Sunday, July 17, 2016

WWSD (What Would Shakespeare Do?)

I was browsing through the reviews of Shakespeare in Toronto's High Park, and I read this one from the Globe and Mail, which threw me into a tizzy.  Sometimes I have this bad habit of immediately reacting negatively and then only slowly can I argue myself into a more reasonable position.  (I suppose this is better than never coming around or changing my mind.)  Nonetheless, even if I calm down enough to not denounce these shows, I can tell that they would offend the purist in me and I wouldn't fully enjoy them.  But I am trying to decide whether Shakespeare himself would have gotten so hot and bothered, and I suspect in most cases he wouldn't.  So let me unpack that a bit.

Basically, nearly all contemporary productions of Shakespeare cut a little bit, especially some of the jokes that don't make much sense any longer, trying to wrestle the plays down to 3 hours or so.  Outdoor Shakespeare productions usually cut more, aiming for 2 hours.  This is certainly one reason why the comedies are put on more, since they are generally shorter to begin with.  Hamlet is in fact the longest of all his plays, and it is not performed outdoors often (particularly if it must be squeezed down to 2 hours).  Curiously, I was going to see it in Cambridge, and we made it through the first half, and they called it due to rain.  That is more or less what happened to the preview performance the Globe and Mail critic watched.  Last summer, Driftwood did an interesting hybrid where they took a shorter, faster version of Hamlet (the First Folio) but interpolated the more famous lines from the more polished 1623 Version. (Some details here.)  That worked quite well actually.

Anyway, productions that basically just cut the lines and even some subplots don't fuss me.  Shakespeare definitely would have done that.  (And who knows how much of the original plays even made it into the Folios?  This is a debate that has raged for centuries...)  He would not have had any problem with changing the settings.  I doubt he would have been too upset over gender swapping roles and reinforcing or adding homosexual tendencies in the plays (or in the case of Driftwood's production gender swapping Horatio and having her have an unrequited crush on Hamlet*).

He may or may not have balked a little bit at reordering his plays.  It mostly would depend on whether it worked or not.  There was that kerfuffle when Cumberbatch opened Hamlet with "To Be or Not to Be," and it was quickly put back in a more traditional place.  This piece is relatively good on discussing how the speech might well have moved around in performance in Shakespeare's day, though I think it lets the producers off too easily in the sense that they monkeyed around with the play in a way that really doesn't make sense.  If Hamlet starts off so low, even before seeing his father's ghost, then where does he go from there?  Plus, it was clearly initially aimed at making sure the punters who were there just to see a celebrity (and might even have been subtly encouraged to leave at intermission) got to hear and see the money shot,** as it were.  My understanding is that some of that went on in Shakespeare's day when the patrons could call for a scene to be replayed if it was a hit, though I may be mistaken.

Shakespeare probably would have a bit of a problem with any changes that really altered the meaning of the play.  While I am working off limited information in the review, I am not at all impressed with the changes that have been made to the High Park Hamlet, most notably that Hamlet is the only one that sees his father's ghost and that Horatio is only humoring him and basically agrees with Claudius and Gertrude when they send for the psychiatrist (Dr. Rosencrantz) to examine Hamlet.  In general, Hamlet is a mopey hipster who actually is a "cutter."  I think these changes do far too much damage to the play, and I certainly have no intention of going.

All's Well That Ends Well is basically a problem play anyway, and one that I didn't care for much when I saw it straight years ago in New York's Shakespeare in the Park.  In this case, there is some trimming, but apparently to smooth things over, the director Ted Witzel has penned not just one, but 3 new monologues, given to a minor character.  I suspect this would be too much for Shakespeare, and it probably will be too much for me.  People are going to see Shakespeare and not Shakespeare + Witzel.  But this is not at all made clear, and, unfortunately, given the state of reviewing in Toronto, audiences are not likely to know they are not getting "authentic" Shakespeare, and this is doubly true for All's Well That Ends Well, which almost nobody reads any longer.

It's a tough call.  Shakespeare probably didn't consider his words "sacred," but I'm not sure he would have wanted anyone else doing the rewrites either.  But that isn't exactly an option any more...

I've mentioned before that the ending of As You Like It is stupid and a better ending could easily be derived (maybe from stealing a scene from another play?) but I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing without making it clear in the playbill that this was a hybrid and to point them in the direction of the original if they wanted to research on their own.  (And I have seen some clever hybrids - The Merchant on Venice (Beach) - and some reworkings of Shakespeare, but they always made it clear on the tin that this wasn't unadulterated Shakespeare.)

After all this reflection, I've decided that I will give All's Well a shot, but I am skipping Hamlet.  I'm still looking forward to Taming of the Shrew, which is actually coming to Withrow Park next week.  The weather is a bit unpredictable, but it currently looks like Wed. or Thurs. would be the best nights.  And most likely I will go to see Romeo and Juliet in Withrow Park in August.

* Apparently, there is a bit more of this in the Driftwood Taming of the Shrew this year, with Lucentio-Bianca a lesbian love story and Tranio is basically pan-sexual.  It is all set during Pride weekend in Toronto in 1989.  This sounds like an intriguing set of choices, but what tips me into the willing to go camp is that they while they certainly will be cutting, Driftwood doesn't alter the text that is left.  Still, it doesn't sound entirely family-friendly.  I'll have a bit more to say about the production later.

** While I am on the subject of "money shots" and outdoor theatre, I still can't believe that asshole a couple of years back that decided to leave the High Park production of As You Like It right in the middle of Jacques's 7 Ages of Man speech and disrupted the entire row.  It was almost like he planned to spoil the play.  What a jerk.

And I suspect he wouldn't have much time for pointless wankery, as when the director of Stratford's Hamlet had Hamlet shoot rather than stab Polonius, which then required changing a line or two. I think it was a fundamentally misguided decision, since Hamlet really ought to have a physical connection to the death -- shooting is too easy, as we know all too well in urban centres in North America.

If Homer nods (pace Horace), then Shakespeare certainly does as well at times, or at least whoever compiled these plays made a few mistakes here and there. This is the sort of thing that I can rationally admit, but then still get cheesed off when some upstart director decides to "correct" Shakespeare. Well, foolish consistency and all that. I guess it ultimately comes down to 1) whether I more or less agree with the changes, 2) is the result more entertaining than the original, which is not necessarily the same thing, though I find a lot is forgivable if the end result is entertaining and 3) are the changes glaringly obvious and distracting from the play? To a certain extent, All's Well That Ends Well is so obscure that few in the audience will even recognize the changes...

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