To be or not to be cancelled: how directors deal with Shakespeare’s problematic side

Misogynist gags? Ancient puns? Unethical bed tricks? Theatre-makers discuss how they tackle the Bard’s trickier works

Earlier this year, I spoke to the actor Natasha Magigi, a regular at Shakespeare’s Globe. With the audience crowding close around the stage, she must know exactly when a play is or isn’t landing, I suggested. “One hundred per cent. You can see the whites of people’s eyes and you can also see when they start to zone out. You can’t pretend that you haven’t said something weird, especially if you catch someone’s eye.”

The conversation made me wonder where audiences and creatives stub their toes on Shakespeare’s plays. Unfamiliar language, outdated ethics, baffling behaviour? We’ve become used to sifting racism or sexism in these texts – but what other problems give people pause in rehearsal or performance?

Blanche McIntyre has been juggling problems in All’s Well That Ends Well, one of the gnarliest of the comedies, currently staged at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s almost as though Shakespeare wrote an anti-romcom,” the director says. “Every time it seems to be progressing straightforwardly, there’s a sudden turn and everyone is left sprawling in the dust.”

Nonetheless, McIntyre explains, “intractable problems, both of situation and personality, make for juicy drama. You go to watch people going through things that you can’t imagine going through.” In All’s Well (“famously the play where you don’t like anyone”), the biggest stumbling block is a moral one – Helena, the heroine, beds her crush Bertram by convincing him he’s having sex with someone else. “The idea of a bed trick is ethically questionable,” McIntyre protests. “It’s essentially a sexual assault: Bertram can’t consent because he doesn’t know who he’s sleeping with. But the play has no problem with the bed trick. The play thinks it’s fine; it even cheers her on.”

Rosie Sheehy (Helena), Bruce Alexander (King of France) and Benjamin Westerby (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well.
‘Anti-romcom’ … Rosie Sheehy (Helena), Bruce Alexander (King of France) and Benjamin Westerby (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, directed by Blanche McIntyre. Photograph: Ikin Yum

She refuses to skate over this “appalling” moment. “When the world of the play contains this poisonous central act, I cannot excuse it to the audience. It’s a play about incredibly flawed people who do awful things to each other, and this is the worst of many.” It nonetheless helps McIntyre and Rosie Sheehy, playing Helena, to reassess the heroine – her quest is “a romantic fixation that develops into an obsession. The first half is full of her soliloquies. She shares her thoughts and feelings – it’s very unguarded. At a certain point she stops talking to us, and that’s the point where she gets this idea. I hope the audience will go on a journey of separation.”

Much Ado About Nothing might seem a smoother ride. The romantic comedy is everywhere this year – Robert Hastie’s co-production for Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon follows other versions at the RSC, Globe and National Theatre. He cites Peter Brook’s description of Shakespeare’s plays being like planets with regular orbits: “There are times when certain plays swing closer to us.” With Much Ado: “I feel like I know these people. I feel like I’ve been these people on occasion.

“In our show,” he continues, “the actors largely identify as deaf or disabled, so the characters do as well. We are surprised by how much the text not only allows for that, but chimes with it and makes it a rewarding artistic experience.” Their lived experience informs a plot driven by being misheard or misconstrued. “It’s absolutely riddled with overhearing, spying and picking up information that you either misunderstand or misinterpret. We are striving for clarity, so we’re working with British Sign Language, captioning and audio description throughout. There’s an enjoyable dance about how we make things clear to the audience when we need the characters to swim in confusion.”

The most devastating mistake has young Claudio assume his fiancée Hero has betrayed him. “When he sees somebody having sex at a distance, why does Claudio believe that it’s Hero? Crucially, Shakespeare doesn’t stage that moment, leaving the actual witnessing to an audience’s imagination.” Claudio is duped by the play’s blatant villain, Don John. “You’ve got to ask yourself, what are the forces operating in this society that make what he suggests so readily accepted by other men?” Hastie asks. “He goes big with the lie, and it taps into something in the male psyche – none of the women believe him.”

A similar dynamic, says Sean Holmes, informs The Winter’s Tale, which he directs at the Globe in February and which also turns on accusations of female infidelity. “King Leontes has this insane attack of jealousy,” he explains. “Everyone says, you’re mad – but because of the monarchical system there is no way to properly challenge him.”

