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Shake up your Shakespeare: 10 innovative plays for today

PUBLISHED: 08:52 11 August 2018

Sir Ian McKellen as a Nazi-like Richard III in an innovative re-staging of the Shakespeare classic. Photo: United Artists

Sir Ian McKellen as a Nazi-like Richard III in an innovative re-staging of the Shakespeare classic. Photo: United Artists

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Shakespeare continues to be one of the most adaptable playwrights. His work is endlessly rewarding and continues to benefit from some inspired reinventions. Andrew Clarke and Lynne Mortimer recall some of their most memorable encounters with The Bard

Othello at the National Theatre; directed by Nicholas Hytner 
l-r: Olivia Vinall (Desdemona) and Adrian Lester (Othello) 
 Photo:Donald Cooper/PhotostageOthello at the National Theatre; directed by Nicholas Hytner l-r: Olivia Vinall (Desdemona) and Adrian Lester (Othello) Photo:Donald Cooper/Photostage

Red Rose Chain are staging their annual Theatre in the Forest event at Jimmy’s Farm and have set their production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing during the dark days of World War II. Shakespeare is one of the most adaptable writers that has ever lived because he wrote about eternal truths about us as people. He wrote about love, lust, anger, jealousy, greed and ambition – characteristics which always make for good theatre and don’t change with the passing of the centuries.

Providing you don’t shoe-horn a play into an overly restrictive concept, Shakespeare is amazingly adaptable as Jo Carrick’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing proves.

This adaptability even goes as far as Shakespeare providing inspiration for other plays, films as musicals. Hamlet provided the seed which flowered into The Lion King, Kiss Me Kate was born out of The Taming of the Shrew and West Side Story was a thinly disguised remake of Romeo and Juliet.

Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren in Peter Hall's 1968 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: David Farrell/RSCDiana Rigg and Helen Mirren in Peter Hall's 1968 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: David Farrell/RSC

But, the real genius of Shakespeare can be seen when his plays are transported out of the Tudor era in which they were written or the ancient worlds in which they were set.

Time was never important to Shakespeare, the stage provided an other-worldly setting in which his stories could be safely played out away from the realities of day to day life. So for Tudor audiences a fairy-filled forest glade was just as real, just as believable, as Julius Caesar strutting his stuff in Ancient Rome or Macbeth planning regicide in the Highlands of Scotland.

To celebrate the endless adaptability of The Bard here are ten ways film and theatre have decided to Shake Up Shakespeare.

Ricky Oakley and Jack Heydon in Red Rose Chain's Much Ado About Nothing Picture: DAVID NEWBORNRicky Oakley and Jack Heydon in Red Rose Chain's Much Ado About Nothing Picture: DAVID NEWBORN

1. In 1968 Suffolk-born RSC and soon-to-be National Theatre artistic director Peter Hall decided to film A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the ultimate fairies-at-the-end-of-your-garden fantasy. The Athens scenes were shot at Compton Verney House in Warwickshire while the wild, near-naked fairies frolicked in an atmospheric and sometimes sinister woodland clearing. The cast was a who’s who of rising British acting talent which included Judi Dench as a green-faced, largely nude Titania, Diana Rigg as Helena, Ian Holm as Puck, Helen Mirren as Hermia along with David Warner, Bill Travers, Ian Richardson, Michael Jayston and Clive Swift. AC

Fizz Waller and Ricky Oakley in Red Rose Chain's Much Ado About Nothing Picture: DAVID NEWBORNFizz Waller and Ricky Oakley in Red Rose Chain's Much Ado About Nothing Picture: DAVID NEWBORN

2. 1971 – My O level text was Julius Caesar so the school took a party of us to see the play at the Maddermarket, Norwich. Mark Antony was a racing driver and the set was the curved outside wall of a stadium. Mark Anthony appeared in white leathers with his racing helmet tucked under his arm. If ever there was a case of shoe-horning a concept into Shakespeare, this was it. And it was a bit dull. LM

