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date: 25 September 2023

twentieth- and twenty-first-century Shakespearian production

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare
Dennis KennedyDennis Kennedy, rev. Erin Sullivan

twentieth- and twenty-first-century Shakespearian production. 

Though Shakespeare’s fame had grown steadily since about 1750, in the 20th century he became the dominant writer for the stage for much of the world. Performance of his plays vastly increased in frequency and varied in style, intention, and reception. Two issues seem paramount for a summary account: the replacement of the star actor by the director as the chief aesthetic force, and alterations to the architecture of the theatre and the design of the stage under the influence of modernism.

1900–45 The century began with the historicist mode triumphant in Britain and elsewhere. Despite the work of William Poel, who sought to recover the Elizabethan theatrical condition of the plays, and the complaints made by Shaw and others against the over-literal Shakespeare of Henry Irving and Beerbohm Tree, the common method of Victorian production continued well past 1900. The plays were interpreted as historical stories, and were illustrated with lavish costumes, settings, and striking ceremonies with large numbers of supernumerary actors, all of which forced severe cutting and rearrangement of the texts. The actor-manager ruled the company and took centre stage, often disregarding the value of smaller roles. Audiences delighted in the display of the star as well as in material stage display, and Shakespeare’s work—with its opportunities for grandiloquent playing, its classic status, and its exotic locales—seemed well suited to such spectacular expression. The challenges to this mode appeared early in the century through the work of the newly defined stage director, were affected by calls for aesthetic and social renovation from European modernism, and applied to Shakespeare first through the work of Edward Gordon Craig. Though he directed few productions, Craig’s designs and theoretical writings from 1903 forward proposed a Shakespeare uncluttered by realism; instead of localized settings the stage would convey ideas and impressions through abstract means.

Max Reinhardt in Berlin was the Shakespeare director first affected. His spectacular, realist productions of plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1905 on) and The Tempest (1915) were balanced by smaller-scale versions of The Winter’s Tale (1906) and King Lear (1908) that were Craigian in their visual approach. Reinhardt’s work, widely admired in Europe, was seen by Harley Granville-Barker, who took some of its profit back to London in three famous productions at the Savoy theatre, the first major examples of modernist Shakespeare in Britain. The Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night in 1912 used simplified and abstract settings, a modified stage arrangement influenced by Poel, bright frontal lighting, nearly complete texts, and sought speed in the verse and the flow of scenes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914) pushed Barker’s methods even further; the fairies were fantastic creatures all in gold who looked like gods or fetishes from India and moved with choreographed swiftness.

Though Barker and Craig both retired from directing after the war, modernist productions gained force in Central and Eastern Europe under their influence, often using political interpretations of the plays to comment on contemporary events, with directors such as Leopold Jessner in Berlin, Leon Schiller in Warsaw, or Jirí Frejka in Prague. Shakespeare in Britain tended to be much more conservative; indeed there was a notable return to the older mode with stars such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson often directing their own productions between the wars like Victorian actor-managers. Nonetheless the influence of the director continued to be felt, as witnessed by the success of inventive artists like Tyrone Guthrie and Theodore Komisarjevsky who relied on the institutional theatres of the Old Vic and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford to insulate their work from the hit-or-flop acerbity of the commercial theatre. The regional repertory theatres, which had spread throughout Britain after the war, were often adventurous. Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Rep brought the first modern-dress Shakespeare to London (Hamlet in 1925), while Terence Gray of the Cambridge Festival Theatre copied continental avant-garde methods in an expressionist Richard III of 1928. In New York a pattern of commercial production similar to London’s was spiced by the modernist work of the designer Robert Edmond Jones (for the actor John Barrymore in the 1920s), while the exotic and modern-dress experiments of Orson Welles (a ‘voodoo’ Macbeth and an anti-fascist Julius Caesar, 1936–7) brought cinematic devices to the stage, preparing the way for the Shakespeare films Welles and Olivier would make shortly thereafter.

