I recently had the privilege of watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most recent production of Macbeth in Stratford, directed by Polly Findlay, with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack in the leading roles. It was an engaging, innovative and sharp staging of one of the Bard’s most popular plays. Taking place in the 21st century, the set had the appearance of a psychiatrist’s waiting room, complete with water coolers, plastic chairs, and grubby carpeted floors. The witches are played by eight-year-old girls, clutching dolls, and Eccleston, in black beanie and fatigues, tranfers the deeply complex masculinity of Macbeth into the character of a modern-day soldier with a refreshingly jocular swagger.
But apparently not everyone saw the same performance as me. The reviews of this latest production were overwhelmingly underwhelming, a smattering of three stars with occasional downright dislike across all major newspaper and online reviews. And it’s not just Findlay’s version that’s been falling flat with the critics. Rufus Norris’s Macbeth, currently being shown at the National Theatre, attempted another nuanced 21st century interpretation, set in a country torn apart by civil war. This earnt him even more derisive comments than Findlay, with critics lamenting the fact that the savage urban-ness completely missed the poetry of the script.
It led me to wonder, why are current Shakespeare stagings failing to hit the mark? A brief look back at various archives of reviews for the last few years points to a notable lack of productions that are hitting the critical sweetspot. The Globe’s 2017 Romeo and Juliet and the Rose Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing (set in a Sicilian spa) had a distinctly lukewarm reception.
Sure, the critics don’t know everything, and I’m certain you’d be able to find a lot of audience members with wonderful things to say about what they watched. But, at the end of the day, a Shakespeare play featuring big names and big venues will be looking for acclaim and appreciation within the industry, as well as ticket sales.
Perhaps the increasing scale of theatre production plays a part. It would probably be impossible to count the number of Shakespearean performances that are staged in the UK every year, let alone worldwide. In reality, there’s not a whole lot of point putting one on if you’re not going to test the boundaries, turn heads and do something a little bit exciting. It could be an unexpected setting, a shift of focus on the lead character, or something original with the sound and lighting; the point is that no one’s going to pay upwards of fifty pounds to watch something that they already saw in 1974.
So it might be inevitable that this need for adventurousness from directors becomes over egged, resulting in some attempts that turn heads slightly too far. It must make it difficult for reviewers as well; the sheer volume of performances, each needing something distinctive said about them, has potentially sharpened our cultural awareness and taste. Maybe we’re a more cut-throat audience these days.
It can’t be the case that we’ve hit a Shakespearean stale-mate, can it? I hope not, and, to be honest, I really don’t think so. In amongst the supposedly lacklustre high-profile performances there are still many absolute gems. BBC 2 recently streamed the Almeida’s Hamlet, in which Andrew Scott delivered a breath-taking performance of the famous soliloquy. But where has the gold dust Shakespeare gone, the next generation of Ian McKellens and Kenneth Branaghs? Or maybe they’re out there, being ridiculed by a snotty critic who took offense to Mercutio using a mobile phone.
Whilst I’m a huge supporter of a fresh take on a Shakespeare play, even I can admit that there are some changes which go too far. The Globe’s production of Much Ado About Nothing last year raised critical eyebrows when they swapped the line “You always end with a jade’s trick” for “You always end too soon”. The overt allusion to Benedict’s performance in bed was greeted with hilarity from the audience.
Call me a purist, but I’m wary of butchering the text too much, for the sake of a more accessible laugh. The beauty of Shakespeare is that its relevance for any period, whether it’s the battle of the sexes in Much Ado or the political turmoil and mistrust of Julius Caesar. There’s really no need to pre-empt an audience’s intelligence levels by adapting the script to a modern speech. Of course, that takes us into a whole other realm of editing and authorship, which is another issue in itself.
I still haven’t figured out what the answer is to the problem of the current culture of underappreciated (or justifiably criticised) Shakespeare. This wasn’t meant to be a suggestion that the theatre’s in a state of disarray; as I hope there always will be, there are stellar performances of the nation’s most treasured plays every year. I think what I’m trying to say is that the latest wash of criticism for the larger scale performances shouldn’t detract from the eternal pertinence of these plays and that quirky new interpretations are part and parcel of the rich production history.
Long story short, bring on the weird and wonderful adaptations and take the reviews with a pinch of salt.