The Listener: Bard stupid?

Missed any good radio lately? Until its demise in 1991, you could turn to The Listener magazine for transcripts of the week's best programmes. Today the Independent on Sunday revives the Reithian tradition with an exclusive new series that takes the smartest and liveliest talks and discussions from BBC Radio 3 and puts them into print. Each week we'll bring you authoritative speakers and the most entertaining debate on the big issues in culture and the arts. It's radio worth reading.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Radio 4 listeners voted William Shakespeare Man of the Millennium. Peter Hall suspects that by 2020, we will have lost our ear for his language. Can we put our faith in Hollywood's new-found passion for the Bard? Four experts discuss the future of our national poet

THE SPEAKERS

SIR RICHARD EYRE

Former Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre

FIONA SHAW

Actor, whose major Shakespearean roles include Richard II at the RNT

JONATHAN BATE

Author of The Genius of Shakespeare

BOB CROWLEY

Senior designer at the RNT

RICHARD EYRE: In Britain we talk about Shakespeare as an icon, an emblem, a logo, our patriarch and our national poet. But what we want to concentrate on today is a man who spent his life in the theatre as a producer, an actor and a playwright. In my view, it's precisely his contact with the practicalities of his medium that makes his work so effective. And this fact is overlooked by a large number of commentators on Shakespeare, who write as if he was a man writing in the study for publication. Shakespeare chose to write in verse, not prose. He could write in prose, and anybody who knows Shakespeare will testify that a number of his prose scenes are extraordinarily effective. But he chose to write in verse because he thought it was the most expressive tool, because it gave a greater pulse to the work, so that the language happens not alongside what people say, but actually within what people say. Feelings and thoughts are released at the moment of speech, and an Elizabethan audience would have responded to that. Now we can discuss how our audience has changed and also whether we've become habituated to Shakespeare and in some ways immune to him. I remember an actor from the National Theatre's education department, who visited Soweto in South Africa, and he said he would never forget a boy coming up to him and saying, "Well, in Soweto, to us Shakespeare is dust." I have to say that that was also the view of my father, who, rather more robustly, said to me, "Shakespeare is balls." I want to examine the question of whether these assertions are now true for a majority of a potential audience. Fiona, will Shakespeare survive into the next millennium?

FIONA SHAW: Peter Hall said that he felt 20 years ago people could read Shakespeare and also hear Shakespeare, and at the moment, he thinks that we can hear Shakespeare but not read it. And in 20 years' time he thinks we won't be able to hear it. I think the catastrophe for Shakespeare is probably just the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century, because what we call the deconstruction of our moral universe - a world where God is dead or a world where language itself has become fragmentary - means that the art of acting has become a mirrored fragmentation. Actors are often used, as in films, to just play a tiny fragment of a story, that itself is telling us something about the human state of affairs.

JONATHAN BATE: I'm more optimistic than Fiona. Shakespeare began his career as a patcher of other men's plays, a reworker of an inherited repertoire, and he's survived like a fit organism in the natural world through a process of evolution and adaptation to new cultural circumstances. His plays, as he wrote them, were a constant process of reworking of existing material, and they've been constantly reworked ever since his death. That process began very soon after his death, when Middleton came in and rewrote Macbeth with a bunch of extra singing and dancing witches. It happened in the Restoration when Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear with a happy ending. In our modern age of marketing and sense of audience awareness, we understand that more. Think of the way that Hollywood films are tested out on an audience, and if the unhappy ending is not liked, then a happy ending is created. So, what happens to the plays is that they're constantly remade in the image of later cultures, and that will always go on happening. But at the same time the plays seem to force later cultures to question their own self image, and because of that they themselves start introducing a process of cultural change. So, there will be new Shakespeares in the new millennium, but of course we have no way of knowing what they will be. In 1800 there was no way of knowing that by the 20th century, Shakespeare's plays would be deeply psychoanalysed. In 1900 there was no way of knowing that the most exciting Shakespearean work of the 1990s would have used the plays as a way of exploring questions of gender and sexual identity. Some of the most exciting productions of the Nineties were Cheek by Jowl's As You Like It, with an all-male cast, and Richard II, with Fiona Shaw as Richard. What I think is bound to be the case is that there will be a continuing play between modernisation and authenticity. You can modernise the setting but keep the original words, like in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. You can modernise the setting, lose the original words, but keep the key idea, as in the recent film 10 Things I Hate About You. Or you can go to the opposite extreme as in the project at the Globe Theatre, and try and recover a kind of authenticity. Different media will serve Shakespeare in different ways. I think radio is going to be particularly important for retaining a sense of the language of Shakespeare. It's in in the cinema that the epic qualities of the plays and the visual qualities will come forward. It's in the theatre that the absolute key thing - the moment of encounter between an actor and an audience - will continue to survive. Television I'm less sure about. I think television is the one medium Shakespeare hasn't yet conquered. Shakespeare is big and is public; television is small and domestic.

