You know the way a rock at the seaside has all sorts of barnacles and seaweed on it; it is difficult to imagine the clean rock before it got any of those things grown into it, and that is what can happen to old texts.
Katie Mitchell in conversation with Dan Rebellato
British director Katie Mitchell has been a pioneer in reinventing the canon, taking classic plays by Chekhov, Strindberg and others, giving them a good scrub and making us see them afresh. She is not alone. In the US the Wooster Group has taken an irreverent approach to the canon, radically deconstructing and reconstructing plays including Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in L.S.D (Just the High Points) and Racine’s Phèdre in To You the Birdie.
In Europe, a host of directors from Thomas Ostermeier to Ivo van Hove have been blowing the accumulated dust of performance history from plays and making us see them afresh. These directors have had a strong influence on young British directors from Ellen McDougall, currently artistic director of the small but influential Gate Theatre, to Robert Icke, the latter reinventing The Oresteia, Uncle Vanya and The Wild Duck at the Almeida.
Some, including David Hare, bemoan what they see as a mounting disrespect for text. In 2017 the playwright railed against “an over-aestheticised European theatre” in which “you camp up classic plays and you cut them and prune them around”.
But these contemporary theatre-makers are working in a long tradition of radical reinvention and one which is constantly evolving. Twenty years ago, no British Chekhov revival was complete without a glade of birch trees and a samovar. Now such productions seem to belong in a museum. Theatre constantly moves on and the plays that survive are the ones that a new generation feel drawn towards and which they can adapt and translate for their own times. As Tom Stoppard says in Arcadia: “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.”
In 1992 Stephen Daldry took J.B. Priestley’s old theatrical warhorse, An Inspector Calls, written in 1945, and gave it an expressionistic make-over. It became a comment on the failure of governments – including the Tory administration of Margaret Thatcher – to keep the post-war dream of a more equal society alive. In the process he, and designer Ian McNeil, effectively kept the play alive.
As Australian director Simon Stone observed in the programme for his contemporary and metropolitan reimagining of Lorca’s Yerma at the Young Vic in 2016:
There is a moment, about a 100 years after the work of an artist, when you can either say ‘you are now condemned to the ranks of a footnote’ or ‘we are going to make you the centre of an international culture by keeping on telling your stories.’
Stone says that such reinventions are “the moment when you liberate someone from their original cultural context and elevate them to the level of myth-maker”. But, of course, there is a question about who it is that gets to be part of the canon in the first place. Michael Billington’s The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present is a reminder that the canon is seldom receptive to women. Although such lists are often invidious, the book includes just six plays by female playwrights. Arguably women’s efforts have been over-looked when the canon has been shaped and determined predominantly by male gatekeepers working as directors and critics.
When considering the classical canon, we need to ask: who determines that a particular play is a great play? And once it enters the canon, how does that affect how that play is written about by both academics and critics, and then received by audiences? Before we even step into the theatre we know that King Lear and Waiting for Godot are masterpieces because we have been told that they are great plays. How does that shape our response to those works? What about the plays – including those by artists of colour or those who choose different ways of working with texts – which are overlooked because they did not fit the criteria of the gatekeepers?
Perhaps we do not need to raze the canon but rather expand it. When the feminist company RashDash were looking to play bigger spaces and audiences, they were advised by one theatre’s artistic director to engage with the classics. He proposed Three Sisters. In their version of Three Sisters, billed as being ‘after Chekhov’, Rashdash gleefully questioned how a play written by a dead white man more than a century before can have any relevance to young women in the 21st century. The result explodes Chekhov’s original, and in the process offers a version that is recognisable but suddenly urgent too. Like all the best reinventions, it makes us see something familiar through new eyes.
Some complain about what they see as messing about with classic plays, but that criticism is predicated on the idea that it is possible to produce the play in some pure, authentic way. As many contemporary playwrights, including Simon Stephens, understand, a text is only an idea for a play. We can only ever see a version of any play. That is why misguided attempts by the executors of the estates of some playwrights to prevent directors from changing a word or ignoring a single stage direction often doom that playwright’s work to the museum.
A wiser course would be that recently taken by the Beckett estate which gave the neuro-diverse Jess Thom of Tourettes hero the rights to perform Not I. The result was electric, challenging how we both see and hear the play when Beckett’s text becomes peppered with the words ‘biscuit’ and ‘hedgehog.’ Stephen Sondheim is still very much alive, and Marianne Elliott’s recent superb gender-swapped, updated version of his 1970 show Company reminds us that the mid-20th-century musical is as ripe for reinvention as any classic play.
In the UK, Shakespeare is a particular battleground, as if after 400 years some still view the playwright as being in need of protection. In recent years many of the most radical reinventions have involved switches of gender. In Erica Whyman’s Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is played by Charlotte Josephine, a woman – and a working-class woman to boot. It changes how we hear Shakespeare’s language and see the character. Gemma Bodinetz’s recent revival of Othello at the Liverpool Everyman was set in a near future where Golda Roushevel’s General was a Black woman and a lesbian in a relationship with Desdemona. Immediately the stakes are higher. It makes us lean further forward in our seats.
In Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play, one of the questions asked is: what will survive from our culture and how does cultural memory accrue? Who will survive longer: Homer, or Homer Simpson? Yet Washburn’s play is also a great peon to the power of storytelling; it is through the stories we tell – and how we find different ways to tell those stories over the centuries – that we find the strength to deal with the present and face up to the future.
Many of the plays from the past which survive remind us that the ancient Greeks or the groundlings of Shakespeare’s time were exercised by the same issues that face us today: How do we live together? What is justice? Who holds power over us? What is the place of violence and revenge?
Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge University, who acted as a consultant on Icke’s adaptation of The Oresteia which premiered at the Almeida in 2015, says even the greatest works in the Western canon such as Aeschylus’ play need “continual and active re-engagement with its immense potential to make it speak with its true insistence and power.” In the published version he argues that while to some degree all adaptors and translators are “traitors”, some of these “traitors turn out to be liberators who let us recalibrate what matters and see the world from a startlingly new perspective.”
Theatre and the canon desperately needs its traitors. Because, as Goldhill says: “the danger for any work when it becomes a classic is that it remains under aspic, an out of date dish, admired out of duty.” As we all know, a play which is only admired out of duty is a play which turns to dust.
4x45 Series: Katie Mitchell and the Politics of Naturalist Theatre | Dan Rebellato and Kim Solga in Conversation