(Ok, today is Guardian Day, I suppose...)
Here's a wonderfully balanced reflection from the modern master (and only occasional commercial sellout) Trevor Nunn on the state of Shakespeare production.
First, let's get the authorship stuff out of the way. Sir Trevor hardly dwells on it, but I'm grateful he supplies the following counterweight to those who insist Shakespeare would not have been up to the extensive learning and knowledge in his plays:
...he was never bothered by anachronisms. Cleopatra playing "billiards"; an ancient Briton mocked as a "base football player"; Pistol, living in early 15th-century London, characterised as a regular at the Playhouse - these were all part of Shakespeare's preference to keep his audience colloquially involved and in a state of spontaneous recognition rather than satisfied scholarship.
In other words- he gets a lot of things wrong! Just like a middle class writer might if he were fudging the research, or just didn't care about scholarly and historical accuracy. (I find that easier to explain, at least, than how the presumably much more educated Earl of Oxford would make so many mistakes.) Funny how Shakespeare revisionism & denial seems to depend on a kind of Bardic Infallibility that is just not there.
But I digress. Nunn's subject is not the damage done to Shakespeare by ill-informed attempts to take his name off his work, but by the glut of directorial super-concepts which have drowned out any foundational or "traditional" sense of the original texts:
For many years now, as post-modernism came to dominate every European opera house and revival came to mean deconstruction, I have felt a pang of sympathy for young people or students who may be seeing a play for the first time and have no idea what conventional representations are being rebelled against. I wonder how many exam answers in recent years have discussed Shakespeare's "swimming pool scene" in Romeo and Juliet (courtesy of Baz Luhrmann), or (mea culpa) his cabaret scene in The Merchant of Venice?
As with everything else, there is a balance to be struck. I love the story of the great George Devine defining his belief that the Royal Court must have the "right to fail". "Absolutely," said a critic friend, "so long as the right doesn't become an obligation." In the same way, just as I insist that every theatre company should have the right to respond to classic plays in the light of modern society, I am uncomfortably aware that we must avoid this becoming a knee-jerk reaction.
To me the model of a smart, modern, and still utterly "faithful" rendering of an overexposed Shakespeare classic is still Nunn's minimalist "Macbeth" from the early 1980s. Thankfully, the tv version of this intimate in-the-round "chamber" staging is now available on DVD. No set, no gimmicks. Just Ian McKellen, Judy Dench, Roger Rees, and a bunch of other prime RSC actors telling the story as clearly and convincingly as I've ever seen. (See above).