How do I define a good Shakespeare production?

“It’s totally subjective,” – right? Sort of, but I’ve taken the liberty of defining some parameters to help us come to our subjective judgments.

In my adolescence, I saw some really excellent Shakespeare productions at the Stratford Festival, namely, Paul Gross’s Hamlet and Christopher Plummer’s King Lear. I don’t know whom they tortured more: myself, restless and unable to appreciate the action, or my father, a general non-fan of non-musical theatre and narcoleptic extraordinaire. When I finally began to study and understand the plays that I went to see, I soon defined ‘a good production’ as the ones I could sit through without impatiently yearning for them to end.

A decade older and hopefully more than a bit wiser, I’d like to revise my definition: to me, a good Shakespeare production is one that sheds light on key themes and passages of the text in a way that makes you aware, and makes you aware that they’re aware, of their significance to the whole. An unsuccessful production (I’m loath to actually use the word ‘bad’ – symptomatic of a high school instructor who would not let us use such a cop-out of an adjective) is one that obscures these key issues and ideas from the reader’s attention.

I’d like to explain this in greater detail, using the example of two productions that I’ve recently seen. For those of you who correspond or go to school with me, you’ll know that I had the highest of hopes in seeing both and, if I can be honest with my dearest Readers, was so excited I could hardly contain myself! My closest friends and mother will already begin to roll their eyes, knowing that my expectations are often too high, often at the expense of my own disappointment.

But here’s perhaps where I might seem a little hypocritical, but bear with me: once you’ve studied a Shakespeare play, if you can afford to go see a production, it’s worth it. Even if it’s not great – it’s worth a check-out (followed by an indignant march out at intermission, because life really is too short to sit through bad Shakespeare in its entirety). Perhaps this is my Bardolatry coming in and I don’t have sympathizers with this opinion but to me, it’s fun to amass a whole repertoire of productions to compare and play off each other; no one production can satisfy the infinite readings of a certain text because the privileging of one reading necessitates the disregard of another.

So excited I can hardly contain myself!

In the case of Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, we have a situation that the directorial powers-that-be disregarded many of the important, nay, indispensable, issues that the text offers for our intellectual delight. In short: a freaking cop-out! Let me tell you: I am a huge fan of Julie Taymor’s work. Across the Universe was genius and Titus is certainly one of my favourite films in general – a strong endorsement, considering how protective I am over my favourite play. I’d only been looking forward to seeing this film for about two years, was literally bouncing up and down in my seat when the time had finally come (or, in the words of my dear friend Alexis, had a bit of a Shakespearegasm), and was disappointed. But why??

Well, I studied The Tempest for an entire semester during my MA, so I’d like to think that I’ve got a grasp of its possible meanings. I’d like to think that Taymor and her production team had studied it for at least that many hours: so why did she neglect to shed light on some of the most important meanings?

The passage I hold most dear to my heart (thanks to the guidance of my former card-carrying Communist of an instructor) is: “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” I waited excitedly to hear how the character would say it and it either got muffled by the unsurprisingly gratuitous special effects, or was left chopped up on the editorial room floor. I was flipping indignant when I didn’t hear my favourite line, and those sitting in my immediate vicinity experienced my wrath.

Spoken by the Boatswain to the sweet but uber-Establishment Gonzalo, it couldn’t have been more audacious for someone of such a low social caste to point out that Mother Nature trumps the entire social hierarchy! These words were so treasonous in the Early Modern period that, had they been spoken in real life and on dry land, the Boatswain would have been “perfect gallows,” do not pass Go, do not collect 200 ducats. This exclamation is even more important because it foregrounds the unconventional social philosophy of the rest of the play! I’m thinking specifically of both Antonio and Caliban’s attempts to overthrow the rulers of their homeland. In an effort to inspire Sebastian to usurp his brother, King Alonso, Antonio tells him: “Here lies your brother, / No better than the earth he lies upon,” implicitly stating that nature pays no attention to social hierarchy, as all men are equally mortal as they sleep. Again, while this is a comment that we take for granted today, it would have been considered treason 400 years earlier. Caliban, who claims, “The island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” seeks out a “master” in the drunken Stephano in order to get him to kill Prospero while he takes his customary afternoon nap. Clearly this spectacularly egalitarian notion is of vital importance to the many overthrow-plots of the text: so why neglect it when it deserves our critical attention?

For the sake of brevity (it is the soul of wit, after all), I’ll offer one more example from The Tempest before moving on to Lear. Whoever has studied The Tempest at any level of their education will remember spending at least 45 minutes on close-reading the Epilogue. And I’m not saying that Taymor has to use it just because we studied it: I’m saying we study it because it’s of vital importance. Let’s have a look:


Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

All hail ProsperA?

