New stagings shed fear of fatigue of familiar texts

Frank Neufeld // Western News

M.J. Kidnie, Professor of English and Theatre Studies.

There are very few books I read a second time. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Laurie R. King’s O Jerusalem. The Days are Just Packed, by Bill Watterson.

And when I read for a second time a book I remember loving, the memory of that pleasure is more often than not ruined. The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Great Gatsby, so formative at the age of 17, were tiresome in my 40s. (Perhaps as tiresome as my 17-year-old self must have seemed to 40-somethings back in the day.)

And yet I willingly watch the same Shakespeare play in live performance again and again.

Why do the risks of (failed) repetition not similarly apply to theatre?

To some extent, those risks do apply. There have been wonderful nights at the theatre I’ve known better than to try to experience a second time – Adrian Lester as Henry V, an all-male Twelfth Night by Edmund Hall’s Propeller Theatre Company, Judi Dench in All’s Well that Ends Well. That sense of witnessing something extraordinary is precarious, and can easily be lost. So many factors are at play in live performance, not least my own – now fundamentally altered – expectations of the event at a second viewing. Instead of being a ‘naïve’ spectator, absorbing each moment as it arrives, I inevitably measure each moment as it unfolds against my memory of a previous experience of it. There’s no competing with nostalgia.

New stagings, however – not repeat performances of the same production, but new productions of the same play – are a different matter.

What do spectators gain when they go to the theatre to watch yet another staging of a play they may have already seen in performance? In this quatercentenary year, spectators can see Henry V as part of the Breath of Kings season at the Stratford Festival. As David Prosser explains in his contribution to this special issue, Graham Abbey has condensed four of Shakespeare’s histories (Richard II, Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and Henry V) into just two plays (Rebellion and Redemption), which will be performed in the round at the newly configured Patterson Theatre. Spectators can also catch Henry V in London and New York in a Belgian production called Kings of War directed by Ivo van Hove. This is another staging that conflates multiple plays. Van Hove, by contrast with Abbey, begins the story with Henry V, and pursues Shakespeare’s narrative of war through the three Henry VI plays to Richard III in a single (four-and-a-half-hour) performance.

In their very different ways, these are monumental productions well-suited to a landmark year when we will see Shakespeare’s drama and poetry commemorated around the world. But undoubtedly these stagings will tell quite different stories about Shakespeare’s Henry V. Even the choice to place this play about English exceptionalism within a larger sweep of action alters a spectator’s perception of war.

In Abbey’s version, Bolingbroke’s bold and illegal usurpation of power culminates a generation later in military triumph for his charismatic son, Henry V; in van Hove’s version, the triumph of Henry V is merely the brief prelude to years of bloody civil war, ultimately culminating in dynastic change and the (perhaps uncertain?) promise of better days.

All of this goes some way towards explaining the value of theatrical repetition. Because it isn’t, after all, repetition. Creative teams come to a play with something to say – about Shakespeare, about live theatre, about the politics of the world in which we live – and in doing so, enable that play to take on new meanings in performance. Shakespeare’s drama thus retains theatrical currency today because it’s one way we continue to tell stories about ourselves. As the community – the ‘we’ – who chooses to tell these stories change, so will Shakespeare’s plays shift and alter. An all-female production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison and starring Harriet Walter as Brutus tells a different story from a production of the same play mounted by Native Earth, Canada’s oldest professional indigenous theatre company. And both of these celebrated professional stagings differed again from the production of Julius Caesar enacted last week at the Grand Theatre by the talented group of secondary students selected to perform in the 2016 High School Project.

I sometimes hear the terms ‘performance’ and ‘adaptation’ used interchangeably – any play in performance, the assumption seems to go, is an adaptation. Performance isn’t really, or not quite, the ‘real’ Shakespeare play. The way I’ve been talking here about theatrical story-telling may well seem to reinforce this view.

But collapsing performance into adaptation is to lose something important about drama as a genre distinct from, say, prose novels. Novels exist as literature. A play, by contrast, exists simultaneously in two quite different forms, as literature and as performance. The play as literature, as Paul Werstine points out elsewhere in this issue, is subject to the interpretive strategies of successive generations of editors and publishing houses who shape the reading experience. The play as performance is analogously subject to the interpretive strategies of teams – the actors, directors, designers – who shape the theatrical experience.

To recognize that a play exists as both literature and performance, mediums that depend on the artistry of modern scholars and artists, is to realize that Shakespeare’s plays are an ongoing process, always coming into being. It matters very much, therefore, who is doing the telling. Perhaps even more urgently, it matters how these stories are received. Spectators who applaud stage design, who debate constructions of community in Rosalind’s Arden or Macbeth’s Scotland, who join a conversation about the first black Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company – a milestone achieved as recently as 2016, so marking in equal measure both a changing world and deep institutional prejudices – help to shape the changing stories we tell about Shakespeare.

And, 400 years on, the stories we choose to tell about ourselves.

M.J. Kidnie, Professor of English and Theatre Studies, is the author of Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation.