Bard embargo

Art & Lit Stage

As the Oxford Shakespeare Festival hits town, James Fennemore explains why he’s had enough of Shakespare – for now.

It would be foolish to deny Shakespeare’s aesthetic and cultural greatness. We put on his plays because we know they are good: we enjoy staging them, we enjoy watching them. But repetition brings staleness. We should stop. I propose a bard embargo.

Shakespeare’s plays are so successful because of their originality. This is not to claim that the plots are his own creation, or that he was not influenced by his literary forefathers, but that they strike their audience as fresh, as exceptional, as irresistibly magnetic. But I worry that his originality is threatened. Not the originality of the plays themselves, but the originality of our perception. We have had our faces pressed against the plays for so long that we are in danger of forgetting what they actually look like.

Subconsciously, at least, productions are aware of this. It has been fashionable for a long time to update the setting of the plays. These attempts at defamiliarization have become so ubiquitous that, perversely, the original, faithful productions of the Globe are often the most alien and the most revealing. There are many good modern adaptations of the plays, just as there are many good traditional productions, but we have become so persistent in our tinkering that it has become difficult to approach them with fresh eyes – whether director, actor, or audience member.

This has had startling repercussions, as productions desperately try to forge new ground for themselves. Rupert Goold, after his excellent updated version of Macbeth, proceeded to ruin The Merchant of Venice when he decided to set it in Las Vegas. His intriguing conceit ran away with him, as the production became so engrossed with the process of updating that it lost sight of the play itself. Oxford student productions haven’t fared much better. Where the original drama is allowed breathing space, there are excellent moments, but directors have been compelled to impress a modernising relocation onto their productions. Michaelmas saw a Goold-copycat production of Macbeth, Hilary saw a rashly underdeveloped Cold War portrayal of Othello, and this term has opened with a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona which was set in New York seemingly just because the cast wanted to sing a Sinatra song.

The quality of the drama can still be good, and I am sure that the plays in the upcoming Shakespeare festival will show this, but any originality of production is unobtainable.

I don’t propose we stop putting on Shakespeare’s plays for ever. They’re too good for that. But we should give them some breathing space.

James Fennemore