1945–80 The two major developments after the Second World War were also institutional in nature and demonstrated the ascendancy of the director. The first was the creation of the Stratford Shakespearian Festival in a small town in Ontario in Canada, far removed from the traditional centres of Shakespeare activity. Here in 1953 Guthrie designed a stage with a fixed background in mock 16th-century style, and placed it in the middle of a large tent with a semicircular seating arrangement. (A permanent theatre was built in 1956.) The idea, indebted to Poel, was to recapture the spirit of the Elizabethan theatre by architectural means, though the audience configuration owed more to the ancient theatre at Epidaurus than to the Globe. Guthrie developed a fluid form of playing that centred the actor on a relatively bare platform, with spectators as visible collaborators in a non-illusionist environment. His achievements were widely admired and the basic shape of the theatre was copied through the 1960s and 1970s. Summer festivals dedicated in whole or part to Shakespeare sprang up swiftly, particularly coast-to-coast in the USA, often using open stages (like the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon).

The second major development took place in the original Stratford. Following some remarkable productions by the young Peter Brook after the war (including a revelatory Titus Andronicus with Olivier in 1955), another young man, Peter Hall, was invited to manage the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1960. Hall quickly transformed it into the Royal Shakespeare Company, a theatre ensemble along European lines with a semi-permanent company of actors, directors, and designers. He also acquired the Aldwych theatre as a London base and set about gaining the public funding that permitted rapid expansion. The new order made it possible to develop a social attitude to Shakespeare’s work, to keep productions in the repertory for extended periods, bring them to London, and tour them regularly. The company’s international visibility rose dramatically, most notably with Brook’s King Lear in 1962 and Hall’s The Wars of the Roses (1963–4), a seven-part adaptation of the history plays which established a company style: excellent verse-speaking combined with a rough and even brutal form of physical playing. Under the artistic directorships of Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands in the 1970s, the RSC lost some of its socially engaged posture but consolidated itself as a major international theatre, especially with grand ventures like Nunn’s staging of the Roman plays in 1972 and Hands’s almost-uncut Henry VI (1977). Some of the most powerful productions of this time were directed by John Barton (Troilus and Cressida of 1968, Richard II of 1973), or by Nunn in a chamber venue called the Other Place that sat about 140 (Macbeth, 1976).

The influence of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary was behind much of the RSC’s best work in the period and was heavily felt in Europe, while Brecht was followed from the late 1950s by directors like Roger Planchon in Lyon and Giorgio Strehler in Milan, who made socialist commentary out of Shakespeare. Strehler was one of the most consistently inventive of interpreters, his work culminating in a remarkable Tempest in 1978. In the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Bloc Shakespeare grew in official importance, though after 1968 approved productions frequently vied with ‘dissident’ ones—often indebted to Kott—that tended to use Shakespeare’s texts as coded messages about regimes that could not be criticized openly. Yuri Lyubimov’s Hamlet (Moscow, 1971) is representative of the same trend in the Soviet Union, a production in which a travelling curtain, like the forces of history, swept all before it into the grave.

1980–2000 Around the end of the 1970s, as the Cold War receded and new concerns occupied artists internationally, Shakespeare performance became more varied and less predictable. Directors in the period retained most of their power, though often it was modulated by the growing importance of designers for productions that returned to the spectacular mode. In a male-dominated profession women directors like Ariane Mnouchkine in France, Deborah Warner in England, and Karin Beier in Germany brought new ideas and approaches, while actors like Alan Howard and Helen Mirren established international reputations through Shakespeare. The RSC remained important but no longer held the dominant artistic position as Shakespeare spread around the globe in a mélange of fashions. Productions at Stratford by Michael Bogdanov, however (e.g. The Taming of the Shrew in 1978 and Romeo and Juliet in 1986), were consistently stimulating and often attracted young audiences. With the actor Michael Pennington, Bogdanov went on to found the English Shakespeare Company as a touring organization, and their marathon rendition of the history plays, The Wars of the Roses (1987–8), was an exciting experiment that used postmodern strategies of crossing time periods. Warner’s work with the RSC and the National Theatre was particularly gripping, from powerful versions of Titus Andronicus and King Lear (1987 and 1990, with Brian Cox acting in both) to Richard II (1995) with Fiona Shaw playing the King in a gender-neutral manner.

