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 The Time-Traveling Bard?

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QuantumCowboy
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PostSubject: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Mon Apr 28, 2008 9:11 pm

In keeping with my own admonition to generate more in-depth content on this board, particularly as it pertains to Shakespeare, I pose the following:

Where is the line when it comes to transporting Shakespearean works in time and place? Where standest thou betwixt yon twin extremities, that are so called "purist" and "heathen"?

I really enjoyed the post-show discussion with the cast and director of Pericles last weekend at the Palmdale Playhouse. Colin Cox, Shakespeare scholar and artistic director for Will & Company (and one who as performed, taught, produced and/or directed the entire Shakespeare canon) seemed to be of the opinion that adapting Shakespeare was not only simply not heretic, but indeed what the bard himself would have done. He pointed out egregious historical liberties in time and place the Shakespeare made to enhance the story, and noted that the bard would himself change all of his plays on a whim often the day of performance to fit some creative fancy. Yet from the cast came a balancing viewpoint: that when the language and the beauty of the poetry is lost, there really is no point.

This sort of ties into previous discussions we've had about the perceived boundaries in art, so hopefully we don't get too much rehashing.

What is your opinion on this matter, as it pertains specifically to Shakespeare? Can you cite specific examples of productions/films that worked, and some that didn't, and is it apparent why? Which of the bard's plays have you wanted to act in or direct, and how would you do it given dictatorial impunity?

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Kara
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Tue Apr 29, 2008 5:13 pm

I guess I'll go first, then.

I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to Shakespeare. I've seen a little and I've done a little (and I'd love to see and do a lot more), and the little that I've seen and done just seems far more effective to me when it's done true-to-time and place.
I would have loved to have been there to hear Colin's take on it--I'm sure it's a very persuasive argument, and certainly he's far, far more learned than I on the topic. Perhaps it's just simply a matter of taste, but when I go to see Shakespeare, I sort of expect to see Elizabethan garb or for Hamlet to be set in Denmark or for Midsummer to be in Athens, with fairies (not robots or cowboys or drag queens).
Recently I was in NYC working with some actors on a commercial. Many were working as professional Shakesperean actors in and around Broadway. One guy mentioned that he was doing a production of Twelfth Night ... set in an S&M dungeon. His costume was a leather codpiece thong, two nipple rings, and a Hannibal Lector-type cage-piece over his mouth.
Trying to conceal my amusement/shock/horror, I calmly said, "What an interesting artistic choice. Why did the director do that, I wonder?"
He laughed and said, "Because it's what bad directors do to sell tickets."
He said it--I didn't. I'm just repeating it.
But is there some merit to that? Just because we CAN screw with it--does that mean we should? And just because Shakespeare presumably did, he had every right to--he wrote 'em. And at the time, could he really have set R&J on the moon? Macbeth in the Antibellum South? Or made Puck savagely gay? Hm. Something tells me we've taken it faaaaar beyond what he could have ever imagined. But that's just a guess.
Let's also not forget that at the time, pretty much everyone got what Will was saying. Yeah, it rhymed and was unusally well-written, but it isn't the near-foreign language that it is now. Do we really need more muck crudding up the works --confusing the audience: "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark...er, I mean... The 4th Circle of Dante's Inferno, which is where we're choosing to place this production for the hell of it..."
I could go on and on, but I thought I'd get the discussion going.
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Tue Apr 29, 2008 5:33 pm

I agree with you Kara, I don't think it should be messed with just for weirdness's sake.

HOWEVER...

I do think it is perfectly acceptable to alter respectfully. I know this generally goes against my typical opinion, I am usually very much a purist..but I think it is fine to make Shakespeare more accessible. I don't necessarily think that Puck needs to be a raging flamer, but I don't see any reason why Hamlet can't be placed in a contemporary context to help the audience TRULY "get" it.

I really liked the actor's (I can't remember his name) parallel between MacB and the Mugabe situation....what a great illustrating of the upheaval that was going on in parts of Europe during Shakespeare's day. The audience at the Globe could identify with the storyline, modern Americans have a little tougher of a time...

I think it is important to keep the language as pure as possible...but even that is tricky since, as Colin said, there are several versions of almost every play.

I guess I'm saying, don't change for change's sake, but if it serves a valid (I recognize how subjective that word is) purpose, go right on ahead.

