This week Fiona Lindsay discussing how we can appropriate and reinterpret Shakespeare ...

Shakespeare stage

Do you have a particular production of a Shakespeare play that holds a special place in your memory over and above other showings of the same title?

Mine is the RSC’s 1992 production of The Winter’s Tale directed by Adrian Noble, with John Nettles and Samantha Bond playing Leontes and Hermione respectively.

I’d just joined the company and it was my first exposure to this famous late play by Shakespeare. It captivated me from start to finish. Antony Ward’s Sicilia was sleek and dark with gigantic jewel-coloured balloons giving the only relief. Bohemia, on the other hand, was a glorious golden mess of hay bails and bunting. Ilona Sekacz’s music was stunning and the delicate strain of a cello that played during the awakening scene brought most of the audience to tears.

I loved the show so much that I went as often as possible, dragging friends and family at every opportunity. I knew every line, every move, and the transition from one world into another. So I knew something was amiss one evening when the following happened.

Hermione (on Leontes’ instruction) had just taken Polixenes upstage to try and persuade him to extend his stay in Sicilia. Leontes watched from downstage, as from behind the beautifully lit gauze the party scene played out. As the text dictates, it’s this observation that tips him into his rage of jealously and his “too hot, too hot” outburst.

As John Nettles buried himself in deep anger the most surreal and exquisite thing began to happen. One of the very large jewel coloured balloons escaped from its holder and began to float slowly downstage. It came to rest just above and to the side of John where it hovered for the duration of his soliloquy. He ended the speech on his knees at which point the balloon glided silently off stage right. It was a beautiful and profound moment that wasn’t meant to happen.

Soon after this I began to read articles and academic essays on the meaning behind the Leontes and balloon scene in this particular version of The Winter’s Tale. What did the director want to say at this moment? What significance did it bring to the soliloquy? How did it add to the text? Was the balloon a metaphor for the world from Leontes was just about to cut himself off?

Suddenly meaning was being given to something that wasn’t meant to happen, that hadn’t been decided upon and a whole host of people were trading on this complete accident not knowing that it was one. Not that this is an issue, per se. The issue is the Chinese whisper affect that then ensues where we end up with the play being about an escaped balloon (excuse my hyperbole).

I wonder what Will Shakespeare would have made of all the business that has grown up around his work and how his stories have been interpreted, re-interpreted and mis –interpreted and some of the nonsense written about them?

Appropriating Shakespeare – directly and indirectly – has created a livelihood for many people the world over and the food chain that hangs off his work is vast. Ben Johnson famously said of his friend: “he was not for an age but for all times” which, of course, is true. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should, without proper interrogation and thought, reshape it to suit our purposes. It’s not Shakespeare if we do. His genius is that we don’t need to: the beauty and power of his work is its clarity, its directness and its truth and it is, as such, timeless.

Understanding of the text is best served by staying as connected as possible to the original source material and being guided via the interpretive choices of directors, designers and actors to a deeper understanding.

Beware of balloons.