Forget the fairies. Send home the clowns. Do away with magical forests, star-crossed lovers and frothy sentiment! This year, the Globe is celebrating Shakespeare’s 450th birthday in wicked style. There is death and dismemberment in Titus Andronicus, political execution in Julius Caesar and treachery aplenty in Anthony and Cleopatra. To mitigate this grisly business, the Globe’s Education programme could have decided on something light-hearted for its annual Playing Shakespeare production. Yet when I speak with Fiona Banks (Senior Advisor of Creative Programmes) about its choice of play, she explains that it wasn’t interested in going with a ‘safe’ option: “The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s nastiest plays”, she tells me. “No one in it is really that likeable”.
Shakespeare penned plenty of ‘nasty’ dramas, but when Banks and her department opted for The Merchant of Venice, it wasn’t lashings of gore that they had in mind. Despite formerly being labeled a ‘romantic comedy’, The Merchant of Venice now stands as one of the Bard’s most challenging works. It poses prickly questions about ethnicity and gender, examines the role of citizenship and the power of money, and continues to present a number of moral conundrums for actors and directors. Shakespeare’s Venice is a world of covetousness and materialism where social climbers are pitted against social outcasts. Yet for Banks, the play’s ‘difficult’ nature makes it fertile ground for young audiences: “The play is quite unusual, because normally with Shakespeare there is a hero or a villain, and it’s quite clear cut. But this is murky. There aren’t any clear answers and it’s brilliant to see a young audience dealing with those subtleties and conflicts.”
These productions take Shakespeare’s classic text and unearth contemporary overtones within them in order to engage young audiences. While previous productions in the repertoire have remained faithful to those syllabus-friendly favourites (Romeo and Juliet in 2012 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013), The Merchant of Venice marks something of a departure. It is a play that offers few absolutes and is full of mean-spirited characters lacking in sympathy and full of vitriol for one another. Then there is the tricky question of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender whose pariah status within the play is the root cause of the debate surrounding the text. Do questions like these make adapting the play for younger audiences more difficult? Banks doesn’t consider such implications an obstacle, choosing instead to view the play through a contemporary prism: “I think it’s about telling a story in a way that resonates with people today. It’s about finding a way that gives people who aren’t regular theatregoers a really fun way into seeing a Shakespeare play. We were reminded a lot of Made in Chelsea. There are resonances to that. Money buys them access. It gets them things. They’re all after money in that world at the beginning of the play.”
Contemporary re-workings of Shakespeare’s plays are hardly new. In fact, they are now an essential part of how we ‘do’ Shakespeare in the twenty-first century. However, the Globe is unique for staging these plays in a building rooted to the specific time and place in history for which they were made. With its latest production of The Merchant of Venice, Director Bill Buckhurst blends a contemporary and classic aesthetic in order to reflect the way in which Shakespeare’s play has a foot in both camps. Indeed, the comparison to Made in Chelsea is worth pondering in a bit more detail. This popular, quasi-reality television programme follows a group of highly privileged, wealthy Londoners through their daily lives. Although it isn’t shot through with Shakespeare’s brilliant poetry or probing insight into human nature, the self-advertising nature of their world and the way in which material wealth becomes a ubiquitous symbol for access, offers some interesting parallels to the spoilt and prosperous younglings of The Merchant of Venice.
The questions remains: why Shakespeare? Does the Bard remain the best way of engaging young people and encouraging a passion for theatre and performance? Or do we now require new models? For Banks, the enduring appeal of Shakespeare remains very simple: “I think the reason why people still connect with it today is because the stories are so great. And the characters are so great. It’s interesting because the characters are not of a world that young people think they live in, and yet at the same time, they are. It’s that combination of the alien and the familiar.”
For more information on the Globe’s Playing Shakespeare initiative, visit the website.