painted so ham-fistedly. I’m sure that Doran’s defenders will point to the speech as a useful transition from the world of phones which the audience inhabits, to the meticulous period setting of this play. That is utter bollocks, this was a lazy concession, a limp wristed attempt to make a very traditional staging look innovative and exciting, and I simply refuse to let him get away with it.