What with two Off-Broadway Richard II's, a sound-and-fury Macbeth, a modernized Romeo & Juliet and an upcoming Broadway Twelfth Night, one imagines New York might be surfeited with William Shakespeare plays. But it's over in England where various notable directors are actually debating whether ubiquitous Shakespeare production are too much of a Bard thing.
Variety reports that scheduled for Mar. 19 at London Royal Shakespeare Company is a panel that will consider whether to limit or ban Shakespeare stagings over the next ten years. Matthew Warchus, currently directing Art on Broadway, put it this way: "We've had Shakespeare musicals. We've had Shakespeare in the nude. The only thing we probably haven't done culturally is not perform him for ten years -- which is something we should try."
Playwright Stephen Poliakoff and RSC voice coach Cicely Berry will join the discussion, which has been fueled by London journalists worried that Shakespeare's plays have been over-exposed and lost their element of surprise. Variety points out that London recently had five different mountings of The Tempest, nearly one after the other.
On the other side, Mark Rylance, artistic director of the reconstructed Globe Theatre (Shakespeare's home base), called the panel, "a publicity stunt -- an interesting after-dinner discussion, not really a serious question."
Former RSC artistic director Peter Hall went further, calling the moratorium "rubbish," stemming from "guilt of those who can do Shakespeare and the fury of those who can't." Brazilian-born and London-trained director Ron Daniels, who has been staging both Richard II and Richard III in repertory Off-Broadway, told Playbill On-Line, "There's nothing new about the notion of too much Shakespeare in London. I first heard this at least 25 years ago! The English are always debating this, they like debating this. I know that Michael Billington of the Guardian has been deeply critical of the RSC recently, calling it very staid. He also seems to be questioning, `why do yet another version of Twelfth Night'? What is the really informing passion? Especially since the RSC are locked into their continuous cycles."
Other questions that come up, says Daniels, are "should they teach him in schools, because kids come to Shakespeare from the boredom of the classroom. Or is this man, who isn't earning any royalties keeping new writers out of the theatre?"
"To my mind, the whole debate is the wrong debate," said Daniels. "The serious ongoing debate is what should a particular production of Shakespeare actually be doing? You have the thatched cottage Shakespeare: nice costumes, Elizabethan settings, Shakespeare in tights. Or there's the trendy Shakespeare that tries to be clever and do Hamlet without Fortinbras (which is what Warchus has just done), while trying to find modern significance. Shakespeare is extremely difficult. How do you handle the verse and those massive stories. How do you make him relevant and immediate to a contemporary audience? That's the search, the quest."
Shepard Sobel, artistic director of New York's Pearl Theatre and currently staging his own Richard II, concurred with Daniels. "The way to keep [Shakespeare] thrilling is to do it `straighter.' Do Shakespeare's play, not the director's play. The temptation now is to take an angle or do something to it to make it new and accessible. To my taste that's a big mistake. The really hard job -- and thrilling accomplishment -- is to do Shakespeare's play -- and I'm not gonna stop! While it's a great thrill to play Shakespeare to people who haven't seen it recently, it hardly weighs in the balance. It never seemed to me we do too much Shakespeare in New York. Every once in awhile you get two Richard II's, but how often? And it wouldn't even be a problem finding four Richard II's in the same season in a healthy theatre environment."
Asked if such a scenario would squeeze out new plays or lesser-known classics, Sobel replied, "When you do shows on a showcase level, you can only have 20 performances and 99 seats. How many people are gonna see it? You're hardly flooding the market."
Checking New York listings Mar. 19, Playbill On-Line found nine Shakespeare plays running Off-Broadway and Off-Off, not counting Broadway's The Lion King, whose plot combines elements of Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1.
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-- By David Lefkowitz