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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Tue Apr 29, 2008 8:50 pm

Well said, keltron. Maybe the problem I'm encountering is that I've never, ever seen that "happy medium". It's always pretty pure, or just waaaaaaay out there. Maybe I need to look for a good production that pushes the envelope juuuuust a little.
Folks, let me know if you hear of anything!
(and do it far enough in advance so that I can get a babysitter, please!)
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Wed Apr 30, 2008 9:01 am

Hey, I just love the words. (But ya'll know me....LOL) I will do/watch it pure, I will do/watch it "out there," in a box, with a fox, on a house, with a mouse. It just doesn't matter. It's the words that get to me. Guess I'm just nerdy that way.....Tamitha
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Wed Apr 30, 2008 9:33 am

All of you are Shakespeare buffs, having either been in, directed, studied, loved the Bard for quite some time. I personally fall into that "Average Schmoe" level (on more levels than just Will, mind you) so I'll offer my opinions from that view.

To be honest, I used to be turned off by Shakespeare, mostly due to purists. No offence gang. I couldn't understand it, and no one really took the time to explain it to me. In High School, I had to read several of his plays, and give my interpretations, only to be told they were wrong. Again, this is mostly due to poor instruction on their part, and not enough exposure on my part. So, my relationship with the Bard was an unhappy one, and eventually, a forgotten one.

Due to my recent foray into Shakespeare, via his sonnets of all things, and my willingness to expand my acting chops, I have realized that Shakespeare is timeless not due to the language he used, but the stories themselves. My eyes were opened when forced to translate my sonnets (thanks Tamitha!) rather than just memorize them, and from listening to Colin dissect the intricacies of Romeo and Juliet.

Therefore, I am in the opinion that, in order to get schmoes like me to get turned on to Shakespeare, it has to be broken down for them, meet them where they are at. I liken it to a church abandoning hymnals and organ music in favor of electric guitars, and more contempory music in order to attract people that would normally be turned off by that kind of music. You get them to come to chuch, and then teach the gospel.. Shakespeare could be the same way. Modernize it, tell the SAME STORY with easier to understand language, and you'll be surprised when people want to know more.

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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Wed Apr 30, 2008 10:24 am

That's an interesting perspective Jay. Perhaps if, as K & K are so wonderfully doing, children were exposed to more accessible Shakespeare at younger ages, they would be more apt to become purists (or at least devotees) later in life? Would the purists mind the blasphemy so much I wonder, so long as eventually those who loved it could explore the true works?

I could see a danger though, in society getting too used to it being translated for them, and not bothering later on to go more in depth. Example: Why pay fine actors when we can have reality TV? (ugh) Esotericism has it's advantages sometimes.

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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Thu May 01, 2008 10:58 am

QuantumCowboy wrote:
... Perhaps if, as K & K are so wonderfully doing, children were exposed to more accessible Shakespeare at younger ages, they would be more apt to become purists (or at least devotees) later in life? .


Ooh, oooh! This actually brings up another interesting point. I may get myself into some trouble here, but I think there's a distinction (or at least I make one) between bastardizing the Bard for the sake of "art" , as in the S&M dungeon, and translating the language so that 4-year-olds can understand it. As a self-proclaimed purist, I definitely believe that the only way to understand Shakespeare is to have it translated on some level, at some point in the process, especially when working with the very young and/or those new to the works. In working with our students at Lancaster Montessori School, I thought it best to translate Midsummer into Modern (American) English for the kids so that they could fully understand the scope of the story. However, I did include Puck's final (famous) speech in its entirety for the kids to recite ("If we shadows have offended, think but his and all is mended..." ) The purist in me just HAD to! And when we block that part, we'll discuss what that means, of course.

If this goes over well I may just add more of the original language to next year's LMS production--Macbeth, perhaps?

Being a purist doesn't mean being a Shakespeare snob, I think. To the contrary--I think it means that you (the actor) have taken the time to learn and translate the piece, then come back to it and use the Shakespeare's words and help the audience find meaning in a new way (Sonnets, anyone?). Shakespeare, performed well, doesn't have to be scary (or overly-translated!) for anyone.
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Fri May 02, 2008 7:28 am

Kara wrote:
Let's also not forget that at the time, pretty much everyone got what Will was saying. Yeah, it rhymed and was unusally well-written, but it isn't the near-foreign language that it is now. Do we really need more muck crudding up the works --confusing the audience: "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark...er, I mean... The 4th Circle of Dante's Inferno, which is where we're choosing to place this production for the hell of it..."

