On the Adaptation of Shakespeare

“When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.”

I had to deliver that line as the thief Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. After doing my research for the show, I now know what the line means. It refers to the habit of kites (as in small hawks) stealing sheets and clothing that were left outside to dry to add to their nests. I love that line. I wouldn’t want to cut it. However, it’s an obscure reference that may have been more common knowledge when the play was written. I imagine few audience members today would understand, much less appreciate, the line in the moment of its delivery.

I was amused by how fearful (for fear is generally the seed of outrage) people became when they heard that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was commissioning modern language adaptations of Shakespeare’s canon. Does anyone honestly believe that one of the most renowned Shakespeare companies in the United States is going to abandon the words of the Bard? Do people think this decision came from people who don’t have faith in or a deep passion for the material?

The adaptations are an experiment, and a way to engage with a wide variety of artists. Why should actors and directors be the only ones exploring their craft in collaboration with Shakespeare’s text? I’ve learned as much, if not more, about Shakespeare’s text by setting it to music as I have performing it. How lucky it is that all of these playwrights will have the chance to engage, not to mention the creatives who will be brought on to bring the plays to life.

We already take great liberties with Shakespeare’s text. First of all, different editions of the original texts have textual variations and discrepancies, and part of the process of mounting a Shakespeare play is sifting through the options and deciding which ones to use. Secondly, many productions replace some of the more obscure terms with recognizable ones (that don’t disrupt the rhythm of the language) to clarify meaning. Lastly, almost everyone makes substantial cuts and excisions to the text. People want the plays to run far shorter than when they were originally performed, and most of these cuts are determined by what will be clear to today’s audience. The OSF experiment is a variation on an already commonplace practice.

All of that said, has any cut of a Shakespeare play prevented people from going back to the full original text? When high schools read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, they read the original language. Even the No Fear editions aren’t designed to replace the original text, but to help students find their way into it.

What are people scared of that they react so strongly to the announcement of these adaptations? Are we scared that our hard work toward the clear execution of Shakespeare’s text will become irrelevant? The language of the material is effective only when it is communicative and can move the audience. If people who are savvy in the craft come to see me perform Shakespeare and applaud my delivery of the text, that’s lovely; but, if the language doesn’t emotionally resonate with the audience, I believe the actor has failed. These are some of the greatest plays ever written because they have the capacity to move us. To walk away from a Shakespeare play simply appreciating the execution is not enough.

Yes, the language is a big part of what makes these plays so powerful, but that’s not simply because the language is pretty. I believe that heightened language is borne out of and supported by the depth of human feeling. It was the exploration of the deep wants, desires, longings, fears, furies, and sorrows of the characters that brought forth the language in the first place, and continuing that exploration through the text is what can move an audience. The magic of these plays comes from how beautifully the words articulate humanity, not how beautifully humans can articulate words.

If the text isn’t being effectively communicated, perhaps the fault is not in the times, the audience, or even the text itself. Perhaps we as actors must take it upon ourselves to dig deeper into our own examination of humanity, so that we may tap into the depth from which the words of the poet spring. Perhaps we as directors can look for the driving forces of these plays and use them to orchestrate such a momentum that every person within our wooden O, onstage and off, can be moved. Perhaps our charge as artists is to dig past the realm of interpreter in the hope of striking the streaming oil of the poet.

And, maybe this charge applies to playwrights as well. I think it is wonderful that they’ll be joining us on the playground. I say thank you to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for inviting them to play; for collecting the seeds and throwing them into the wind to scatter. Imagine an audience member connecting to one of these adaptations, then is inspired to find out more and more about where it came from and seek out the source? Fascination can lead to obsession and hunger for knowledge. That is how a renaissance is born.

Personally, I love diving into the language and figuring out how to support and justify “When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.” I love collaborating with directors and actors and coaches to discover the potency and intention in the text. I once worked with a text coach for what could easily have been fifteen minutes to decipher a single sentence in Twelfth Night. The discovery wasn’t how to execute the text. It was uncovering the inspiration and motivation that the text emerged from. A contemporary audience may never understand Autolycus’ kite reference, but if they sense that it comes from his pride, his playfulness, his cunning, then the character is revealed and the audience can continue to ride the roller coaster of the play.

Most of Shakespeare’s text isn’t hard to comprehend as it is. “Thou painted maypole” is still a great insult. “To be or not to be” could not be any clearer. It may be heavy thinking, but that’s exactly the point. Even if that line were altered by a contemporary playwright, who wouldn’t be struck by its depth and clarity upon reading the original text? Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s plays, as brilliant, glorious, and infused with genius as they are, were written to be popular entertainments. Moving the material away from accessibility and placing it on a pedestal does more damage to Shakespeare’s legacy than an adaptation intended to help people understand the story ever could.

“Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please.” – The Tempest

Jeff Raab (Autolycus), Jason Richards (Clown)
Jeff Raab (Autolycus), Jason Richards (Clown)

 

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