RICHARD EYRE: Bob Crowley, can

you address yourself to the question of whether Shakespeare will survive?

BOB CROWLEY: I suspect there's a kind of cynicism about him. I fear that overfamiliarity with certain plays will breed contempt. I also think there's a crisis about how we do him in big spaces. As directors and designers we inherited these big theatres and I think doing large-scale Shakespeare is problematic these days.

JONATHAN BATE: But don't you think that's because big Shakespeare has gone to Hollywood? Big Shakespeare can be done in the movies, and in a sense the theatre should feel relaxed about that, because it leaves a space for more intimate work to be done.

RICHARD EYRE: Shakespeare works better in small spaces partly because you're relieved of the obligation to present a physical world for the play, but of course it still requires actors who can actually fill the theatre with vocal energy.

FIONA SHAW: The energy of the language demands a very big voice, and anybody who feels that you can perform Shakespeare on the back foot is wrong. Small spaces like the Cottesloe are marvellous for Shakespeare because they allow the complexity of the story to become observable by the audience. They become sort of part of it. But it's not really the plot that makes Shakespeare interesting, it's the corridor aspect of what is going on by accident, at the side. I am concerned that the Hollywood Shakespeare argues that the great thing about Shakespeare is that it's simple. I think the great thing about Shakespeare is it's complex and that's what you enjoy when you're in a small house.

RICHARD EYRE: Jonathan, do you find that your students want to paraphrase, to translate?

JONATHAN BATE: No, I don't think they do. The most difficult thing I find, teaching students at a university, level is that you have to talk them out of the approaches that have been imposed upon them at school, where, because they've had to answer exam questions on the plays, they have to look for "the themes" and they have to make moral judgements about the plays. It's inherent in the nature of examining Shakespeare that you have to turn it into a literary text, something dead on the page. The first work I have to do with students at university level is to get them thinking dramatically, thinking theatrically.

RICHARD EYRE: If you listen to the best of rap, it's composed of very dense and utterly rhythmic language. So is it our failure as practitioners to instil this in a younger generation or is it an educational failure?

JONATHAN BATE: I think education does have a lot to do with it, because Shakespeare himself and his ideal audience member would have had a grammar school education, which at that time would have meant a linguistic training, a training in rhetoric and the organisation of language in ways that produce a persuasive effect through various kinds of patterning. I think we have just lost the ear for the rhetorical intricacies of the plays, and that means that a lot of the time audiences are left cold by Love's Labours Lost, one his most academic plays. But at the time it would have been tremendously successful, precisely because of the sheer intricacy of the rhetorical knots within the play.

RICHARD EYRE: Jonathan, we've talked about how Shakespeare is inseparable from the language, but you actually made a perfectly convincing case for Shakespeare being kept alive precisely by productions on film which are Shakespeare but not Shakespeare.

JONATHAN BATE: One of the extraordinary things about Shakespeare is his adaptability to different media.

So I would say Verdi and Boito's Otello is one of the great readings of Othello, but it's not Shakespeare.

RICHARD EYRE: Given that Shakespeare is in the language, how can you detach Shakespeare from the language? Isn't it just taking a myth and reinterpreting it?