For Holmes, the dilemma is less what’s in the plays but what surrounds them: “Four hundred years of accrued assumptions around Shakespeare. You can’t ignore his dominance in our cultural life, even if you’ve never seen Hamlet. We’re trying to make it like a new play has dropped in our lap, and scrape the barnacles – the received ideas – off the hull of the boat.” With The Tempest, that means swerving conventions like “Prospero as an old guy with a white beard” – Holmes has cast Ferdy Roberts wearing only bright yellow budgie smugglers.

Holmes’ frequent designer Grace Smart notes that designers aren’t immune to received ideas. Of their recent Hamlet, she says: “I thought it was really clever and wicked to put him in a beanie and raincoat. Sean had to sidle up and go, that’s what they all do.” As McIntyre has found, it may be easier to rethink less familiar plays like Titus Andronicus or The Two Noble Kinsmen. “I would much rather have the difficult, thorny ones that are less well known,” she confirms. “You can surprise the audience better.”

Holmes and Smart similarly refreshed Shakespeare’s back-stabbing early history plays. “Grace had a brilliant idea,” Holmes says. “When we got into the wars of the roses they had football shirts with numbers and names on. We were in a weird, non-naturalistic world where they were not using swords but choking each other in the mud. When somebody suffocates somebody else with a plastic bag, that’s really unpleasant.”

If there’s one thing worse than Shakespeare’s gore, it’s his comedy. Who hasn’t endured the tumbleweed silence of an audience faced with ancient puns? Both Much Ado and All’s Well contain clown roles that are notoriously hard to animate. “On the page some of it is woefully uncomic,” Hastie concedes. Casting helps, he reckons, getting “a brilliant comic actor in the room” – in his case Caroline Parker, as the watchman Dogberry.

When I mention comedy to McIntyre, she sighs in frustration. She too lauds a “brilliant” actor, Will Edgerton as the jester Lavache in All’s Well, but his gags are “so misogynist, so dark, so angry – it’s hard to imagine how an audience today would have their funny bones tickled. There’s a strand in the play of male aggression about women – Lavache takes this to an extreme place and draws your attention to the fact that many other characters do that as well. So long as there are jokes elsewhere, I don’t mind if Lavache isn’t where the jokes live.”

David Tennant (Touchstone) in As You Like It at Barbican theatre, London, in 1996.
‘You can trick people’ … David Tennant (Touchstone) in As You Like It at Barbican theatre, London, in 1996. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In a recent RSC podcast, David Tennant describes negotiating As You Like It’s often mirthless Touchstone with the voice guru Cicely Berry: “She encouraged me to use the rhythms, which are those of a standup comic. If you phrase something in the right rhythm you can make an audience laugh even though they clearly don’t understand the joke. You can trick people.”

Hastie argues that clowning blooms in “a strong context. Much Ado is structured around a series of parties – you go from welcoming party to masked ball to wedding to funeral to another wedding, so we’re making Dogberry and his crew sort of wedding planners. I nick a couple of lines from another play to pull it together. It’s like the reconstruction of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, where they’re missing a couple of the strands of DNA so fill in with frog DNA. King John is our frog DNA.”

Editing the text is standard modern practice. On Hamlet, Holmes worked with the dramaturg Zoë Svendsen, who “noticed that the speeches are so densely put together that they’re quite hard to cut. Whereas it’s very surprisingly easy to move a scene, if you keep the narrative.”

Hamlet, directed by Sean Holmes at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
‘It’s easy to move a scene if you keep the narrative’ … Hamlet, directed by Sean Holmes at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. Photograph: Johan Persson

Hastie confides: “I don’t know if it would offend any Shakespeare purists to admit how much we regularly edit and change. At its most basic level, if an audience can’t understand what you’re saying then you’ve got to shift.” Suddenly, the chat goes a bit Top Gear. “You’re working with language that has its own beauty and motor. You might go, that’s a really old part, I wouldn’t put it in a car now but it still works. And then there’s other things which cause the car to backfire.” Parking his inner Jeremy Clarkson, he continues, “These plays will survive anything we do with them. That slightly takes the pressure off, because nobody should set ever set out to make a definitive production of them.”

The final collaborator and final arbiter is the audience. “Actors always say that when the audience arrive, they’ll show you what kind of play it is,” says McIntyre. “In previews, you see what isn’t clear but also what’s resonating and really speaking to them. We make something which is often quite dark or sour, and the audience will go, that’s hilarious!”


David Jays

The GuardianTramp

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