Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lessons from History

The Globe Reconstruction
The Globe Reconstruction
I spent the whole of Tuesday night in back in the 16th century, surrounded by wattle and daub plaster, and sitting on a hard wooden bench, for which I was grateful, for otherwise I would have spent four hours standing, which I'd be reluctant to do even for a decent rugby match. Note to Saracens, or rather Watford Football Club, our landlords: the Elizabethans had a much simpler, cheaper and more importantly more comfortable approach to seating crowds than you do. Down below sundry people, dressed inappropriately for the warm weather but more appropriately for the era in which we found ourselves were acting out 'The Merchant of Venice'. I was, of course, on the South Bank, at the modern recreation of Shakespeare's Globe.

It's a play I've seen a few times before on stage, and on screen, but even if I had the critic's vocabulary to pass judgement on the performance I don't really feel qualified to say whether it was a great performance of what modern attitudes have made one of Shakespeare's more controversial offerings. It was the first time I've been to the Globe and all I can really say is that I enjoyed both the play and the experience. I realised it's the very first time I've seen Shakespeare performed on stage, in the original language and, insofar as the history can tell us, pretty much the way it was originally staged. There were a few minor tweaks, all outside the actual text, probably to play up to those in the audience who thought 'Shakespeare in Love' was some kind of documentary. The only major innovation was the introduction of women to play the roles of erm…women, apart of course in the penultimate act when the women who were for once playing women had play the role of men.

To add to the confusion the actress playing Portia had gone AWOL, presumably through illness, and this being a very short run there was no understudy. The show must go on, and so it did with Nerissa promoted to her mistresses' role and a new stand-in Nerissa both reading from day-glo highlight adorned scripts. Come the courtroom scene they bizarrely they interchanged roles again with the stand-in Portia reverting to being the real Nerissa, albeit in the guise of the clerk, and the stand-in Nerissa becoming the stand-in Portia playing the role of the man of law. It's ok, the director had apologised to the baying crowd in advance, and even the times there was an occasional stumble and the carried scripts were needed, it took nothing away from the experience; I suspect even Shakespeare himself would have raised a smile at the added layer of confusion. In any case the inclusion of real women didn't seem to contribute to any great increase in public immorality though I'm sure some NuLab department was monitoring the situation closely.

The night had many typical elements of a trip to see Shakespeare performed. There was the group of American students travelling the world with their script and notes on the text who, of course, dutifully laughed on every cue, but at least took an interest. There were the po-faced British theatre goers making disdainful faces at such behaviour, while their own children were either by their side looking sullen and disinterested or, I suspect, indulging in Cool Britannia's modern alternative of hanging round a bus shelter looking sullen if they were too young for binge drinking. Thankfully a traditional setting deterred most of the ArtPOLs who would, if they had two grey cells to rub together, have been there commenting on some of the more anti-capitalist sentiment in the play and the strong role played by the lead women. I guess the lack of a physically handicapped, transgendered or openly homosexual character must have been what put them off, because I think they would probably have enjoyed the Jew-bashing.

Other than the lack of leftism sufferers empathising with something or another, the other thing that was less typical was the rest of the audience. Looking down from our perch there the overdressed, ageing crowd that is a common sight at many theatrical events was conspicuous by their absence. In their place was a collection of t-shirts, football shirts and rugby shirts mixed in with outfits clearly designed for after theatre clubbing. Many, at the start, also wore slightly less than enthusiastic “oh well, I suppose even though we couldn't get into Les Mis we'd still better do the theatre on our London visit” expressions. By the end, almost all were captivated by it and there was a raucousness to the applause at the final curtain call that you'd rarely see in the West End. The loudest of it was rightly for the two stand-ins, including that from a couple of fairly heavyweight Hollywood stars I happened to spot in the audience. Removed from its often, in more ways than one, rather stuffy environment theatre had rediscovered fun.

Shylock and Jessica
Shylock and Jessica
Another part of the experience of the Globe is the activity that goes on outside the auditorium, where there is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of an Elizabethan night out on the tiles. Yes, it is very much a pastiche, but I'm not sure Southwark Council is allowed to grant a prostitution licence even for artistic reasons and I'm the health and safety killjoys would have prohibited more authentic and probably more appetizing fare. There was something more modern though, that was notable by its absence; the religious protest. Any attempt at a rewrite recasting the role of Shylock as a Moslem, Sikh or yes as a Christian living in a world of different religious persuasions, would, I suspect, be less fortunate.

I might have a 'plague on both your houses' attitude to the whole Israeli/Palestine issue, but it's hard not to respect the good humour with which the Jewish Diaspora tend to accept both jokes at their expense and more poisonous comments with their own self-deprecating humour in the first case and a calm stoicism in the latter. It's an attitude in very short supply in many of this country's minority religions and is sadly being lost at an alarming rate amongst sections of the Christian community, who are themselves starting to man the barricades and picket lines in a search for special, unequal treatment.

There have been many attempts to perform a modern post hoc reengineering on Shakespeare's attitudes to Shylock in more modern times, either pointing to the more sympathetic 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' passage of his courtroom appearance, or more general themes of redemption.
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Shylock, The Merchant of Venice
Act 3, Scene I

For all the power of that one, and as far as I understand the play it is only that one, famous passage, overall it really isn't that convincing. Shakespeare tended not to create two dimensional Bond style villains, but even with the darkest of characters tended to introduce a small degree of humanity to make them more human, and thereby their depravities all the more terrible. I've always been more inclined to the line that the programme notes also followed, that yes, Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, but then, in this particular case he was not a man for all time, but very much a creature of his own time, and those times were very hostile ones in which to be a Jew.

Where is the value in suggesting that plays that contain attitudes would today be unacceptable should perhaps not be performed, as is sometimes the case? Why should we perform logical and literary gymnastics to pretend that a work carries a message that it patently does not, or worse still rewrite it to make it more acceptable to modern ears? I would suggest there is no merit in any of these approaches. If someone wants to do some rewriting, relocation or rearranging of a play, fine, do it. Do it for reasons of genuine innovation or creativity though, not because of some absurd sensitivity about the attitudes of the past. Let these stand, let them be understood even if they be reviled today. Let it be seen that even the most brilliant minds of an age can succumb to the prejudices of their time; we might even learn something about the dangers of accepting, without question, some of the prevailing wisdoms of our own.

No comments: