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The politicisation of Shakespeare

‘Member when going to the theatre was about the experience instead of the politics? Ooh, I ‘member!

South Park references aside, a statement in the RSC’s latest play, Kunene and the King, that says “these days it’s not enough to do Shakespeare well, you have to be ‘relevant’. The fact that you have to have a ‘concept’” just does not sit right with me. Admittedly, I don’t really have much of a rational rebuttal to the statement. My discontent is too visceral to be made entirely rational – it’s emotional. Spiritual, dare I say. As a casual theatre goer and long-time lover of the creative arts, something about enforcing a prerequisite of relevancy for any contemporary Shakespeare production just leaves me rather ill at ease.

It might just be my oversensitive nature, but the word “relevant” feels too reminiscent of a gimmick. It reeks too much of someone at the RSC scratching their head and going “how do we get the kids away from their iPhones and into the theatre?” Let me put it like this: why do people, five hundred or so years later, still go to watch Othello? They go because its themes, its concepts, its ideas, will always resonate with people. People understand jealousy. They feel it. They witness it. They understand its deadly power.

These days it’s not enough to do Shakespeare well, you have to be ‘relevant’. You have to have a ‘concept’

Kunene and the King

As if that weren’t enough, I feel reasonably confident in asserting that most people know a nasty piece of work like Iago. I could go into more detail about the richness of the language or the play’s complicated history regarding the portrayal of the eponymous tragic hero, Othello, who is clearly described as a black man in the play, but was not played by a black actor until Ira Aldridge in 1825.

Such things are not taken into consideration by the more casual theatre goers – people who go to the theatre primarily for entertainment. The point that I’m making is that the core ideas contained within the play can be understood, and thus resonate, with most people who go to the theatre – something that has been the case since its first performance.

I don’t think Othello (or most of Shakespeare’s works) really need a gimmick to make them relevant. It doesn’t matter if it is set in the 1600s, a contemporary war zone, or a nightclub. It doesn’t matter if you use a traverse stage, end-on, or even promenade. If it is well performed then the ideas that form the underlying structure to the dialogue will resonate with an audience.

While I am not suggesting that Shakespeare can’t or shouldn’t be reimagined for a contemporary audience, to prioritise a forced relevancy over a well-made production doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success. As for attempting to put a modern, political spin on Shakespeare to make it more relevant, my opinion is that if that is the direction you desire for a production, you had better tread carefully.

If it is well performed, the ideas that form the underlying structure to the dialogue will resonate with an audience

Of the two student productions of Shakespeare’s works at Warwick that each incorporated a contemporary political twist, one I enjoyed immensely, the other not so much. This was not down to one particular production having more talented or more poor actors. Rather, it came down to the production’s respective handling of their contemporary, political update of Shakespeare, and the fact that the latter lacked any clear vision. So, if you think politics is the answer to keeping Shakespeare relevant, I would point out that the Bard does not need a political or ideological shake-up to achieve this.

Shakespeare will continue to resonate with people throughout the world, until he simply doesn’t. Should you decide to approach Shakespeare from a political angle, all I can advise is that you’d better know what you are doing. You’d better have a vision.

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