Everyone leaves the stage, and Prospero returns. Once again, a character brings up this notion that no magic or title can change the fact that he’s just a man (or in Helen Mirren’s case, an overly gender-conscious female ProsperA, as she incessantly reminds us), standing in front of a crowd of judges who are ready to hear his closing remarks. He tells the audience – “I must be here confined by you, / Or sent to Naples.” To be the reinstated Duke of Milan and humbly stoop to the opinion of both the nobility and the dregs of society that comprised the Globe theatre audience is as egalitarian as it gets. This is the moment where the audience gets to participate in the final action of the play –fun!!! – by casting the final judgment.

So my question is this: why the heck would Julie Taymor want to prevent this from happening? Doesn’t she want her own audience to “release [her] from the bands” (of all the negative hype that’s been going around about both The Tempest and her ill-fated Spiderman musical?), “With the help of your good hands” (with applause and positive reviews by professional critics and leisurely bloggers, alike)? Well, perhaps this is telling that she doesn’t want the production to self-consciously speak for itself. Maybe she wants it to be a movie you play in the background at a house party rather than a Shakespearean adaptation you absorb. So what does she do? She gets her husband and frequent collaborator to compose it to a tune that will run during the final credits! If I haven’t yet made it clear, this is unsatisfactory. She’s basically obscuring literary gold with the sounds of winter boots crunching spilled popcorn.

Can I say the same about Michael Grandage’s King Lear for the Donmar theatre company in London? I’m so happy to say: definitely not. And I’m not flaunting my obvious Anglophilia in order to assert that English theatre is the best theatre. What I’m saying is that he got it right.

Derek Jacobi as a classic Lear

I usually maintain a preference for the text over stage/screen adaptation because the director must choose one interpretation to privilege over all others, whereas with the text you can simultaneously maintain an understanding of each of the possible directions the text can take. That being said, I really enjoyed what Michael Grandage did in fleshing out Shakespeare mathematical language in order to amplify the theme of domestic division within the play. Shakespeare’s tragedies, more often than not, center at the “fear of what lurks at the heart of the family,” to quote one of my favourite professors and King Lear guru, Kiernan Ryan. Not doing anything particularly new but simply doing it really well, Grandage introduces the notion of divide by placing a map of England on the floor of the stage, having Lear, a man so robust that he seems to have too much energy for retirement, divide it with his staff amongst the daughters that deign to tell him in the most florid language how much they love him. Daughters Goneril and Regan multiply their love, while Cordelia tells her father that she has “Nothing” to offer in tribute. His rage erupts. He tells her that “Nothing will come of nothing,” and beseeches her to try again. It’s not that she doesn’t love him at all, she tries to explain, but that she loves him no more and no less than an unmarried daughter ought love her father:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

These words get Lear so angry that he disowns this one daughter, leaving the kingdom to be split 1 part Goneril, 1 part Regan, 0 parts Cordelia, 0 parts Lear. Smart? Doubtful. Significant enough to produce a timeless tragedy? It worked for the Bard!

And while I love Derek Jacobi to bits and think he did an excellent job as Lear, I’ve seen enough Lears to know that they’re usually pretty close variations on a theme. It’s the Fool that has the opportunity to make us, and the king himself, think and feel.  How is this possible? Because he is the one person onstage who Lear pays to tell him the truth. And what is this truth? That he’s divided up his nation, divided up his family, and at the end of the day, he’s left with nothing.


Can you make no use of
nothing, nuncle?


Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.


[To KENT] Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of
his land comes to: he will not believe a fool.

The Fool is the one to remind Lear that he has brought this nothingness upon himself, pulling all his land from under his feet and offering it on a silver platter to his duplicitous daughters. The Fool knows it, the audience learns it from the Fool, and the tragedy lies in the fact that it takes five acts and three hours for this to cut to the King’s heart.

Djimon Hounsou's body language alone was well worth the cost of admission

And that’s not to say that there’s nothing left to be desired from Grandage’s Lear: his Cordelia seems to be onstage for the purpose of practicing her received pronunciation rather than evoking extreme pathos from the audience, only doing so when she stops talking and plays dead in the final scene. And The Tempest, not a complete failure, certainly had moments of light: Djimon Hounsou’s muscular, beautiful, tragic, earthy, and graceful Caliban’s pained and angry exclamation of “this Island’s mine” certainly evoked pathos from my cold, academic heart.

So where do we stand, dear Reader? I’d like to suggest that there’s no single Shakespearean production that is unequivocally bad (although the Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged comes dangerously close). Instead, I like to think of each production as offering me something more to learn about Shakespeare, a new way to think about a character or a theme, bringing a multitude of possibilities to light. When a production keeps an important theme in the dark and I feel that loss, I become more understanding of how vital that theme was in the first place. So I choose to remain optimistic. I will just keep on coming back to these new visions and revisions of Shakespeare. Why? The beauty of Shakespeare is that the interpretive possibilities are infinite.



Filed under Current Events, Performances, Roles, Stage to Page to Stage and Screen

2 responses to “How do I define a good Shakespeare production?

  1. Sar

    May I suggest Gnomeo and Juliet?

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