Where there's a Will, there's a way

A gangland `Romeo and Juliet', a fascist `Richard III', a woman as `King Lear' ... Can the Bard survive all this modern tinkering? Yes, argues Richard D North
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The groundlings are all astir. American teen star Claire Daines has moved on from MTV's My So-Called Life to an LA gang-war Romeo + Juliet, opening in cinemas here from tomorrow. So all's well: people have always messed with the Bard.

Shakespeare is enjoying a success which is likely to prove light years longer lasting even than Star Wars. He can be digitised but not mastered. You can throw what you like at the plays and feel that the old beggar was on your side all along. While the audiences comes out talking about the special effects, it's the poetry and themes they dream about later. That, and the performances, of course. Repertory theatre may be dead, but there remains a sense of a national repertory theatre - if anything enhanced by television - and there is a special sport in watching a familiar face from a soap or a thriller working with a different class of material. And then there is the buzz of watching a new generation of actors and actresses ageing into the big stuff.

The National Theatre unveils a new King Lear today, and for once we haven't been teased with star interviews. The fun is in wondering whether the quiet Ian Holm is up to this dark and noisy piece? Out comes his 1967 Henry V (on audio cassette) for a rerun reminding us - what is hard to remember with hi-tech modern productions - that we are invited to "be kind and eke out our performance with your mind". The mind skips along to Laurence Olivier's filmed Henry V, where the camera goes backstage to enhance Shakespeare's game of showing us the swan of Avon's feet paddling beneath the serene surface.

In the surreal world of Lear nearly anything can work. Youngish Kathryn Hunter at the Haymarket, Leicester, was a mesmerising Lear: acting beyond gender and years to portray a regal loss of command of self, family and realm. There was a little, but only a very little, of Patricia Hayes's Edna the Inebriated Woman about it.

One half hopes the National's is one of the quieter productions. It's true, we are mostly glad that modern effects are high-powered. Vulgar they may be, but even a dedicated follower of Shakespeare is glad of things which help pass the time. And sometimes, they add clarity too. In the Royal Shakespeare Company's Lear, Robert Stephens' job was made a little easier when the protagonists' allegiances were mapped out in colour-coded costume.

One was almost grateful for all that Dolby sound in Branagh's Hamlet. The ghost of his father can bellow, "Swear, swear, swear", in the ribcage- jarring Sensurround which accompanies intergalactic conflict in Hollywood offerings. And if Branagh's Hamlet had resonances of Olivier's Prince and the Showgirl, well, if we're to have the full text we might as well have some pecs too. All distractions were welcome.

The bigger effects are not confined to film: the RSC's Lear had the planet earth split with the awfulness of family strife, and it was drenched in the quantities of light you mostly see in rock concerts or in the more unnerving kind of modern restaurant. Half the audience at Stratford can't follow the words, so it is only fair to give them some other thrills, and an English-speaker can quite enjoy them too.

There is nothing wrong with mucking about with the look of Shakespeare. Actors have to be dressed in something or other, and they have to stand in front of some sort of scenery. Currently, productions tend to transmute into the fiefdoms of dictators. This month, the Haymarket, Leicester's Lear and Richmond Theatre's Hamlet took advantage of the cheapness of ex-Army greatcoats and charity shop evening wear. They drew on Kafka and Orwell to give us a vaguely East European nihilism. Granted that medieval history was mostly about "domestics" and the troubles absolute rulers faced from their barons, dictators and gangleaders make a perfectly good simulacrum. A fine coffee table book, Shakespeare In Performance (Keith Parsons and Pamela Mason, Salamander Books), hauls together historical and near-historical representations of the plays, and points out that Donald Wolfit based his 1942 Richard III on Hitler. Who wouldn't have, then?

Ian McKellen (a good Dauphin in 1967's Henry V) says that Shakespeare's plays started by being staged anachronistically, and thus liberated, went on to embellish Richard Eyre's reading of Richard III into something which was not merely nearly modern and dictatorial, but piercingly English because it had hints of The Remains of the Day and its themes of a Mosley-ite Britain.

More worryingly, McKellen seems to believe that the modern age can at last see Richard III as a man more sinned against than sinning: people had always been horrible to him, partly because of his deformity, so he became beastly. The Elizabethan mind felt free to hate deformity in its own right and we need to move on a bit from that. But equally, we find in Shakespeare a mind so good that the centuries add little to his insight and anyway we can assert that this is a body of work so respectable no political correctness can censor our discussion of it.

