To what extent is it appropriate to set productions in periods more recent than the events with which they deal?

          One of the first things a director does when beginning work on a play is determine the period in which it will be set.  The choice of period, and the way that period is presented, will determine or reflect the director's approach to and interpretation of the story and themes of the play, and impact the audience's perceptions of them.  This choice is not made lightly nor is it a random one for a director, but rather it is an essential and vital component of his overall concept for the production.  It may be influenced by the dramatic requirements of the play, the theatrical trends of the day, the theatre in which it is being produced, the expectations of audiences, and the director's own personal perceptions of the role of period in a production. Ultimately, however, these factors must be measured against the appropriateness of that choice, not only for its historic and dramatic authenticity and relevancy, but, even more significantly, for the content, themes and story of the individual play itself, and whether the choice of period supports these essential elements and is supported by the text.  Appropriateness, however, is simpler to define than to recognize and put into practice.  Appropriate is defined as "suitable for a particular person, condition, occasion, purpose or place; fitting; meant or adapted for an occasion or use."  But it is a tricky word, intensely subjective and dependent on the goals one is trying to achieve.  Appropriateness doesn't stand alone.  Each aspect of a play  the playwright's perceived intent, his original setting, the themes, the story, the audience one is trying to reach, and the world in which one is producing it  may provide different standards against which to measure the appropriateness of any particular choice of period, and no choice of period is appropriate which does not serve the play.   The question is not only whether a particular period is appropriate in and of itself, but also whether it is appropriate for the particular play and is appropriately used to support and reveal the language, story, characters, relationships and themes of the text. 

          Determination of the appropriateness of setting a play in a period more recent than the events with which they deal requires us to look first at the assumed appropriateness of setting a play in the historically "correct" period.  While many of Shakespeare's comedies are only loosely set in any specific time making the choice of period quite open to interpretation, his history plays, portraying specific moments in English history, appear far less flexible, as do his Roman, Greek, medieval and Renaissance plays.  Many traditional directors insist that the only "appropriate" choice is to set such plays in the specific period in which the events of the play take place, maintaining faithfulness both to history and to the playwright's stated setting and intentions.  Many directors approach these plays with an effort at historical authenticity, ranging from the simple suggestion of period costuming to the elaborate recreation of historical settings.  These directors judge a choice of setting by whether it is historically appropriate.  However, a measure of the appropriateness is not just in the choice of an "accurate" period, but also in how that period is used to illuminate or enhance the essence of the play.  Even historical authenticity may be inappropriately used.  Nineteenth century productions, such as those of Henry Irving and Charles Kean, were known for their elaborately pictorial, visually spectacular presentations with historic authenticity pushed to the extremes.  W.B Worthen, in Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance, examines these "densely realized, historically particular 'environments'" that were characteristic of the actor-managers emerging at this time:

                    Victorian productions staged the world of Shakespeare's plays in ways that claimed to capture
                    the rich detail of Shakespeare's imagination, a detail everywhere visible in the verbal text of
                    Shakespeare's plays but which unfortunately exceeded the technical capacities of his rude theatre.

However, the physical demands of such detailed staging and spectacle frequently took precedence over textual accuracy, and any faithfulness to the plays they claimed to illuminate was sacrificed to staging expedience.  According to Peter Reynolds:

                    The stage settings for Shakespeare were highly elaborate affairs that set out to re-create, with
                    a much historical authenticity as possible, the original setting for the action.  For example,
                    archaeologists were employed to check that the details of the Roman plays were historically
                    correct.  Such realistic settings were expensive to construct, took a great deal of time and labour
                    to change, and, therefore, were changed only when the action made it absolutely unavoidable.

