Thursday, 9 June 2016
To Change or not To Change, that is the question
The first play I ever directed was a school production of Macbeth. Luckily, there are very few stage directions in Shakespeare, so directors don't have a little voice telling them how they should be doing the play. We staged it in a way that worked for us, cut out a large section of Act 4 that was more for the benefit of the 17th century audience anyway, and the kids did a stonking good version of a well-known piece. (A number of the cast had an exam the following term in which they had to write an essay on a play they'd studied; they did brilliantly because, having performed it, they now understood the play very thoroughly.)
I've looked at scripts that specify 'no cuts or alterations' (this included Oliver!, in which some of the chorus numbers are, frankly, a little long, especially for a cast entirely of pre-teens; is it possible we forgot to do a verse or two? But we didn't specifically make any cuts). From an amateur director's point of view, they're annoying. The chance of ending up with anything more than a clone or a pale shadow of a professional production is pretty slim. I know in cinema there are homage films that recreate their subjects frame by frame, but generally movie remakes try to do something a little different with the initial topic.
On stage, it's more fun for a director and cast, and better for an audience too, if there is room for interpretation that can throw an interesting light on the key points of a dramatic piece. Carmen set in 1936 instead of 1820 emphasises the unchanged attitudes to women in 20th century Spain, for example. A reinterpretation of a dramatic piece is just a different form of textual intervention.
Most writers know that once a piece of writing has been handed over for performance, it is likely to change, and it's something they just have to deal with. I've had a few pieces performed, most close to the text, one radically different that I personally felt spoiled it, but once a cast has it, it's the property of the cast and audience - because of course they also influence the performance. And it may end up being nothing like it was on the page.
So I was bemused by the reviewer on IMDb who didn't like the recent Midsummer Night's Dream on BBC because the text had been changed. He had studied it at school, loved the play, had seen many versions of it over the years, but took exception to a couple of the changes (I won't specify in case you haven't seen it yet!), on the grounds that "this wondrous play has all the magical ingredients in its original form which already provides plenty of scope for a variety of interpretations; so this work need no updating or unexpected twists to bring it to a new audience." (Given how little Shakespeare is actually studied in schools nowadays, I think it *precisely* needed updating to bring it to a new audience. And jolly good updating it was too - really, if you haven't seen it yet, you should. Whether you're a Dr Who fan or not.) I find it hard to believe that the reviewer hadn't encountered other changes in all the multiple versions he claimed to have seen.
Let's face it, if you know anything about Shakespeare, or even if you've just been watching Upstart Crow on TV, you'll be aware that Shakespeare originally wrote Titania to be played by a man. Everything on the page can be transformed by the time it reaches the stage - just do it for a reason. If it's a good one, the audience will get it. And if they don't - maybe you weren't bold enough with your changes.