Certainly, the exuberant elasticity of Shakespeare’s brain, and the sometimes fantastic landscapes he conjured, for places he’d never been — the enchanted island of “The Tempest”; the Alexandria of “Antony and Cleopatra” — justifiably electrify the creative impulses of directors and designers. I have no desire to curb the fertile dreamers of the theater. Sometimes a play fairly seamlessly accommodates a temporal transfer, as director Stephen Rayne accomplishes in his “Merry Wives,” by retaining the evocative English milieu of Windsor and simply pushing the era forward to World War I. And for the purposes of introducing the youngest to Shakespeare, some artful analogizing is useful, as the playwright Ken Ludwig has demonstrated, in adapting Shakespeare for high school drama clubs.
What I pine for, though, is for dreaming to be tailored a bit more conscientiously to the contours of the plays — and common sense.
How far from sense the ideas can veer was illustrated in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent transposition of “Much Ado About Nothing” to a hacienda in 1930s Cuba. Director Ethan McSweeny’s overly specific reinterpretation not only compelled an audience into a contrived cultural framework but also committed the clumsy error of translating characters’ names into what some perceived as ethnic stereotypes. The low characters Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal became Juan Huevos and Jose Frijoles. After protests were raised, many of them by Latino artists, the production sensibly reverted to the original Shakespearean names.
As in Aaron Posner’s Wild West “Shrew” at Folger, it erred by hewing so faithfully to a concept that it was drained of an ineffable essence of authenticity.
My sneaking suspicion is that the mania for transporting a Rosalind or a Richard III to a newfangled forest or kingdom may sometimes be an anxious reflex, a product of a general unease in contemporary theater over the rigors of speaking the verse and fully illuminating character. What better way to take some of the pressure off a cast’s uneven vocal skills than to plop actors into realms in which the flatness of speech more easily echoes that of our own?
Some of the problems of transposition can be mitigated by actors of elite skill; Ian Merrill Peakes, whose range at Folger has encompassed both Iago and Henry VIII, comes to mind as an interpreter of Shakespeare who transcends concept; there is an invisibility to his technique —and a confidence with the language — that allows him to be absorbed into any scenario. For me, though, the ultimate in high-concept Shakespeare is a stripping away of all concept, epitomized by director Trevor Nunn’s extraordinary “Macbeth” with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, way back in 1976. I’ve never again felt the minds of Elizabethan villains opened so nakedly before me.
Perhaps it’s the perpetual yearning for Shakespeare with that kind of sizzling immediacy that fuels my impatience with the intrusive global bunting that’s draped over his plays. And maybe that’s why my recent visit to Staunton, Va.’s American Shakespeare Center, where the staging is crisp and unvarnished, felt like such a tonic. In any event, I’m not holding my breath for a wholesale shift to bare-bones stagings and simpler dramatic virtues. The next time Verona looks like Vegas, or Viola pulls up in a Volvo, I’ll merely chalk it up to the same old, same old.