Is Our Love of the Bard Overbearing?
Shakespeare himself wrote "All the world's a stage" in Jaques' famous monologue from As You Like It. Outdoor theater companies all over New York seem to be taking this idea to heart, as four of the boroughs will find open spaces such as parks and parking lots invaded by the classics this summer. This incredibly packed summer line-up, consisting mostly of Shakespeare plays, suggests that Shakespeare is becoming less daunting and more accessible to the masses.
But how much of the Bard is too much? Across the pond, in a culture that is maybe more familiar with Shakespearean works, Stephen Unwin, artistic director of the Rose Theatre, Kingston in London, blogged yesterday for the Guardian about how we may be hitting the limit. He questions whether British theater is "addicted" to staging Shakespeare, and I have to wonder if New Yorkers are too.
It may be a tough debate for Bard-lovers such as myself, but Unwin brings up some valid points -- one being that with the added pressure of needing to make any Shakespeare production something new, the focus on the language of the texts gets lost. Casts start to become a barrage of big-name actors being recruited as leads to sell tickets. He also points out that in order to maintain those ticket sales, more of Shakespeare's well known "greatest hits" are produced because their stories have become familiar, resulting in the same plays being performed time and again, while others are left gathering dust on a bookshelf. Case in point: In the four months I spent in London this year, I could've seen three different productions of As You Like It. (I only saw two, one of them being Unwin's prodcution at the Rose Theatre.)
At the same time, the opportunity to see the same play performed in variations by different companies is not such a bad thing. The fact that three different versions of the same play can share successful runs really shows off the flexibility of Shakespeare; one could hear the same text at two shows, but feel like they are seeing an entirely different play each time.
It's not only the repetition of specific plays that may become too much for an audience (Merchant of Venice again!?), but the sheer number of classical theater options available right now. The Times reported that there were at least 14 outdoor theater companies putting on classics around the city this summer. Add to that the Royal Shakespeare Company's brief residence at the Lincoln Center Festival and already existing staged productions, and you can almost hear audience saying "Alright, enough already!"
Admirably, New York's Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is taking on the challenge of two of Shakespeare's "problem plays" this year. While typically paired together in repertory for their similar themes and plot points, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are also two of the most challenging plays for directors, actors, and even scholars. Classified as problem plays, they escape the traditional definitions of tragedy and comedy, and land somewhere on the fence. Therefore, they are often shied away from as choices for performance.
It's important to remember that Shakespeare's plays were intended both for open-air theater (the space of the original Globe) as well as for the masses. It is intertwined in his text in social commentaries and crude humor directed to appeal to groundlings that were only shelling out a few cents for a performance (and usually served as a rousing audience). In theory and practice, the outdoor theater companies have really captured the essence of the Shakespearean text -- and that's all part of the art of classical theater.
So what's the verdict? The idea of Shakespeare as elitist is old school, in my opinion. I've seen many productions that make the intimidating language and style feel very accessible. But Unwin is right in saying that just because his plays are not just for scholars anymore, doesn't mean that we need every open stage or grassy spot in the park echoing with the words of the Bard. Eventually, all art can begin to feel overdone and worn out. The focus completely changes from the brilliant language to celebrities and other flashy gimmicks that add that extra edge to a production. I guess the real question becomes the one Unwin asks: "What is it that these first-time audiences are being offered? However famous the actor or radical the production, are we revealing the heart of the play to those among the audience who are experiencing these masterpieces for the first time?"
-- Ali Mierzejewski