To allow this degree of historical authenticity and minimize the expense and difficulty of multiple sets and set changes, the plays were often extensively cut and its scenes radically reordered.  While this provided a great show of historical "authenticity", it often inappropriately showcased the setting at the expense of the play.  Victorian productions are not alone in their desire for historical authenticity.  While modern productions seldom have the often inappropriate degree of historical detail and spectacle that many Victorian productions displayed, they too can take historical "accuracy" too far by reinterpreting Shakespeare to align with the facts of history rather than treating it as work of art with its own reality.  Paradoxically, although choosing a period that is historically consistent and portraying it with historical accuracy may theoretically be the most appropriate choice, in practice it can prove to be an inappropriate choice of period if it is used in a way that distorts, detracts or distracts from the play itself. 

          Many directors choose to place Shakespeare's plays in a Renaissance setting.  Using Elizabethan costuming and minimal theatrical technology in an effort to recreate, as nearly as possible, the theatrical conditions and staging of their original performances, these "authentic" productions aspire to dramatically appropriateness.   The recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London in the mid 1990's and its exploration of "Original Practices", along with other similar theatres worldwide, are the epitome of these productions.  It is arguable, however, whether this restored staging can be truly appropriate for modern audiences or even faithful to Shakespeare's original intent.  Elizabethan theatres seldom had more than passing interest in the historical period of the play, except through the text itself.  Historian Marchette Chute explains:

                    There was no attempt at realistic settings since the scene changed so often that it would only have
                    slowed up the action.  Nor did a well-trained Elizabethan audience need this kind of assistance.

For an audience used to "hearing" a play, as opposed to "seeing" one, it was the text itself that created the setting, regardless of the visual aspects of the production. While the costuming could be elaborate, it was contemporary, much of it drawn from contributions from the nobility along with the actor's own clothing.  This was supplemented by created costuming to suggest period, myth or royalty only when considered absolutely necessary.  Shakespeare himself made little effort to conform to historical accuracy, tailoring his facts to flatter and appeal to the Royal family.  He often peppered his plays, even the histories or period plays, with contemporary political and cultural references.  When the Chorus in Henry V, speaking of Henry's triumphant return to England in 1415 asks:

                              Were now the general of our gracious empress,
                              (As in good time he may) from Ireland coming,
                              Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
                              How many would the peaceful city quit
                              To welcome him? (V, 31-5)

he alludes, not so subtly, to the Earl of Essex's failed expedition to Ireland for Queen Elizabeth; and, in Hamlet, Shakespeare "editorializes" on the competition between the adult theatre companies and the boys companies, "an eyrie of children, little ayases" (II, 2, 337).   Director Trevor Nunn explained in a recent interview:

                    we do know, for example, that [Shakespeare's] Roman plays were presented in Elizabethan
                    dress plus togas; that his English history plays were performed largely in Elizabethan/Jacobean
                    clothes; and that the political allusions in his plays suggest that he and his company sailed as
                    close to the wind as possible without being closed down for dissent.  We know that he packed
                    his work with contemporary references and satirical portraits of the rich and famous, and that
                    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.

Shakespeare hoped to make his plays relevant to his own audiences, using historical stories and settings, at least in part, simply as devices to illustrate or reveal specific aspects of his own society and human nature in general, rather than with any serious attempt at historical accuracy.   If this was the original intent of the playwright, then perhaps he would find the return to Renaissance staging inappropriate for twenty-first century audiences who often do not understand the intricacies and implications of Elizabethan dress with which Shakespeare informed his audiences.  Early modern English is not the everyday tongue of modern audiences and, while we may be more widely educated than our Elizabethan counterparts, we are, perhaps, not as sensitive to "hearing" a play and extracting the subtleties of place and time from the text as were Elizabethan audiences.  Shakespeare's plays have universal themes and have continued to be relevant to every generation that followed him, but they were written specifically for his world, his theatres and his audiences.  Perhaps, especially for those plays placed in historical settings, today's audiences can benefit from the indicators of period with which they are familiar  whether historically consistent with the action of the play or updated either to an intermediate historically relevant period or to their own time  to allow them to fully appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of story and theme inherent in Shakespeare's plays and allow them the same "colloquial involvement and spontaneous recognition" that Shakespeare's audiences enjoyed.

