From page to stage: How do you adapt Shakespeare?
Cecelia Swartz | Friday, September 22, 2023
Last Friday, the Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company (NSR) put on an unrehearsed production of “Henry IV Part I.” The play is one of Shakespeare’s less popular histories that tells the story of warring factions and attempted rebellion during the reign of England’s Henry IV. At least, that is about as much as I was able to get out of the plot during NSR’s unrehearsed version.
An unrehearsed production is exactly as it sounds. The actors are given cue scripts the day of the show with their lines, the final few words of the line right before theirs and nothing else. They do not know the plot or who everyone else is playing, turning Shakespeare into improv. They then try to put on the play and hilarity ensues — partially from the Shakespeare, partially from mishaps and partially from sparring with fish. Could I follow the plot? Sort of. Was I mildly confused? Yes. Did I have a great time watching intentionally “bad” theatre? Definitely. Ryan Mantey gets a special shoutout for how well he did at dying.
This enjoyable farce of a production brought to mind for me a question of how one adapts Shakespeare for a modern audience. NSR also does fully staged, rehearsed shows every year, and no two are ever quite the same. The same can be said for any professional Shakespeare company from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to the Folger Theatre in D.C. to the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. In the last few years alone, Notre Dame has seen everything from professional, relatively tradition productions of “Hamlet” with Actors from the London Stage, an NSR production of “Hamlet/5,” featuring only five actors, and “Hamlet 50/50,” which sought to foreground an equitable gender balance. All were “Hamlet,” but none were alike.
That, I think, is part of the beauty of Shakespeare. There is no “original version.” For some of the plays, the oldest copies we have were printed in the First Folio in 1623, seven years after he died. This means for performance, there is no such thing as an “authentic” or “historically accurate” way of putting on the plays. They are living, breathing works meant to be performed and adapted, on to both stage and screen, in whatever way feels right for both actors and audience. Some adaptations might be more successful at certain things than others. “Henry IV Part I,” for instance, was funny and enjoyable to watch, but it ran for nearly three hours, and it was hard to follow the plot. It was an adaptation for fun, not for academic study or serious contemplation of the themes of the play, and in that sense, it succeeded.
This flexibility is part of the reason the English literary and dramatic world keeps returning to Shakespeare. The plays themselves are masterpieces, yes, but the fact that they can be put on is so many ways almost makes them eternal works in progress. There is a certain sublimity in being able to watch the same “Hamlet” as an audience from four hundred years ago. It is not the same “Hamlet,” however, because the play in 2023 has been adapted to a modern version where half the lines are spoken by female presenting characters, or there are only five actors. Even with these modernizations, both are still “Hamlet,” and each is just one “Hamlet” in a long line of “Hamlets” — no two of which will ever be the same, extending back into the past to Shakespeare himself and as far into the future as there is theatre. “Hamlet” is thus never quite finished because there is will never be a “final” version.
There is something deeply human in this seeming contradiction that all productions of “Hamlet” have some same intrinsic qualities that make them “Hamlet,” yet no two are ever alike, and the play as an entity remains unfinished. In theatre, Shakespeare is inescapable, but that is because we have decided that the plays reflect the human experience both in their content and in how we put them on. Each new adaptation is a marriage of the words of the Bard and the societal contexts born of the time and place in which it was produced, ever-evolving, ever-changing and eternally beautiful.
So, how do you adapt Shakespeare? However you want.