One of the continuing troubles of the RSC lay in its theatres. London operations were transferred in 1982 to the Barbican Arts Centre, an uninviting building with a main house even more unsuited for Shakespeare than the large theatre in Stratford. A smaller space with an open plan, the Swan (1986) has been a godsend at Stratford; this and the remodelled Other Place were sites for much of the company’s most valuable work. Some mainstream British productions suffered from a connection to ‘heritage’ made during the Thatcher-Major years, a movement that stressed the high art or ancestral merit in Shakespeare and was in opposition to the contemporary values ascribed to the plays in the earlier post-war period. A battle for the ownership of the national dramatist was taking place and spread beyond the academy onto the pages of the popular press, with members of the royal family entering the fray. Theatres, suffering declining subsidies in the same period, were often forced to rely on an appeal to cultural tourism to fill their seats. This was most apparent in the construction of ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ in London, a project begun by the American actor Sam Wanamaker in the 1970s and completed in 1997 after his death. Controversy has surrounded both the cultural intent of the project and its claim to architectural authenticity, though few deny the powerful effect of watching a play while standing in the yard of the open-roofed space. The productions staged there in the summers have yet to reach first-class status but have returned audiences to a central role in Shakespeare performance.

Shakespeare became in these years dramatic currency for much of the world. The long German tradition of innovative performance continued; older directors like Peter Zadek and Peter Stein were still active in the 1990s, while younger ones brought unexpected ideas for a post-Cold War world, like Karin Beier’s ‘Euro-Shakespeare’—a rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1995) that used fourteen actors from nine countries, all speaking their native languages. Some Paris performances relied upon the intercultural method of crossing Shakespeare with Kabuki or Kathakali (Mnouchkine’s history plays, 1981–4), or seeing The Tempest through Indian and African styles (Brook, 1990), while Daniel Mesguich showed a series of plays influenced by the cultural theories of Derrida and Lacan. The Québécois director Robert Lepage, in productions in English and French (and sometimes in both), added to the growing interest of seeing Shakespeare’s work as related to colonial formations and globalized or postcolonial circumstances. In Tokyo the remarkable direction of Yukio Ninagawa combined Japanese traditional ideas with Western styles (Macbeth and The Tempest in the 1980s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet in the 1990s, all touring to the UK), and Hideki Noda transposed the plays into modern Japanese environments (his 1990 Much Ado About Nothing, for example, was set in the world of sumo wrestling). After the disruptions of the Cultural Revolution even China staged Shakespeare festivals in the period. If all the world had not yet been conquered by a 400-year-old dead white male dramatist, much of it found Shakespeare’s work rich enough to appropriate again and again.

Though the 21st century is still in its infancy, some striking developments have already taken place. An interest in Shakespeare and his global spread has only increased, with multi-lingual celebrations like the 2012 World Shakespeare and Globe to Globe Festivals showcasing the many languages and performance traditions into which his plays have been translated. Site-specific and immersive productions have also proliferated, with companies like Punchdrunk devising new adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays through large warehouse installations that explore the physical and sensory worlds of the texts, if not their poetry. Perhaps the most fundamental shift has been the advent of widespread live-broadcasting from theatres to cinemas and computer screens worldwide; the National Theatre launched its NTLive programme in 2009, and since then several other UK theatres, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, have followed suit. Further experiments with place, stage space, language and text, and audience engagement seem poised to continue in the coming years.

Dennis Kennedy, rev. Erin Sullivan


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Kennedy, Dennis (ed.), Foreign Shakespeare (1993)Find this resource:

Kennedy, Dennis, Looking at Shakespeare (1993)Find this resource:

Speaight, Robert, Shakespeare on the Stage (1973)Find this resource: