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Is the Shakespeare Resurgence Killing Serious Contemporary Theatre?

This fall, four new productions of Shakespeare’s classic tales hit the Broadway stage. The first, Romeo and Juliet, features Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad leading a mixed-race cast that adds a racial reading to the tale of the star-crossed lovers. Next month, Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry lead an all-male cast in Richard III and Twelfth Night, which will be performed in repertory. Later in October, Ethan Hawke steps into the title role in Macbeth, the second production of the Scottish Play to be on Broadway in 2013 (Tony winner Alan Cumming starred in a one-man production earlier this year). With a new film version of Romeo and Juliet due this out this fall and a modern-day version of Cymbeline (also starring Hawke) currently filming in New York, it seems that Shakespeare’s back! But did he ever go away?

Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet could be seen as the film that instigated the ’90s trend of modernizing Shakespeare’s works for a generally young audience, a movement that brought us teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You, melodramas like O, and offbeat black comedies such as Scotland, PA. Of course, Shakespeare’s tales have always adapted well to film, from the straightforward adaptations by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh to the most avant-garde films of directors like Julie Taymor.

And Shakespeare has always been a staple on the stage, particularly in New York. Shakespeare in the Park is a local institution, although in years past the lineup has included productions of musicals (such as last year’s Into the Woods) and non-Shakespearean texts. And while the 2010 production of The Merchant of Venice transferred to Broadway (with the help of Al Pacino’s star power), it’s not typical for the big Broadway houses to host the Bard’s classics rather than big-budget musicals based on popular movies or composed entirely of famous pop songs.

That’s why this season’s proliferation of Shakespeare on Broadway comes as a bit of a surprise. Sure, at least three of the shows have some sort of casting gimmick, playing on either race or gender; in the latter case, the productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night are based on the historical context of Shakespeare’s time, when only men acted on stage. The conceit seems a little silly now, considering we have women who regularly step onto the boards. Romeo and Juliet‘s racial overtones seem, of course, like a fairly obvious interpretation of the two feuding families in Verona (but let’s not discount the dreamy Orlando Bloom’s draw, either).

On the one hand, you could argue that Shakespeare’s continued popularity is a bonus for those who create and support theatre; Shakespeare’s works are typically one’s first introduction to serious theatre. And while I cannot discount the importance and influence of Shakespeare on the art form, I have to wonder: what’s the point of continuing the patterns of traditional, even slightly recalibrated revivals? Is there no room for new, fresh pieces of theatre without relying on the familiar stories of Shakespeare to draw audiences? It’s the unfamiliar, of course, that keeps the casual theatre-goers at bay, and it’s certainly more of a challenge to produce new works. But despite Shakespeare’s influence and the timeless take on human behavior, perhaps they’re taking up space that would be better filled by more contemporary works of serious theatre.

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