Musing away in little old Stratford, Bill the Bard was a wee bit stuck. He’d always struggled with wordplay, and so he just sat, staring out his wooden Elizabethan window, in a state of utter confusion. No matter how hard he tried he just could not think of a good noun to describe his newest character, Laertes (although obviously not that new). But then. As if struck by the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (or the 17th Earl of Oxford), it came to him. “O my prophetic soul!”, the Bard exclaimed, “Laertes is a dickhead”.
Maybe I’m being melodramatic. In fact, I’m probably being very melodramatic. But after spending 40 quid to watch Hamlet at The Globe’s Sam Wannamaker Theatre, I was rather shocked. Dickhead? Really? Did I really just hear that, only meters from the site of the Bard’s original theatre? Really? I certainly don’t remember reading that in the tattered copy of Hamlet I borrowed from the library. Neither did I remember Claudius exclaiming, “F*** off Fortinbras!”. I wish I was able to use the same tone with the director, Sean Holmes, although he was conspicuously absent. Perhaps he sensed my rage.
I know I sound like a bit of an old fart, “It’s not the 17th century, stupid!” And yes, I know Shakespeare has to be adapted, modified… yada, yada, yada. After all, very few productions of Hamlet actually perform the entire play: most Croydon human rights lawyers can’t stay off Twitter for that long. But still. If you are to going to adapt the greatest writer in the canon, do it with care.
There is a Scottish children’s song called “Ye Cannae Shove Yer granny Aff A Bus” (I’ll let the Americans try and work that one out). And I think all directors of Shakespeare should take note of the song’s lesson, taught daily to many a five-year-old Scot. Shakespeare is old, precious, and easily hurt, ‘’so dinnae shove him aff a bus!’’
Some adaptations I will admit, grudgingly, do in fact work. Patrick Stewart playing a Cold War Macbeth worked. Especially the witches being played as nurses… very spooky. And even funny adaptations can work. David Tennant as a funny, witty and (as would be expected) cheeky Hamlet definitely worked, really well actually. Although Mr Holmes and his petulant, Morrisey singing, Doc Marten wearing, wannabe funny Hamlet, played by George Fourcares, really, really didn’t.
Not necessarily because its directing was the standard of an iMovie I made in 2013. There are plenty of awful directors in London. But because the play itself was so broken up and so unrecognisable that it was barely even Shakespeare. Even the part where Hamlet directs his players is cut, which is famously our only indication of how Shakespeare directed his plays. Perhaps Lord Holmes didn’t like the Upstart’s directing style.
Both a Big Mac and a Blackhorn Burger are made out of beef and bread. But one is a masterpiece and the other’s only use is to be thrown at someone on a night out. So, without the Crow’s magic, “his” plays just become grisly, sloppy, tasteless and covered in that awful “Big Mac Sauce”.
These “modern” (or help me God, “postmodern”) renditions of Shakespeare lack all the wit of the Bard and so simply become plot with modern ornaments (often including singing pop songs, give me strength). As such they are weak because Shakespearean plots are frankly pretty weak. The Bard copied almost every plot from others and the only play he didn’t steal his plot for, The Tempest, simply had no plot at all (although, some say, he in fact lost the plot). Nevertheless, his real interest and skill lay in characters and words. And, much to Sean Holmes’ drop-jawed astonishment, these characters are far more conscious than a one-dimensional, petulant, stompy teenager and his insults are far more sophisticated than “dickhead”. “I have done thy mother” and “What, you egg!” are two prime examples (don’t get at me, I know these aren’t actually insults!).
If you abandon the Shakespeare in Shakespeare, just like abandoning the taste in Blackhorn, you are nothing. And frankly, in a world of endless entertainment and distractions, tacky Shakespeare parodies are not going to bring in the crowds, or the cash.
If I wanted to watch a stroppy teenager, I’d have looked in the mirror. If I wanted to listen to badly sung Morrisey songs, I’d have gone to a house party. And if I wanted to see every piece of drama turned into a melodramatic hyper-breakdown, I’d have gone and watched one of those artsy films I scroll past on Netflix when looking for theBee Movie. So please, Lord Sean of not quite Avon, next time give me real Shakespeare. Maybe then I’ll be able to stay till the end…