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The Bard should be hard

Change the setting, change the costumes, but leave Shakespeare's language alone, sayeth Sandy Starr

'I'm not at all worried that our Shakespeare films - currently to be scripted by Hanif Kureshi, Andrew Davies, Paula Milne, Jimmy McGovern and Lucy Gannon - will lead to the accusation of dumbing down.'

Nick Elliot, ITV's controller of drama, has approved a £28 million project to adapt plays such as Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream into contemporary drama. These productions will not only update the setting of Shakespeare; they will also modernise his language. Elliot was clearly having trouble understanding why I had invited him to a debate on Shakespeare at a conference entitled 'Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?'.

Updating Shakespeare is all the vogue today. The latest film version of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and played as a gangland drama in a US city, was a smash hit, credited with making Shakespeare more meaningful to a 1990s audience. Even Kenneth Branagh has said he wants to bring Shakespeare's plays up to date in their language as well as their setting.

Audiences at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival could choose from several Shakespeare-related productions, but had they wished to see Shakespeare's own plays performed in a traditional setting they would have been disappointed. There was OJ/Othello, which updated the story of Shakespeare's Moor with reference to the OJ Simpson trial. There was Shakespeare's Women, in which Tara Hendry performed as seven different characters from Shakespeare plays spliced together. There was even a rave version of The Tempest, with live video-feeds, a pounding drum'n'bass soundtrack and a glam-rock Ariel.

Is there anything wrong in experimenting with Shakespeare? OJ/Othello, for instance, was an ingenious work that deservedly won several Fringe awards. Can it be true to suggest that modernising Shakespeare means dumbing him down, when the results can be so impressive?

Attempts to recreate 'authentic' Shakespeare at the reconstructed Globe Theatre have been criticised as tedious, contrived and historically inaccurate. Why strive for authenticity when the joy of Shakespeare is precisely that he engages with the concerns of the age in which he is performed? If we resist the modernisation of Shakespeare, are we in danger of subscribing to Bardolatry?

Using Shakespeare as a springboard to something original is nothing new. Earlier endeavours include the musical West Side Story (inspired by Romeo and Juliet), and the cult films Forbidden Planet (The Tempest) and Ran (King Lear). Go further back and there is All For Love, a popular adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra written by John Dryden in 1677, whose praises were still being sung by TS Eliot this century. It would be impossible to deny that much great theatre and cinema has come from taking liberties with Shakespeare.

It is important to realise, however, that neither OJ/Othello nor West Side Story ever claimed to be Shakespeare; they only claimed Shakespeare as an inspiration. ITV, on the other hand, is presenting its modernised Shakespeare as the genuine article. Given that these versions retain neither the setting nor the language of the Bard, all that remains of him is the plot. And since Shakespeare appropriated most of his stories from other sources, it makes little sense for ITV to attribute any of its new productions to Shakespeare. The plot of Macbeth was taken by Shakespeare from the Scottish section of Holinshed's Chronicles, that of The Tempest was taken from Jourdan's 1610 pamphlet A Discovery of the Bermudas, and that of A Midsummer Night's Dream was a mishmash of Ovid and Chaucer.

What makes Shakespeare's plays unique and worthy of his name is the beauty and complexity of his language. If anything in his plays can be credited with addressing the aspirations and preoccupations of every century since they were written, it is the language. Without imagery and metaphor The Tempest becomes little more than the tale of a motley group of sailors wandering around an island and getting drunk with an overgrown fish. When Miranda encounters a group of men for the first time and says, 'How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/That has such people in't!', it is her language that conveys the conquering of new frontiers, not just the fact that she is impressed. Good TV writer though he is, it seems unlikely that the words of Jimmy Cracker McGovern could have the same effect.

If there is a genuine dumbing down of Shakespeare today it is to be found not in the attempt to popularise the plays, but in the increasingly popular belief that the locus of his work is to be found elsewhere than his language. Admittedly, Shakespeare's vocabulary is over three centuries old and can be difficult for the uninitiated. But the effort required to come to grips with it pays rich dividends: access to the most profound human concerns expressed in beautiful blank verse, expanding the horizons of the imagination. When today's schoolchildren are told that Shakespeare need not be as daunting as he seems because he can be understood in terms of the mundane reality of everyday life, their imagination is being impoverished.

It would be wonderful to think that the newfound popularity of Shakespeare is evidence of 'wising up' in society. But it is not Shakespeare proper that is being mass marketed to a new audience. Sadly, Hollywood and ITV seem intent on feeding us only diet-Shakespeare, with most of the calories removed. When his language has inspired and entranced for 350 years, a low-cal Bard is no substitute for the real thing.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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