Unbreakable Shakespeare and the death of reverence

by Oliver Senton | 1 September 2016

The estate of the late Samuel Beckett is notoriously strict; no changes or alterations to any works allowed. The Pinter Estate is currently in wrangles with The Wooster Group over plans to perform Pinter’s early play The Room somewhere other than the group’s own premises in New York; as if that will make a difference to the production. By contrast, Sam Shepard’s estate trusts the robustness of his work and will give permission to pretty much any legitimate attempt to put on Shepard’s plays as long as they get the cheque in return.

I like to think Shakespeare’s estate, were there one, would be more like that. If his plays are anything – and they are many things – they are robust. They’ve been battered over the years: productions set in space, nude, musicals, The Merchant of Venice set in Las Vegas or a concentration camp, Twelfth Night with Orsino as a fading rock star and a full-blown orgy to finish. But the plays always survive – through good actors and bad, ill-conceived sets and mumbled speeches, wild histrionics and terrible celebrity casting. But still, as at Shakespeare’s Globe where I’ve seen many shows over the years, the story, the musculature of the play goes on functioning even when there are serious problems of casting, staging, whatever. The plays seem to function almost in spite of all that.

Of course productions can be dull, mind-blankingly, museum-piece dull (though that’s a disservice to many museums). I can’t think of a theatre experience more excruciating than a reverential, plodding Shakespeare taking three hours to limp towards its underwhelming finale. But the problem there isn’t Shakespeare – it’s the reverence.

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