JONATHAN BATE: That's not necessarily the case. One of the best Midsummer Night's Dreams I ever saw was in Romanian, of which I don't understand a word, and there were plenty of people in the audience who were seeing the play for the first time, didn't understand Romanian and yet still got a lot out of it. It seems to me there are all sorts of levels at which the theatrical experience is working and we shouldn't ask every rendering of Shakespeare to plug into every different level. There's a place for silent Shakespeare just as there's a place for musical Shakespeare and for authentic Shakespeare.

RICHARD EYRE: Well, I'd like to open this discussion up to the audience.

GERARD MURPHY: I've done a lot of Shakespeare at the Glasgow Citizens, and it appeals enormously to young audiences there. The place is always crammed with teenagers. You've already mentioned rap, but listen to House music and Garage music, where they're playing on five decks at once. These audiences are used to intricacies.

RICHARD EYRE: Anthony Holden, biographer of Shakespeare.

ANTHONY HOLDEN: I'm going to make an attempt, very briefly, to brilliantly link two of your main themes. We look to you, I think, to keep the language alive. But I think you are too inward-looking when worrying about space, size of place, et cetera. There's a wonderful Merchant of Venice in the Cottesloe as we speak, there's also a wonderful Troilus on the sprawling Olivier stage. We all know about the schoolteacher who took her pupils out of what I thought was a rather good production of Midsummer Night's Dream, because there was some very vivid rumpy-pumpy between Bottom and Titania. I say the fault lies not in our stars or in our directors but in ourselves and our schoolteachers. Shakespeare in Love has created a huge young audience for Shakespeare. They even know that movie's not true. There are six Shakespeare movies in production as we speak, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet on the streets of New York, Kenneth Branagh updating Love's Labours Lost, Anthony Hopkins playing Titus Andronicus, and a couple more. I think the future's very rosy.

NICKY HENSON: People come to the theatre with at least a fear and at most a positive dislike of Shakespeare because it's been rammed down their throats in the classroom. And it was not written to be performed or interpreted in the classroom. A friend of Ian McKellen's, a teacher in a very poor district of Los Angeles, is currently doing some workshops with some of his students at the Globe Theatre. They're almost all Spanish Americans for whom English is not their first language. They do two Shakespeare classes a week and the class produces a Shakespeare at the end of each year. These children are passionate about Shakespeare, they thrill to the rhythmic language and the grandiose ideas. The answer is teachers of genius, but there's no way you can legislate for teachers of genius.

RICHARD EYRE: One of the things that happens when you do a Shakespeare play is that there's an instinct to complicate it. It's actually very good practice to imagine you're in the audience of the Globe and you're watching this play for the first time. Here is a man who is a hugely successful playwright. He really does know what he's doing. Frequently, perversely, people overcomplicate it because they're reluctant to believe that it is what it appears to be. There's a Persian proverb which is, "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one uses it?"

The doyen of Shakespeare scholars, Professor Stanley Wells, is sitting in the back row.

STANLEY WELLS: Thanks, Richard, this is not a question, it's a little bit of a request for more of an emphasis on the range and richness of Shakespeare. I think people have been talking a bit about Shakespeare as if Shakespeare was rather too limited, as if language only meant sound. Language means meaning as well, and meaning can be translated into different languages. Shakespeare is not just Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare's texts, he's not just what they meant in his own time, he's not just what those pure unadapted texts can mean in our time. Shakespeare is everything that has happened to, and because of Shakespeare, since his time, up to now. And to that extent Shakespeare is an ever-changing and ever-fluid concept. A ballet based on Shakespeare, for example, is still somehow imbued with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is in the water supply, and even a very diluted Shakespeare nevertheless is still part of what Shakespeare set going those 400 or so years ago.

RICHARD EYRE: I want to end just by reading something that I suppose is from an ideal audience for Shakespeare. He's had a rather rocky press in France, but he actually changed the life of

two of France's most extraordinary artists in the 19th century: Victor Hugo

and Berlioz. Anybody who does Shakespeare hopes for this response. This was Berlioz's reaction after seeing a performance of Hamlet: "Shakespeare, coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners. I recognise the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth. I saw, I understood, I felt, that I was alive and I must arise and walk." The next line that Berlioz wrote was: "I should add that at this time I neither understood or spoke a word of English!"

Comments