To be or not to be... modernised?

Two plays, both alike in mutiny, in fair London where we lay our scene.

Over the last week, I have watched two productions – Emma Rice’s Tristan and Yseult at Shakespeare’s Globe and Robert Icke’s Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Both productions approach modernisation in dramatically different ways – one bold and insouciant, the other sleek and understated.

As someone who works at English National Opera, I have heard my fair share of opinions from purists about how iconic works from the canon should (and shouldn’t) be portrayed on stage. The issue of modernisation is particularly divisive when looking at Shakespearean* plays – how could we mere mortals ever alter the hallowed works of one of the world’s greatest writers? However, in a rapidly changing contemporary world, how could we risk not updating these works and failing to portray on stage the greatest stories ever told?

That being said, Robert Icke’s Hamlet has transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre after a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre in the spring whereas Emma Rice has been unceremoniously dumped after less than a year in post as Artistic Director of the Globe. Robert Icke has created an incredible production – skilfully weaving modern CCTV footage showing the late King’s ghost and intense hand-held camera close-ups of Claudius’ guilty face as he watches Hamlet’s carefully concocted play which exposes the truth of his brother’s death. Emma Rice’s version of modernisation, however, consists of blaring Pharrell William’s Lucky and casting Yseult’s maid Brangian as a male in a silk nightdress, ostensibly to draw cheap laughs from the (rather drunk) audience.

The costume choices in modernised plays always draw critical remarks, from ‘why are our tickets so expensive when it looks like the costume department just picked something ill-fitting from a charity shop in Brick Lane?’ to ‘why is everyone wearing raincoats and deely boppers, Emma Rice?!’ While Claudius could have walked straight out of Barclays in his dapper suit, the cut was still impeccable and added to his austere character. Ophelia and Gertrude were treated to beautifully chosen dresses that were perfectly matched to the play’s opening joy on the wedding day to the bleak final scenes of tragedy. Gertrude’s sweet peach regal wedding gown is replaced by funereal black lace as she watches a fencing match that will culminate in four tragic deaths; Ophelia’s blood red dress is an omen for the destruction yet to come and is beautifully contrasted by a stark white nightdress she wears while strapped to a wheelchair, which serves as the damning final remark on the extent of her madness and ultimate demise.

Whilst I left the Globe disappointed on Saturday, I spoke with a colleague on Monday morning who declared the production to be ‘my favourite thing I’ve ever seen on stage.’ Should it matter that I disliked Rice’s modernisation? Should we not rejoice that a variety of works are performed on stage and we are constantly seeking ways to innovate and revive these iconic tales of time gone by? Doesn’t theatre’s very essence require critical engagement, diversity of opinion and freedom of expression? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Globe should never have hired an Artistic Director who admitted that she finds Shakespeare “very hard to understand." To Emma Rice’s credit, when given an ultimatum by the Globe’s Board of Directors to change her style or swiftly depart, she resigned to preserve her artistic integrity. It may not be to my taste but the future of theatre depends on innovative ideas from individuals who continually seek new ways of engaging audiences regardless of critical backlash – Emma, ‘to thine own self be true’.

*Tristan and Yseult is not actually written by Shakespeare but the iconic tragedy is heralded as one of the most famous love stories of medieval literature and is considered an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For these reasons I believe, it is currently on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe and will thus be included in this discussion.