Updated: Sep 13, 2020
By Clara Pressey
Image via Bryce Dallas Howard plays Rosalind in As You Like It
There is a reason that Shakespeare is still celebrated over 400 years after his death. His works are clever, intricately crafted, and use beautiful language. Most importantly, they appeal to fundamental parts of humanity such as love, grief, anger, and fear. When done well, performances of Shakespeare’s plays can make you feel all of these alongside the characters, help you put into words your experiences as a human, and experience new feelings which you’ve previously only heard of.
However, while the core emotions and experiences of humanity might not change much, society certainly does. And if we want Shakespeare’s works to remain relevant and beloved today, performances are going to have to evolve in the same way that society has. While we still feel the same things people did 400 years ago, it’s important to recontextualize those feelings if we want them to carry the same weight in the modern era and beyond.
An excellent example of a performance that recontextualized Shakespeare is the Bridge Theatre’s 2019 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It not only brings out some of the play’s natural eccentricity but also makes it incredibly queer, which Rebecca Warner highlights excellently in a Medium article.
If you are unfamiliar with the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, here’s a simplified synopsis. The play begins the day before the marriage of Theseus (Oliver Chris), the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta (Gwendolyn Christie), the Queen of the Amazons, whom he has kidnapped. He is giving a young woman, Hermia (Isis Hainsworth), the option of either being sent to a nunnery, being killed, or marrying a young man called Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa). Hermia, however, is in love with a man named Lysander (Kit Young). Hermia and Lysander decide to flee Athens and be wed elsewhere, and are followed closely by Demetrius and Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones) — a friend of Hermia’s, who is in love with and has been shunned by Demetrius. While the four young people are in a forest just outside of Athens, both men fall madly in love with Helena, under the influence of the magic of Puck (David Moorst), a fairy.
At the same time, Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Hippolyta (Gwendolyn Christie), the king and queen of the fairies, are having a marital dispute. Out of revenge, Oberon sends Puck to subject Titania to the pollen of an enchanted flower that will make her fall in love with the first person she sees. Puck also ensures that the first person she sees is Nick Bottom — an amateur actor, whose head Puck has turned into that of a donkey. The next morning, all of the enchantments have been reversed (except Lysander is still in love with Helena, instead of Hermia). The play ends with the wedding of the three mortal couples, which is celebrated with a performance of the play Pyramus and Thisbe, led by Nick Bottom.
This production begins in an exaggeratedly oppressive Athens — which may not actually seem so exaggerated when looking objectively at the events of the play. Hippolyta stands stock-still in a glass prison while Theseus refuses Hermia’s basic pleas for control over her life. But then, when the titular night begins, the characters become liberated. Oberon and Titania’s lines and actions are switched — their relationship still isn’t healthy, but it’s not a nightmarish product of the patriarchy.
Oberon and Bottom fall madly in love, and Puck’s mischief isn’t constricted to the bounds of heterosexuality as he makes the four lovers turn to their same-sex counterparts and make out for a little while. The people in the pit are suddenly wearing flower crowns after intermission, and a cloth with a rainbow projected onto it is passed over the crowd at the end.
It’s a production of Shakespeare that is irreverently reverent. It is a sincere celebration of life and love and beauty — just as Shakespeare intended — but if someone were closed-minded to new interpretations of Shakespeare, they’d think it the equivalent of spitting on his tomb. This production takes all of the prestige and pedantic attitude that is associated with the bard and throws it out the window.
Another fascinating way that Shakespeare has been recontextualized in the modern day is through Literary-Inspired Web Series. Literary-Inspired Web Series (LIWs) are modern adaptations of works of classic literature, including plays. But the creators of LIWs don’t take a play’s text and have it performed in modern costumes with modern sets, they tell the stories by having the characters upload vlogs on YouTube. Sometimes, they’ll even be multi-media productions; the creators of a series will make Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts for the characters. Some examples of Shakespearean Literary-Inspired Web Series are Twelfth Grade (or Whatever), Nothing Much To Do, and NMTD’s sequel, Lovely Little Losers (based on Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, respectively).
Jake McGregor (left) and Harriet Maire (right) as Benedick and Beatrice in ‘Nothing Much To Do’ (2014). Image via YouTube.
LIWs aren’t going to provide the same experience as watching a play live, or even recorded, but they can potentially act as inspiration — encouraging people to explore Shakespeare who wouldn’t have otherwise. They also make Shakespeare’s stories easily available and comprehensible to anyone with a YouTube account.
In the end, there are more changes to Shakespearean theatre that are needed — other than just unique creative paths and accentuating the queerness that is present in most of his plays via cross-dressing and homoerotic subtext. The theatre community as a whole tends to be astoundingly white. With Shakespeare’s works having been used to maintain so many divisions throughout history, especially ones involving race and class, it is especially important that that lack of diversity comes to an end.
There will always be value in performing Shakespeare in a “traditional” way (traditional as in corsets, canons, and carriages, not all white, all-male productions). However, if we want his plays to maintain the same relevance and popularity in the present era, we need productions that take other paths, and make Shakespeare fresh and exciting for new generations of people.
Written by writer Clara Pressey