          Choosing a period which is more recent than the events in the play  updating  is the alternative to setting a play in the historical period in which the action takes place or in Shakespeare's Renaissance.  Robert Smallwood speculates:

                    When, in 1938, at the Old Vic Guthrie set a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in a
                    pastiche Victorian world, he started another tradition of setting that remains much in evidence:
                    the presentation of a play in a carefully realized historical period between Shakespeare's and
                    our own.   and if a director and designer can create one historical period to provide a context
                    for their production, they can also create several: deliberate anachronism, an historical eclecticism
                    that sharpens the audience's response to the continuous relevance of the issues the play is exploring...

Guthrie's and other such productions explore Shakespeare's plays by transposing them to times and places far from their original setting in order to explore and emphasize the themes and issues inherent in their text; their choice of period is thematically appropriate.   These productions are often painstakingly researched, historically accurate to the period presented, and can draw fascinating parallels between political and historical periods, but, as in modern-dress productions, their anachronisms can be jarring if they are not carefully considered and used with specific purpose or eliminated by imaginative cutting and staging or minor rewriting.  The appropriateness of the choice depends on the production's success in integrating the essence of the play into the historical transposition.
          Modern-dress productions are often criticized, but they are hardly recent innovations.  Shakespeare himself, as mentioned earlier, staged his productions in contemporary dress, as did eighteenth century Shakespearean producers.  Perhaps it is the huge differences between twenty-first century dress, technology, and weaponry and their historic or Renaissance equivalents, or the contrast between those modern visual images and the early modern language of the plays that sometimes make modern-dress Shakespeare seem incongruous and inappropriate.  However, as with other choices of period, the appropriateness of modern-dress productions should be determined by how the choice is used: its consistency, its integration into the context of the play and, most of all, in how it is supported by the text.  Peter Brook in Evoking Shakespeare says:

                    There are a hundred ways in which you can bring something into recognisable present.  As a
                    director you are free, but this freedom brings you unavoidably against a tough and painful question. 
                    It obliges you to be deeply respectful, sensitive and open as you explore the text.  You have to
                    ask yourself as director: are you in touch with all the levels of the writing which are rich, fruitful
                    and meaningful and life-giving as much today as in the past.

Updating Shakespeare is a question of trade-offs and impact.  Moving a play to a later period may create a new, vividly relevant image at the expense of original symbolism or ideas, or problems reconciling the new images with the original text.   It may have a huge impact on theatrical elements such as battle scenes, weaponry, costuming and technology which, in turn, may impact the sense and meaning of the play itself.  The recent modern-dress productions of two very different plays, Nicolas Hytner's 2003 Henry V at London's National Theatre, and Steven Pimlott's 2001 Hamlet at the RSC, illustrate the impact of updating.

          Henry V portrays historical events and people.  It appears, on the surface, to be a play which belongs entirely in its own period, yet it speaks to the political and military history of many times and countries, especially, although not exclusively, to England throughout its history.  Shakespeare had written a play that was more than it seemed, and he was the first to use Henry and his world to comment on the events of his own time.  Other productions throughout history have continued to use the play to make a statement about their own social and political issues.  Charles Calvert's 1872 production in Manchester reflected the horrible costs of war experienced in the Franco-Prussian war, while Laurence Olivier, in his 1944 film, created an epic of triumphant patriotism in a tribute to the British forces about to invade France, and Michael Kahn, in his 1969 Stratford, Connecticut production, extended the play's reach to make "the play a voice of the opposition to the Vietnam War, showing, more cynically than any other production, how the game of war and the mechanism of the nation-state create their lies and brutalization."

          Nicolas Hytner chose to use his production to comment on the ambivalence about Prime Minister Tony Blair and the recent war in Iraq in the minds and hearts of the British public.  Setting the play in the present, opening it around a boardroom table, Hytner, in an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC 4, 23 January 2003, explained:

                    "The entire first act is taken up by a meeting of the British Cabinet as they, to be blunt, cook up
                    legitimacy in international law for a dubious foreign invasion.  That's not really a controversial
                    description of the first act of Henry V.  It's about a charismatic, young English leader, a convinced
                    English leader, a leader who thinks his cause is just, leading a foreign adventure which is debatable,
                    to say the least.  And the focus of the play is on the consequences and costs of his actions."

