A year without Shakespeare?

I’ve just come back from the Sage Gateshead, where I was at Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival for my last official outing as a New Generation Thinker. It was a little different to the essays and discussion shows I’d done so far: we all had to come up with a “controversial idea” for an academic speed dating event. You have two minutes to present your idea to someone (or many people) sat opposite you, two minutes for them to ask you questions, and then the bell rings and everybody swaps round. Anarchy, noise, and prize beer mats ensued — and some of the most entertaining and lively conversations about theatre I’ve had in a while.

So the idea is this: we have a whole year without any new productions of Shakespeare. At all. No amateur or professional productions, no radio dramas, no films.

…hear me out.

Shakespeare is the most performed playwright in the world, and he’s the most filmed author ever. I don’t know of any other genre where one single figure so completely dominates the field. In classical music I guess the closest figure might be Beethoven, but he’s got a lot of competition from Mozart and Bach, and possibly Haydn and Schubert (if we’re judging by number of performances), and Debussy as well (if we’re judging by number of well-known pieces).

By lionising Shakespeare to this extent, we get a tunnel-vision view of theatre history. All paths lead to and from Shakespeare — Christopher Marlowe, for example, is performed by virtue of being “Shakespeare’s contemporary/collaborator”. But there are other threads that weave throughout history. Let’s take Thomas Dekker, who (probably) wrote The Moor’s Revenge in 1600, a tragedy as bloody and gruesome as Macbeth or Titus Andronicus. It’s worth staging on its own, but this play also has a formidable afterlife. In 1676, it’s adapted into Abdelazer by Aphra Behn, now recognised as Britain’s first prominent female playwright. And from Behn’s script we start to move into the history of other genres, as the play took on new lives in other media. Henry Purcell wrote incidental music for Abdelazer, which largely disappeared from the repertoire until 1945, when Benjamin Britten used the Rondeau as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. History is multi-faceted and full of quirks and twists and turns — without these stories our view of the past is much poorer.

As well as forgotten voices from the past, the void left by Shakespeare’s glaring absence could be filled by new voices from the present — emerging playwrights who currently have to battle for space in theatre programmes (and honestly need the royalties more than Shakespeare does). If we’re concerned about diversity and equal representation amongst playwrights, giving even half of the slots allocated to Shakespeare to BAME writers, female playwrights, or LGBTIQ authors would go a significant way towards a richer polyphony of perspectives on our stages. It might also make space for developing theatre which is enjoyable for wider audiences, particularly those with disabilities, and more experimental shows — perhaps more verbatim or interactive theatre.

Personally, I’d love to see a year where Shakespeare was replaced by plays in translation. Hearing from writers in other parts of the world seems especially important at the minute, as our political gaze increasingly seems to be focused inward. Also at the Free Thinking Festival, I heard fantastic essays given by my fellow NGTs Katie Cooper and Louisa Egbunike. Katie spoke about how PEN had helped refugee writers during World War II, based on the belief that freedom of expression is one of the most powerful forms of political resistance possible. PEN tried to provide European writers with a platform for their work, and enough money to keep them writing when they couldn’t earn a living in their home country. Louisa talked about the Biafran war, and how the trauma of this war has been expressed in Nigerian novels. Their essays conveyed the immensely powerful role that literature plays in understanding the world around us, and how we perceive our global co-inhabitants. In a climate of inflammatory rhetoric around migration, perhaps theatres have an obligation to open their stages — and audience’s minds — to the world.

Obviously, it’s hyperbolic and impractical to completely eliminate Shakespeare from the stage for an entire year. And there are good counter-arguments — Shakespeare sells, and having a regular sell-out Shakespeare allows production companies to take risks with programming that they might not otherwise be able to. And the challenge to come up with some new take on King Lear means that directors can be endlessly imaginative with their stagings. Because Shakespeare has been a historical constant for the last 400 years, he’s something of a cultural barometer. The familiar words provide a canvas steeped in cultural history onto which actors and directors can paint their new version, complementing or contradicting what has come before. Besides, there are clear problems with simply doing away with Shakespeare without an idea of what he’d be replaced with — perhaps we’d end up with a year of Stoppard, instead of a genuine diversification of theatrical performances.

But it is important to have a discussion about why we perform so much Shakespeare, whether we can have too much of a good thing, and perhaps more importantly who Shakespeare pushes out of the theatre. If there was a year without Shakespeare, maybe schools studying the Edexcel syllabus would go and see the “other” play they’re required to study alongside Shakespeare. It might finally hatch a solution to the chicken-egg scenario where Shakespeare is performed a lot because he’s familiar, because he’s on syllabuses, because he’s performed a lot. Perhaps these students would be captivated by the words of Minna Canth, or Bola Agbaje, or John Ford, or Jonas Hassen Khemiri, and these would become the playwrights who they’d return to theatres to see.

If you’ve made it through this post I’d love it if you take it in the way that it’s intended — as a conversation starter. I’m fascinated to hear people’s thoughts on this, as there were some very heartfelt views about it in Gateshead. Is a year with no/less Shakespeare a good idea? If you think so, who would you like to see him replaced with? If not, why not? What should keep Shakespeare the world’s number one playwright?

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