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8.6: Interpreting Shakespeare

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  • In the theatrical tradition, the imagination required to engage Shakespeare’s plays prompts practitioners—particularly directors and designers—to realize, in production, their own imagined responses to the play. Because Shakespeare is such a presence in the theatre and the culture, the plays can become a bit like a blank canvas onto which modern practitioners can invent new worlds around the play. Directors and designers of modern Shakespeare productions might do this with a stylized production design or “concept.” In some of these concept productions, a given play can be reimagined in a different era or setting that resonates with the plays central themes, helps the audience connect the play to other ideas, or makes the play look or feel fresh and contemporary.

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    Emily Plumtree as Nerlssa and Susannah Fielding as Portia In the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2011 production of The Merchant of Venice, which takes place In present-day Las Vegas amid a television dating game In which a blond wig-wearing Portia hosts. Photo ® Robbie Jaek/Corbls.

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    Sir Ian McKellen as the titular role In the 1995 film Richard III, reset In midtwentleth-century fascist England. Director Richard Loneralne brings the reality of World War II Into the Shakespearean world. Photo ® United Artists.

    These concepts are mostly sensorial adaptations that fill in the imagined setting with an actual one and create a fuller theatrical experience for audiences that have come to expect plays with compelling lighting, sets, and effects while keeping Shakespeare’s original texts largely intact. Other concepts might include rewriting or reorganizing the texts, using a limited number of actors (say, in a four-person production of Romeo and Juliet), or using a play as the basis for a much more highly stylized performance.

    Concept productions are one approach to these imaginative texts, but there are others. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, both reconstructions of two of Shakespeare’s original theatres, often attempt to present Shakespeare’s plays in an “original” setting with bare stages, live music, “universal” lighting (lighting of actor and audience together with no blackouts as one might see in a conventional theatre), and early modern costuming. Though not all productions at the Globe or the Blackfriars are performed with all of these elements, these companies attempt to respond to the poetic drama with simple concepts and relatively few trappings in an effort to return some of the business of imagination to their audiences.

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    This 2010 production of Much Ado About Nothing featured a cast of eight actors playing multiple roles, Including gender-, race-, and age-nonspecific easting. Burning Coal Theatre Company (directed by Emily Ranll). Photo by Jerome Davis.

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    The Globe Theatre. Built In 1599 and demolished In 1644, It was recreated based on historical evidence and opened In 1997. Photo by Heidi Blanton.

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    Interior of the Globe Theatre. Photo by David Welch.

    Our imaginative response to Shakespeare —taking our cue as practitioners and audiences to engage these plays in ways that make sense and speak to us —and our awareness of the agendas and traditions that have informed and will continue to inform how we make and remake Shakespeare is ultimately a way of keeping the plays and their ideas and language fresh, contemporary, and alive. Because Shakespeare’s words still resonate today, practitioners and audiences are in a unique position to say something back to him and to each other.

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