By Isaac Butler
He's talking about England, but his thoughts are here, courtesy of the Guardian online. In discussing this British habit of producing "skilfully packaged celebrity-led productions of a few of the most famous plays, carefully de signed to attract maximum publicity," he then gives us this food for thought:
Perhaps we should reassess our assumptions about Shakespeare's contemporary relevance. Jan Kott wrote his famous book Shakespeare Our Contemporary almost 50 years ago and it feels very dated today. Shouldn't we look at Shakespeare as a great playwright from an alien world, who deserves the same historical circumspection we bring to Aeschylus, Molière or Ibsen? My argument is not for Elizabethan dress or historical recreation, but for a more scrupulous engagement with the complex web of social, psychological and political realism that is the mark of his genius – and a greater scepticism about the claim that Shakespeare can be all things to all people. The most interesting new books on Shakespeare see him "for his age": only the theatre still expects him to be "for all time".
The great revolutions in 20th-century Shakespeare productions were driven by a reaction against the bombastic spectacle of Victorian Shakespeare and a determination to engage with the fundamentals of the plays themselves. Brecht's playful theatricality is sometimes cited in defence of postmodern revivals. But Brecht was a social radical as well as a theatrical one and was all too aware of capitalism's unending appetite for new commodities. "Formalist revival of the classics is the answer to stuffy tradition," he wrote, "and it's the wrong one. It is as if a piece of meat had gone off and were only made palatable by saucing and spicing it up." Maybe, in these austere times, we need to check out the meat itself.
My own thoughts on our overproducing of theatre stirred up a bit of a shitstorm a year and a half ago. Probably because I titled the post "Our Shakespeare Problem." But the truth of the matter is, I do think we produce Shakespeare too often and I do think we have more reverence for him than is healthy. Not because he isn't great. He is. I love his plays (most of them, anyway). Growing up, I saw at least four of them a year. I taught Shakespeare first semester. I'm a fan. This love I bear him does not move me to pretend that every production of his is a good simply by existing, or that all of his plays are of equal merit, or that he never did anything fucked up from a contemporary political perspective or that anyone can understand his plays on a first hearing with no help whatsoever. Or even that other people are expected to love him as I do.
It's not just that we do over a thousand productions of Shakespeare a year in this country, it's that these productions frequently don't ask the "why" question and don't answer that question with their productions. Why this play? In this moment? At this theatre? With this audience? Every new play has to answer that question in order to even get produced, and every director worth their salt needs to think through this question as they prepare to helm a play. As Shakespeare is "the greatest," his greatness becomes its own reason to do his plays. But that's not a satisfying enough answer for a production to have, and you can feel it when this happens.
Add in the normal disparities in comfort with Shakespearean acting that attend most productions with more than 10 people in them and you have a recipe for mediocre theatre. This does a disservice to Shakespeare and to audiences. And his dominance of productions across the country also crowds out other valuable additions to the rep.