The View From Here

Our great theatre companies have lost their nerve with Shakespeare

I have decided I can never again sit through a production of King Lear. These days I'm filled with a mixture of anxiety and dread from the moment Lear enters with that damned map of his kingdom. In fact, my current feelings about the opening scene in Lear are very like those I had when I went into labour with my second child. Between children you can't remember anything about childbirth, except that wonderful moment when it was all over. Waiting in the delivery room in a state of bated-breath excitement for child number two, as the first really painful contraction gripped me the dreadful recognition hit me too - I remembered, with a blinding flash, exactly what labour was like, that the pains were going to go on and on relentlessly, and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. That, I'm afraid, is how I feel about Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.

I don't think this disgraceful reluctance on my part to embark on the emotional marathon which is King Lear is entirely my fault. Our great theatre companies have lost their nerve with Shakespeare. The dead hand of compulsory Shakespeare in the National Curriculum means that directors are intimidated by the Bard even before the first read-through with their cast. Gone are the days of Peter Brook's acrobatic and eroticised Midsummer Night's Dream (exploring a suggestion by the radical critic Jan Kott), or Bill Alexander's Fifties' farce version of The Merry Wives of Windsor (complete with a memorable scene in which the wives gossiped at the hairdresser's with their heads under pink hairdryers).

Now, even when a great director like Deborah Warner gets her hands on Lear, she produces barely a disturbance on the smooth surface of "classic" Shakespeare. A wheelchair and red noses for Act I scene 1 had me fooled, briefly, then the regular, familiar convulsions followed with painful predictability.

North America has a different relationship with Shakespeare. His plays are still regarded as definitively part of the American cultural heritage, but there is none of the awed reverence from which we appear to suffer. Instead, Shakespeare is grasped by the throat, and projected into the twentieth century, as if the director were trying to say, "Here, I can prove to you that this great play is still relevant." And fortunately, we get the opportunity to see some of these bold reappropriations here. They seem to me to be living culture, where we are in danger of allowing our precious heritage to die of suffocation.

Peter Sellars's production of The Merchant of Venice which came to London a year or so ago set the play in Venice Beach, California, cast an African- American as Shylock, surrounded him by a press pack of media commentators, and staged the trial scene as an eerie evocation of the 0 J Simpson trial. Of course, the transposition wasn't entirely successful - there were moments when the text simply failed to fit the new context - but Shylock's trial speech was intensely troubling, and our sympathy for Portia far from automatic. Sellars's production oozed racial prejudice from every pore - and surely that is the profound relevance of The Merchant of Venice to us today.

It was on the strength of this, my considered view of the current state of British Shakespeare, that I declined to accompany a colleague to see Lear at the National Theatre last week. Instead, I went with my 12-year- old son to see Baz Luhrmann's film of Romeo and Juliet. From the moment the Montague and Capulet gangs roared on to the screen in their souped- up cars, we were utterly gripped. For two hours we sat on the edges of our seats, horrified at the botched beach brawl in which Mercutio was fatally wounded, desperate at the confusion in the Post Haste express mail service, which meant that Romeo did not receive his urgent package.

"Fresh, fast and funky" is how the film was billed. My son's verdict was that once he got used to the Shakespearean language - "the funny way they all spoke" - it had been a really exciting movie: "Wicked," in fact. He was a little surprised when I told him it was a play he'd probably have to do for his Key Stage 3, and he's certainly convinced that Romeo and Juliet tackles issues he cares about - parental discipline, gangs in the playground, adolescent passion.

The first stage production of a Shakespeare play I ever took his older sister to, at roughly the same age, was Bill Alexander's RSC production of Merry Wives at the Barbican in 1986. I still remember her excitement afterwards, and how thrilled I was that she should have had the opportunity to respond to Shakespeare as hers, as belonging to her in its capacity to captivate and stir.

Surely that is what our national theatre companies should be aiming for now, instead of offering inert, elitist, studiedly authentic pieces of literary history based on some kind of assumption that audiences "ought" to enjoy them. Productions we "ought to" like certainly don't fill theatres; whereas Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet is this week's third highest-grossing movie at the box office, behind The English Patient and Star Wars.

Oh, and I didn't regret the decision about Lear. My colleague's e-mail message the next day was succinct: "No sequins. They all took their clothes off, shouted, then died".

The author is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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