Monday, October 12, 2009

Timeless Shakespeare

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V

So spoke Macbeth, King of Scotland, shortly before he died. That is what the audience who attended the play in the Théâtre Royal de Namur heard. Macbeth has a reputation for being a cursed play. Saying its name in a theatre is allegedly unlucky ; for this reason the play is often titled The Scottish Play and the main characters M and Lady M.

Despite this threat, intrepid directors such as Declan Donnellan do not hesitate to stage new adaptations, and in this case a modern one.

But is Shakespeare really timeless ? Can we modernise his plays ?

As far as Donnellan's Macbeth is concerned, the answer is lukewarm. It is quite true that theatrically speaking the actors in general do a wonderful job and that the set design puts Shakespeare's text forward. However, a certain number of “weaknesses” makes the play difficult to follow, and thus, less pleasant to see. The ambivalent character of this play is that its strength sometimes lies in these weaknesses. For instance, the fact that the actors are all dressed in black and plain clothes makes the identification of each character difficult. But on the other hand, it adds a morbid touch and increases the supernatural atmosphere of the play, the actors moving almost invisibly in the background. Another example is the poorly furnished set: the stage is empty and moving boxes draw the line between the stage and the backstage. Nevertheless, these ones are cleverly used to create other rooms. Besides, one of the funniest scenes takes place in one of these boxes: an anachronistic night porter dressed like a modern prostitute and representing the gates of Hell answers an equally anachronistic cell phone and opens the door mechanically.

Donnellan's adaptations is full of other anachronisms: the twentieth century military costumes, the sunglasses that King Duncan is wearing, Lady Macbeth's shoes, the cheers of Macbeth's friends when this one becomes king (they carry him like football players would carry the scorer) and so on.

Despite these innovations, the play did not have a huge impact on many of the students who were present. Is it because the adaptation was so modern ?

Another Shakespearean play which has recently been adapted in a modern way is Romeo and Juliet. A year ago, the Compagnie de la Sonnette staged a play called Juliette et Romeo (in French, unfortunately). As in Macbeth, they kept most of the original text but, because the action took place in Belgium, parts of the lines were in Dutch. The ancestral hatred between the two families depicted the speech problems between Walloons and Flemish people. Even if the subject was topical, the actors wore period costumes, but these were mixed with modern features (stripes, tattoos, modern shoes, ...). Moreover, colours were important: in opposition to Macbeth, the identity of the characters was easy to guess and the two families could be identified at first sight since the Montague's were in blue and the Capulets in red. Even if the actors played two parts, no confusion was possible because of the costumes and the performance of the actors. As far as the setting was concerned, it consisted of a scaffolding.

Perhaps the success of the play came from the way it mixed comic and farcical elements with tragical ones, a characteristic which was not very present in Macbeth.

Be that as it may, the fact that Juliette et Romeo received an enthusiastic welcome proves that Shakespeare can be adapted in a modern way. Moreover, the transposition Montague-Capulet into Walloon-Flemish shows clearly that this play, like many Shakespearean plays, is still very topical.

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