Monday, January 10, 2011

Adapting Shakespeare




One of the more popular projects for artists is to adapt plays by the Bard. I’m sure the thinking behind this is the belief that Shakespeare wasn’t all that great of a writer and because of this, artists through the ages have felt the need to improve upon his work. Okay, I’m joking. It is true, however, that writers and actors and directors have felt the need to improve on Shakespeare’s plays. For example, James Howard changed the ending of Romeo and Juliet in the 17th Century so that the lovers survive at the end. Heck, even Shakespeare adapted other writers’ work. The only play of his that scholars cannot find the source material for is The Merry Wives of Windsor. All of his other plays are adaptations or re-workings of other authors’ tales.

Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer)
in West Side Story, 1961
There have been a slew of Shakespeare adaptations in film such as Ran, Akira Kurasawa’s adaptation of King Lear, O, (based on Othello) and 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew). There have been musicals such as Kiss Me Kate (also based on The Taming of the Shrew), and of course West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet). Also on stage and in film there have been imaginings of Shakespeare’s life (Shakespeare in Love), or who wrote the plays (The Beard of Avon by Amy Freed), or what inspired Shakespeare (Equivocation by Bill Cain).

But what’s the point behind adapting Shakespeare? And why are we continually drawn to these 400 year-old plays? The language is dense and archaic and the characters - kings and queens, princes and bastard children - seem so removed from the world we live in today.

Artists are continually updating Shakespeare’s plays through their interpretations in order to make the plays more accessible. When I was a young actor I remember seeing what I thought was a really innovative production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Stephen Zuckerman at Musical Theatre Works. Mr. Zuckerman set the play at a high school with music from the 50’s. The mechanicals were portrayed as high school dropouts and the lovers as preppies. It was a lot of fun. I was a novice with Shakespeare at the time. The language always presented a wall for me, inhibiting a direct relationship with the play. This production helped me to relate to the play in a different way from how I did in the past.

Susanna Hamnett in Nearly Lear
Photo: Doug Forster
Since that time I spent eight years working with a renowned classical theater which annually produced a play by Shakespeare. There, I got to know some of the foremost scholars on Shakespeare including, David Scott Kastan (general editor of the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare series) and James Shapiro (author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599). I have developed a greater appreciation of Shakespeare’s work through my association with these scholars and others. So I look forward with great anticipation to Nearly Lear, Susanna Hamnett’s (is that a made up name? Hamnet was Shakespeare’s only son’s name!) adaptation of King Lear as told by the Fool for The New Victory Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street.

 It is a great idea to tell this incredible story through the eyes of the Fool who, in Shakespeare’s version, advises Lear through song and jests. He sees through to the truth in all the relationships and so who better to hear the story from? Ms. Hamnett has been trained as a clown so the approach and the vision seem perfect.

And why not adapt this classic in this way? Haven’t there been enough productions of Lear through the ages? Isn’t this a completely different interpretation of the play? Doesn’t it honor what the Bard intended? Many Shakespeare scholars and audience members frown on anything but staying true to the original text. I have sat in front of audience members who whisper the text along with the actor on stage and make little sounds of disapproval when a piece of the text has been cut.

Ultimately, what any adaptation of a play by Shakespeare wants to do is make a connection between these 400 year-old plays and our lives today. And with King Lear we can certainly do that. Who in their life has never fought with a sibling over their parents’ love, or wanted to be the bright star in their father or mother’s eye? Who has not felt jealousy towards a brother or sister because of a perceived slight? Who has not grown tired of hosting a parent who has overstayed their welcome? True, we don’t murder siblings or reject parents or start wars, sibling against sibling. If we did someone would probably write plays about us. What we must remember is that these stories are parables. They teach us about morality, hopefully, and remind us that beyond petty grievances we truly love our parents and our siblings. They are also a grim reminder of what can happen when things go too far!

The new year is a great time for reflection as well as planning for the future. It seems so appropriate that The New Victory Theater is presenting Nearly Lear at The Duke on 42nd Street. It is a story of jealousy, deception, sibling rivalry, madness, and murder. It will give those of us who will see it a chance to reflect on our lives. We can reflect on our own family relationships. Perhaps we will be inspired to make plans for reparations, amend mistakes, or just give thanks for our close family ties.


Joseph Giardina is the Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. From 2002-2010 he was the Education Director at Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), an award-winning, classical off-Broadway theatre company. Their Education department is the largest to introduce Shakespeare and classic drama to New York City Public School children. Prior to his position at TFANA he was the Artistic/Education Director at Arts Horizons.  From 1995-1998, Mr. Giardina directed and produced the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival. He is the former Artistic Director of UPTCo and a Founding Member of Off World Theatre which was housed at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ. 

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