In the six productions I have seen of Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre in London, none was a dud and each was in its own way a decent and uplifting celebration of the art and theatrical technique of William Shakespeare. In my view the blend of high art and popular entertainment was about right in each show. (They get a lot of tourists from across the pond there.) You would expect that at the Globe or the RSC at Stratford, since both were created to perpetuate the work of the greatest playwright the world has known.
You go to those venues to see the work of that artist presented as he wrote it. You don’t go to see what some latterday wunderkind might imagine Shakespeare could have done with the subject had he been among us now. Nor would you go to see the ballet Swan Lake at the Bolshoi in Moscow or at the Maryinsky in Saint Petersburg expecting to see it performed by coloured rap dancers or people in wheel-chairs – or by an all-male or all-female cast – unless you had been specifically warned that you were being invited to a performance of a work that was not the creation of its original author. Rather you were going to see a show that has the horribly dubious title ‘after’ [the original author].
Peter Brook referred to the desperation that some young directors feel to do something new to a play that has been put on so often. ‘This is the trap opening under the feet of every director. Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept’. He might also have referred to Aristotle’s put-down of those who think that they are wiser than their ancestors.
Sadness therefore flooded over me when two friends wrote about their sense of betrayal – that is my word, not theirs – on seeing a recent performance of Hamlet at the Globe. This tragedy may be the best known and best loved play on our stage, but what my friends got was a bastard freak show. It was, I am told, officially touted as ‘gender-blind, colour-blind and disability-blind.’ The producers may as well have added ‘theatre-blind, quality-blind, and art-blind.’ Hamlet and Horatio were played by women. Ophelia was played by a man. (I have not been told if they cut Hamlet’s invocation to Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery, perhaps out of respect for the sanity of an audience listening to a woman express that directive to a man.) Rosencrantz or Guildenstern was played by a deaf mute – to whom, I gather, Gertrude responded in kind.
I was not told if colour-blindness was called for, but I recall a production of King Lear by the MTC about twenty years ago when a politically turbo-charged director thought it would be a good idea to have the bastard played by an aboriginal. Followers of this playwright know that the bastard generally has a pivotal role in his plays. As it happens, the genealogy of this bastard is described by the author in detail – almost down to the colour of the sheets between which the act of conception occurred – and it is impossible for the bastard to have been born with colour.
If the object of the director of a play is to help the audience suspend disbelief, and to remove hurdles to that process, what possible excuse can there be for a director to place massive road blocks in the way of their audience getting the most out of the play? I take it that they would draw the line at sending out a white man to play Othello, or a blind man to play Gloucester in King Lear, or a fourteen stone fifty year old to play Mimi in La Bohème, or a eunuch to play Don Giovanni, or an eighteen year old floozy to play at centre-half forward for the Richmond Tigers in the Grand Final. Why then should my friends have been subject to this violation of the text and sense of William Shakespeare? I am aware that the Wagner family like to say they get adventurous at Bayreuth, but I am not aware of that licence leading to the desecration of the work of the Master. And as best as I can see, this Hamlet was an act of desecration.
But I see from their website that those running the Globe have issued a kind of public warning. They see their primary mission as follows.
We celebrate Shakespeare’s transformative impact on the world by conducting a radical theatrical experiment.
Well, when you buy an airline ticket, you get little more than a ticket in a raffle. So, when you buy a ticket to the Globe, you get an invitation to descend into a test-tube. You are submitting to take part in a ‘radical experiment’ – even if that phrase is preceded by the anaemia of ‘transformative impact.’ (What dolorous cadre could have doled out this pap?)
For my part, I would like to see someone sue the bastards and test the efficacy of this warning in court. Without descending to detail, I don’t think the producers could legally claim that this public warning protects them from claims for misrepresentation or for serving up a product that is manifestly unfit for its purpose.
And it is pathetic to see people claim that because an artist broke new ground, producers or curators or conductors may centuries later seek to emulate the artist’s creative novelty by departing radically from the original work. All great artists create something new. Does that mean that Michelangelo’s depiction of the virgin and her crucified son in the Pieta would allow some pacifist in the Vatican heedless of his career to stand in front of that sculpture with a neon display of that wonderful sign that appeared in our trains during the Vietnam War: ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity’?
As a matter of logic, the first objection to this kind of Hamlet is that whatever political impulse is behind it looks to be based on the fallacy that equality = sameness. That is pure bullshit. Putting to one side what I may say about another man wishing to be me, any woman wishing to be me would be at best crackers. Men and women are, thank God, very different. You don’t flatter either by denying that obvious truth. Women have an equal right with men to play football – but not in the men’s side. That would be both absurd and dangerous. Casting a woman in a man’s role may not be dangerous, but it is certainly bloody absurd. ‘Diversity’ is like ‘tokenism’, a weasel word with nowhere to go, but here they congeal. Why not sauce the mix with a few mediocrities, or people who just can’t act?
Next, if this political message, or experiment, or test, is being put on in order to advance what are dangerously described as ‘rights’ of people who are seen by some to be disabled or disadvantaged, then putting to one side the obvious risk of the exercise being viciously counter-productive, there must be some balance with the rights of the audience – and, just as importantly, the moral right of the dead author. Those rights include the right to have the integrity of their work respected. I do not see how the producers of this Hamlet could claim to have respected the integrity of this great tragedy. Indeed, their website suggests that they claim some ‘right’ to do the exact opposite by conducting a radical experiment with it.
Finally, and in part following from those objections, I began by referring to an underlying political impulse. I cannot envisage any aesthetic or theatrical impulse for this kind of radical revisionism. But I go to see and hear Shakespeare – and not to be preached at politically by a faceless but ego driven director. This is a plain case of abuse of power. As it happens, the plays of this playwright contain some of the finest analysis of the political process that I know – and anyone claiming to be able to improve on the insights of Shakespeare is at best mad.
But madness is no defence here. What we really have is a cold-blooded arrogance and insolence of office – and an equally cold-blooded insult to the author and the integrity of his art. What we have is in truth a gruesome echo of the self-love and world-denial of that unfortunate and illiterate oaf who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. This is the proud man’s contumely that has brought us the incivility of our time.
The short point is that people going to the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare are not going there to see the director. The clear-headed music, and cricket, authority Neville Cardus once wrote a long column about a Beethoven concert played by Artur Schnabel. He got right to the end of the review and saw that it was all about Beethoven with nothing about Schnabel. So he added that Schnabel had played with extreme insight. He was worried about how Schnabel might react, not least when he received an invitation to lunch with the great pianist. There, Schnabel said that Cardus had paid him the greatest compliment possible. ‘This is just what I always wanted to achieve. I want the audience to listen to Beethoven, and go home thinking about Beethoven – not about Schnabel.’ Cardus wondered what may have been the reaction if he had done the same to von Karajan. Or, we may add, those putting on this Hamlet.
I apologise that this note is so long, and is in parts testy, but the issue is important. I know that my views are shared by people who can speak with real authority on this subject. I am happy to walk out on a film – it is almost de rigeur with Tarantino – but as a matter of courtesy to those on the stage, I have avoided doing so in the theatre. I may change that policy if I take the view that someone is not just taking a lend of me, as we used to say, but is in effect slapping my face. We may have something to learn from the audience at La Scala or La Fenice.
Tony Abbott to John Roskam at an IPA bash:
John, you’ve done very well with just 20 staff – but remember what Jesus of Nazareth did with just 12, and one of them turned out to be a rat.
The Saturday Paper, 28 July 2018
If you can read that without losing your lunch, your digestion is OK.