Natascha McElhone and Kenneth Branagh in his musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost Photo: MiramaxNatascha McElhone and Kenneth Branagh in his musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost Photo: Miramax

3. Peter Brook’s famous 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided a weird contrast to Peter Hall’s much more romantic production two years earlier. It was groundbreaking at the time but became a template for much that followed, Bard-wise. The set was a white box, characters spoke their lines from trapezes and there appeared to be scant expenditure on costumes – but the acting was sublime and the direction groundbreaking. LM

4. King Lear. In 1975 I was the secretary of Liverpool University Dramatic Society and in this capacity, I booked a remarkably cheap production of King Lear. We soon found out why it wasn’t expensive. The audience sat on the floor in a round with the four or five actors sitting in the centre, also making up a circle. Three candles were lit. It took us a while to realise the candles were Lear’s three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, each of which was snuffed out in the course of the play. There was no interval, otherwise I would have left during it. LM

The royal family pictured in the big screen version of Richard II starring Sir Ian McKellen. Photo: Unitred ArtistsThe royal family pictured in the big screen version of Richard II starring Sir Ian McKellen. Photo: Unitred Artists

5. In 1983 Sheila Hancock became the first woman director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the first to take the RSC out on a tour of the regions. In 1983 she put together a startling double-bill which pitched its tent in the grounds of Farlingaye School in Woodbridge. They played back-to-back performances of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romeo and Juliet was fine but it was The Dream which really demonstrated Sheila Hancock’s vision and inventiveness, set in the world of the circus. The all-star cast included Daniel Day Lewis, Roger Allam and Amanda Root. AC

Judi Dench as Titania and Paul Rogers as Bottom in Peter Hall's  'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 1968.  Photo: David Farrell/RSCJudi Dench as Titania and Paul Rogers as Bottom in Peter Hall's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 1968. Photo: David Farrell/RSC

6. In 1990 Sir Ian McKellen appeared in a groundbreaking production of Richard III at the Royal National Theatre which ran for two years before heading off on tours of the UK and US. Directed by Richard Eyre, the production transplanted the War of the Roses to an alternative reality set around the 1930s where Richard III’s Britain was dressed in the iconography of a fascist dictatorship. In 1995 McKellen collaborated with Richard Loncraine to bring this adaptation to the big screen. AC

7. In 1998 the old Wolsey Theatre was on its last legs. Andrew Manley had taken over from Dick Tuckey as artistic director and decided to stage a post-apocalyptic production of Macbeth. While, visually this was very arresting, the problem with the production was that you couldn’t hear anything. Televisions blasting out static littered the stage, the witches were swathed in gas-masks and the action appeared to be taking place in the interior of a steel ship. We knew the structure was hollow and made of steel because at regular intervals the gong-like sound of hammering interrupted the action. The net result of this conceptual performance was to make Shakespeare’s wonderful dialogue completely undecipherable. AC

8. Kenneth Branagh has become a great innovator of Shakespeare and Love’s Labour’s Lost provided the opportunity to turn one of Shakespeare’s more obscure comedies into a dazzling 1930s musical with help from Alicia Silverstone, Adrian Lester, Nathan Lane, Richard Briers and Natascha McElhone. AC

9. Adrian Lester also seized centre-stage as the tragic general Othello in a stunning 2013 National Theatre adaptation which transplanted the action to a British army base in Cyprus. Rory Kinnear dazzled as the manipulative and duplicitous Iago, particularly as Lester’s Othello is so honourable. A genuine tragedy and totally gripping. AC

10. One of the great joys of Shakespeare is that it can draw contemporary parallels. Nicholas Hytner’s powerful 2018 production of Julius Caesar gave the play the feeling of attending a modern political rally. David Calder’s Caesar acted not too dissimilar to the current US President while David Morrissey as Mark Anthony and Ben Wishaw as Brutus try and influence mob, which was made up of the audience. AC

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