Adapting Shakespeare: It’s Not as Clever as You Think It Is

By Bekah Eichelberger

When I heard about the backlash to Julius Caesar, my eyes rolled back into my head. Not just because of the controversy, but because the idea felt so trite. I imagined the production meetings went something like

“Oh hey, this Trump thing is happening and we should make Caesar Trumplike! Because tyrant!  Images and phrases from the resistance, YES!! Omg, we should have PUSSY HATS! Let’s be hip and woke! YAS kweens let’s do this.”

This thing:

image

This fucking thing.

I’ve seen this image on the internet many times, and it always makes me laugh/cry. If I were to follow this, I would be doing a reduced Henry IV, Part 1 with music by Elton John. Some may laugh, but I honestly think that some directors come up with their ~~**brilliant**~~ visions through memes like this.

I think that’s because there’s a discussion around Shakespeare that wants to make it “cool, edgy, and accessible.” I find all of this talk to be quite …  frustrating. And to be completely fair, staging Shakespeare can be quite the daunting task—Billy boy doesn’t give you the pages of stage directions that many playwrights provide today. Everything about the characters and the circumstances come through the text. It is quite the task to parse it all out, but necessary when mounting a production. Often times, however, it seems that the “vision” or “idea” of a Shakespeare adaptation becomes more important that the play itself.  In these productions, the “idea” does most of the heavy lifting to get the themes across to the audience, rather than the text.  It’s as if these directors don’t trust their audiences enough to decipher their connection to the play, so they lay it out for them instead.

Enter the Public Theater’s production Julius Caesar [pursued by bear]. (Sorry.) There has been much conversation about this production, mainly because it staged the tragedy in our contemporary era, with Caesar being a stand in for President Donald Trump. Did it deserve the controversy? No. Is the Public protected by the First Amendment? Yes. But outside of the controversy, did the entire production stem from a device that’s less clever than it thinks it is? Absolutely.

When I heard about the backlash to Julius Caesar, my eyes rolled back into my head. Not just because of the controversy, but because the idea felt so trite. I imagined the production meetings went something like

“Oh hey, this Trump thing is happening and we should make Caesar Trumplike! Because tyrant!  Images and phrases from the resistance, YES!! Omg, we should have PUSSY HATS! Let’s be hip and woke! YAS kweens let’s do this.”

I’m sure director Oskar Eustis felt very passionate about this project (I’ve read that Julius Caesar is one of his favorite Shakespeare plays), but my problem isn’t with his subject—it’s with his framing, which seems to do little to elevate the text. Julius Caesar doesn’t need this to look contemporary to feel relevant. There is a built-in freshness and timeliness to the play because its brilliance lies in Shakespeare’s ability to deftly handle multiple threads and themes. Its political issues—including loyalty to country versus personal interest, the relationship between power and populism, the threats of charismatic political figures, and dangers of authoritarianism—can be seen throughout centuries of different governments. The beauty of Julius Caesar is that the audience doesn’t need all of this to be laid out to them as explicitly as this production seems to do, because Caesar, Brutus, and Marc Anthony can be from any state, anywhere, that has precarious politics. The text takes care of that.

This isn’t to say that every Shakespeare production with a modern take or unique perspective detracts from the text or is inherently trite — the contrary, I’ve seen many productions that do this quite well. But audiences don’t need to be told how to feel or how the themes explored fit into their daily lives. Art meets people where they are, and audiences learn the lessons that ring true to their lives when they are enough to be able to draw their own conclusions and building their own reactions. The beauty of theatre, especially Shakespeare, is that audiences can come into a play with a variety of life experiences, and make their own connections.

Shakespeare is made accessible through clear text, active performances, and smart directing; it can’t be distilled through one motif or device. So, to every director who thinks their Trump-themed Macbeth is revolutionary—it isn’t. But actually honoring the text and respecting your audience would be.

Except Hamlet with pugs. I would pay good money for that shit.

 


Bekah Eichelberger (@ba_eich) is a writer, actress, occasional funny person, and general awkward human. She currently works as Grant Writing and Communications Associate at Planned Parenthood Keystone, and has previously worked for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center. She is a George Washington University grad, Proud feminist, Youtube lover, and fighter against bullshit.

image

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s