Costuming the cast, led by Adrian Lester, in business suits, modern fatigues and camouflage, Hytner created a modern war, enhanced by the set, lighting and stage effects, horrific and brutal, complete with embedded journalists and fought with modern weapons, with the St. Crispin's Day speech delivered from atop a military jeep.  Henry's speeches and soliloquies were "televised", morphing them into a propaganda tool to rally the British Nation.  This was a Henry V that was intensely relevant to contemporary audiences and Hytner used his modern staging to underscore the issues of power and political duplicity which abound, both in the text of the play and in the world in which we live.  The updating worked because, despite taking the play out of its own time, the themes and issues inherent in the text were respected, transforming but not distorting it, and, in turn, the text and language supported the updating, neither contradicting nor negating it.  Hytner accomplished his dramatic goals effectively while maintaining the integrity of the play, and that validated the appropriateness of his choice.

          Hamlet is, in many ways, very different from Henry V, and, to all appearances, a much better candidate for updating.  Its setting is generally medieval, but not specifically, so it seems reasonable that it could be appropriately set in almost any timeframe.  It is not a history; the characters and actions are not taken from life but from legend, and therefore have no obligation to conform to any standard of "reality".  The themes and issues of Hamlet are universal, the very essence of humanity, appropriate to any time or place. This play is often set in periods later than the events with which they deal, both on the stage and in film, and this updating can often work well.  However, in Steven Pimlott's 2001 RSC modern-dress Hamlet the attempts at modern dress and a stark contemporary setting often seemed to distract from and distort the play rather than enhance it.  Pimlott, like Hytner, used his production to comment on current politics and world events, but his themes were less clear and his use of lighting and sound to invoke an atmosphere of modern warfare with the scream of jets, a spotlighted interrogation, and gun-toting bodyguards, felt incongruous.  Sam West, as an urban streetwise Hamlet in a leather jacket, smoking a joint with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and fondling a handgun, seemed disconnected from Shakespeare's language.  The corrupt corporate world did not have the impact or dramatic integrity of a corrupt court, and the use of video close-ups of Claudius and Gertrude during "The Mousetrap" was more novelty than insight.  Finally, the contemporized action was not only unsupported by the text, it actually conflicted with it.  When Hamlet shot, not stabbed, Polonius behind the arras, and Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet

                              In his lawless fit,
                              Behind the arras hearing something stir,
                              Whips out his rapier, cries 'A rat, a rat',
                              And in this brainish apprehension kills
                              The unseen good old man. (IV,1, 8-12)

the result was a total disconnection from the text.  While the casting and acting was, on the whole, quite good, the updating, in this case, seemed less appropriate, not because it is essentially inappropriate for this play, but rather because it was unjustified, being used in a way that was often unsupported by the text, actively distracted from the story, and did little to enhance or illuminate understanding of the themes of the play.

          Appropriateness is, to a large extent, a subjective judgment.  Both of these plays received good reviews.   Some found their updating appropriate and enlightening, adding insights and contemporary relevance to plays that had become commonplace and trite.  Others found the modern-dress intrusive and inappropriate, distorting the essence of the play.  The appropriateness of setting a production in a period more recent than the events with which they deal is often controversial.  Michael Bogdanov, a director whose innovative productions have engendered such controversy but who approaches each play with a keen eye for its text, language, novelty and nuances writes:

                    By removing the barriers between the language and the audience, by allowing them to identify
                    with the characters clearly, by associating the events with contemporary politics, I allow the
                    plays to breathe.

Perhaps, in whatever period a director chooses to set a production, this is the measure of its appropriateness  that it allows the play to breathe.

                                                                                                    --- Arlene Schulman, November, 2005

The Shakespeare Institute
MA "Shakespeare and Theatre"

Module 1 - Shakespeare's Theatre
Essay #  2