To the contrary, I think different interpretations can make the plays more relevant and understandable to a modern audience. For example, I love the idea that one of the cast members of Pericles had, to cast Macbeth in modern-day Zimbabwe. Mugabe, in many ways, is similar to Macbeth... a resolute, almost maniacal desire to hold onto power while hemmed in and surrounded by the worsening social and political upheaval in his country.

It's funny, a fellow engineer-actor (there aren't too many of us) remarked that, and I paraphrase, "You know, Shakespeare's work is like the principle linear basis for the set of all human experience... each play is an eigenvector". (I of course immediately burst into conniptions of laughter... its funny, I promise). Translation: Shakespeare's work forms a core set of fundamental human experiences, some combination of which can describe any more complex human experience. E.G., it is always relevant if interpreted for the time period and culture, and you can combine or subtract a few different characters or scenes to arrive at exactly whatever it is you are feeling right now.

Why not leverage this power of the Bard's words? I think as long as the beauty of the language is preserved, the way that language is presented can change all it wants, which is I think what Tamitha is saying... you won't need to translate if it's in a relevant context. It's not "muck crudding up the works -- confusing the language" (most of the time); like you said, its a near foreign language now, why not make it more accessible by modernizing the context?

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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Fri May 02, 2008 9:08 am

QC

Exactly......I couldn't have put it better. Shakespeare is relevant to a lot of what is happening in our world today. (You may have to look around a little to find it, but it's there.) I concur with Theo's African MacDaddy, very relevant and powerful, as well. Using MacDaddy to open the eyes of his own countrymen to the situation, was a great way to use his gifts and talents for the greater good of his people. In my own heart of hearts, I believe that is what Shakespeare was trying desperately to do. In all of his plays even those such as Richard III, all of the Henry plays, and Midsummer, the Bard makes reference to the political and social relevance of society. (And, sometimes, makes light of it all.) As a lover of words, the Bard chose them very carefully. Not so much that they would rhyme and go, de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum (ha/ha had to throw that in somewhere), but that they could remain timeless.

T
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Fri May 02, 2008 3:25 pm

Okay, guys. It's just a personal preference. I'd have to see the whole Zimbabwean-Macbeth to see if it works--maybe I'd like it a lot. Typically, though, I don't care for those kinds of stretches. I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company do Macbeth set in the antibellum South some years ago in London and it just didn't work FOR ME. I found the juxtaposition too jarring and too many things that didn't make sense. If I didn't already know the story, I would have been super-lost and confused. A few days later I saw As You Like It at The Globe (yep, THE GLOBE)--all the actors were covered in mud and grass and most spent the bulk of the show on their bellies, writhing around in either red clay or brown clay. I didn't get it. Maybe I'm just too dumb. But I sort of felt offended, like this was actually making Shakespeare LESS accessible, not more accessible. Like modern art, I sort of felt like there was an inside joke that I was not privy to, and I felt like I was being called an idiot for not "getting it". It was somehow reminiscent of the Emporer not having any clothes on. Was I the only one who didn't understand this weirdness, or was I just...stupid? Too often, I think that's how a lot of audience members come out of a Shakespeare play that's been messed with a lot. Not feeling closer, but even farther removed and more foreign.
I'm just saying.
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PostSubject: Re: The Time-Traveling Bard?   Fri May 02, 2008 10:13 pm

You're absolutely right Kara. Art for arts sake just sucks, and I know what you mean about so-called post-modern and contemporary art... most of the time I just don't get it. But it *can* be done tastefully, and should. I think the difference says a lot about the director; are they trying way too hard to be an "artiste" or trying to bring Shakespeare to the people? That belly-crawling thing sounds like the former. I really doubt their thought process was "let's make Shakespeare relevant and socially poignant to our modern audience." I'll bet it was more along the lines of "let's confuse them to the point where even we seem like intellectual, avant-garde visionaries." What I'm talking about is the former.

It's like the guy who draws colored stripes on solid-color canvases. Great. I could do that in kindergarten you quack. Rolling Eyes

Don't worry Kara, there is no inside joke... they just want you to think that.

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