These days, you see very few truly classically-framed productions. There are several reasons for this; the costumes are expensive and difficult to make (nearly impossible to fudge), period pieces are sometimes hard for a modern audience to connect to, and sometimes these hard-core traditionalist productions are merely seen as “doddery old bits of theatre” (usually because they are). The result of this is a lot of Shakespeare out there re-framed to a different context, be this context genre, era of time, or concept.
But is such re-framing necessary? Is it right? What does a director need to do in order to make choices about re-framing a show? Let’s take a moment to consider these questions.
I have a personal mantra which I frequently use when discussing such productions: NO CONCEPT SHAKESPEARE. No Hamlet on the moon, no Macbeth with flying monkeys, no Merchant of Venice in the year 2045 after the nuclear holocaust (yes, I have actually seen this in a production). It’s just not right. Taking the Bard’s work and demeaning it into your own little personal fantasy is not your job as a Director. It is not funny, it is not nice, and frankly it gets confusing. It is people like these Directors who give audience members scarring Shakespeare experiences and makes them Bard-shy.
So, you may be wondering, what qualifies as “concept Shakespeare” and what kicks a production over into this magical world of “re-framing” ?
If a Director’s choice supports the text and adds something to the production without being confusing, it is a re-framing. If a Director’s choice has no grounding in the text whatsoever, no explanation, and leaves the audience going “what?”, it is a concept.
Romeo and Juliet, the classic story of love kept sundered by an ancient family feud; set it in Israel and have R and J represented by Israeli/Palestinian actors. Set it on the Irish border between North and South and make Romeo a Northerner and Juliet a Southerner. Heck, set it in the American South pre-civil war and make Romeo the son of a plantation owner and Juliet the maid’s daughter.
Support the plot, support the setting, don’t destroy it.
I heard someone mention “Throne of Blood” the other day and how it was likely the best rendition of Macbeth they had ever seen, despite not using Shakespeare’s text. I’m in agreement with this statement. The story is supported by the genre and Kurosawa puts his own flavor to it. Sure, he takes liberties with the plot (no Macduff for one….), but the sense of a deadly downward spiral into madness and the fear that comes with it- pivotal to Mabeth- is retained.
I’m actually also a huge fan of "The Lion King". Again, Disney takes huge liberties with the central characters. The elements of the Hamlet plot are twisted and some omitted all together- but they couldn’t exactly have Nala go nuts and drown herself (it’s a kid’s movie for crying outloud!). What "The Lion King" does achieve is a righteous line of succession which angers us when it is not followed. We love Simba as we wish we could love Hamlet. And really, who can resist James Earl Jones kitty? Most importantly, it hooks kids. Kids. Watching Shakespeare. And LIKING IT!
So- support the plot, don’t confuse the audience, and remember- you’re playing Shakespeare, not your own demented twisted version of some dream you had when you were five.