There are limits, as we saw on television last weekend. Deborah Warner's direction of Fiona Shaw in Richard II produced something thrilling and gorgeous, but finally a little pantomimic. Any king snogging his barons in the throne room seems a tad improbable. Shakespeare doesn't get near to hinting it. According to Nigel Saul, in a biography to be published next month in the revived Yale English Monarchs series, Shakespeare got Richard II more near to life than we might expect. This king may or may not have been queer, but he was a stickler for formalities, in public anyway.

Still, our recent crop of Shakespeare adventures remains more vigorous than silly, and Shakespeare's texts chew up psychobabble and spit it out. So it is good fun to spot someone like Al Pacino doing a Richard III which revels in depravity with little apology from character or actor. This is a Richard in which God is invited to stand up for bastards. Pacino follows Olivier's 1955 rendition in seeing the hunchback as a bit of a laugh. Perhaps it took a short Italian to see an English monarch as an over-achieving Mafioso. Above all, he did service by showing a movie audience that violence doesn't have to be mindless.

Nor do larger political sensitivities matter. Branagh's Henry V, said to be anti-war, is actually plain intelligent. But it doesn't matter, either, that Olivier's wartime Henry V was xenophobic. Shakespeare wrote Tudor propaganda: a nation fighting for its life is always up for a bit of cheering on.

Whatever the verdict on old performances, we will always have the evidence. Every generation from now on will not only have the timelessness of the text, but, in video and celluloid aspic, every production style from the Second World War on.

This does have its drawbacks. We may forget the value of the ephemeral stage and the special skills it demands and rewards. Amongst contemporaries, Branagh stands out, at least for now. He has been our Olivier: as actor- manager he almost invented the modern Shakespeare mass audience. His acting, like Olivier's, is varied but quite limited. He looks great in tights. He can say the verse and gets way beyond craftsmanlike emoting, but even more than Olivier, his amiability robs him of darkness. But it is lovely to see the hammy, actorly tradition alive and well in him.

There is, even on film, a lot to be said for staginess. Pacino was a joy because his was not merely a New York "Method" performance, but his film is a "Method" portrayal of an actor discovering the part. Pacino had done Richard III on the stage long before the film: his naive excitement at exegesis is disingenuous but charming. It is also camp, in its way.

Lear, though not attempted by many actors, utterly sinks surprisingly few of them. But most more or less fail: Robert Stephens was a cheerful dried-out drunk and Michael Hordern seemed to have early onset. Mind you, Hordern was performing in a BBC Shakespeare cycle of the Seventies and Eighties, which seemed curiously dull considering it was the offspring of the Peter Hall-John Barton Shakespeare revolution of the Sixties.

But on cassette and video, we can all have the ultimate Lear of our time: Paul Scofield's. Though Scofield's voice sometimes carries a hint of the Dalek, it had - and has - great power, and the occasional squeak which conveys imperiousness swerving off into querulousness in just the right way.

Peter Brook, the director of this Lear's several outings (The Aldwych in 1962, audiotape 1965, and film 1970), is the epitome of the post-Beatle theatre, but demonstrates also the evolution of Shakespearean style. James Shaw, at Stratford's Shakespeare Centre, points out that Brook cut his teeth on bold productions of Titus Andronicus and The Tempest with the likes of Olivier and Vivien Leigh from the Forties onward.

Hamlet, however, sinks most actors. It requires an ability to convey physicality and playfulness, introspection and madness. Mostly, it's the Adrian Mole in him that comes out. Derek Jacobi is getting better and better in butch parts, but for the BBC's effort seemed weak. Mel Gibson never got close. Oliver's gloomy prince seemed narcissistic. The more you see the others, the more you treasure Branagh's effort.

Best of all were Michael Maloney's bits of Hamlet in Branagh's lovely In the Bleak Midwinter (like Pacino's outing, an exploration of actorliness and the Play). On stage at the Richmond, however, Maloney scampered and scarpered too much and was a bit too winning.

J B Priestley observed that Shakespeare certainly liked box office success. It's a safe bet he wouldn't mind whether Romeo and Juliet was set in New York or LA, just so long as it was staged at all.

As for Lear, we will admire it whether it's set in an old folks home (as was at the Haymarket, Leicester) or outer space. And the odd thing is how anyone English is especially allowed to be proud of Shakespeare. Every generation has shared that curious sense of ownership: when we perform or watch him, we are participating in his work of inventing Englishness.