To update or not to update… that is the question

As I’ve been editing the script for “Midsummer”, I’ve been struck by how, even with much of the repetition taken out,  it would still not be understandable to most people.  It occurs to me that this is one of the reasons I’ve avoided directing Shakespeare in KZ, because (frankly) very few audience members would have a clue what we’re talking about.  Even native English speakers!  The exception being Shakespeare buffs and a few literature lovers. 

Is this what theater is supposed to be about?  Performing a play in a language that nobody gets?  We might as well be the called KALT – the Kazakhstan Arabic Language Theater, and perform all our plays in Arabic.  Only, if we did that, there would be at least a chance that some people would actually speak and understand Arabic.  Especially in Central Asia.

I’ve always said that with Shakespeare, the onus is on the actors to make certain that they understand what they’re saying, and then they can communicate those sorts of things with gestures or body language.  But, really, unless you are one of the few who dedicate your lives to performing Shakespeare, it’s going to be extremely difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.

Consider this passage for example, from Midsummer, spoken by Hermia when she and her lover, Lysander, have been told that Hermia must marry Demetrius or die:

If then true lovers have been ever cross’d,
It stands as an edict in destiny:
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love as thoughts and dreams and sighs,
Wishes and tears, poor fancy’s followers.

Now, if you take a few moments and study the passage, you can work out the meaning.  She’s saying that we all have our crosses to bear, and that they need to be patient.  That patience is as important to love as thoughts, dreams, sighs, wishes and tears.

But imagine if you are sitting in a theater, and that line is spoken and moved past.  Unless you are a perfect English speaker, and you have all your synapses firing at full power, you are not likely to catch most of it.  And what can the actress do to help communicate these words except speak in a resigned, sad manner?  Okay, you’ll know she’s sad and resigned, but other than that you won’t know much.  Now, imagine that this passage is the entire play. 

Aye, there’s the rub.  Right?

So this is where I’m standing right now with this.  I have a group of amateur actors, most of whom have never been in a play, and I’m going to ask them to essentially learn a brand new language that is sort of like this second or third language they’re already learning?  And then to communicate the hidden meaning and messages in such a way that the audience gets it? 

Or, I’m going to do as all other cultures do anyhow when they translate Shakespeare into their language, and I’m going to translate the bard into modern English, so that both the actors and the audience will have at least a fighting chance to understand the story.

And when you get down to brass tacks, isn’t that what theater is about anyway?  Having a great story to tell, and telling it well?

What do you think?  Is it some sort of artistic heresy for me to even consider modernizing the language of Shakespeare, or is it a good choice to give it a shot?  If not in Atyrua, than where?

Please feel free to comment, but meanwhile I invite you to read this interesting article, which is in support of the idea:  http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/jan10/shakespeare.cfm


4 comments on “To update or not to update… that is the question

  1. Personally I think that it’ll be too dificult for us to play in Shakespeare’s English. So it’ll be better to actors and audience both if You modernize it.

  2. After reading an earlier article McWhorter wrote calling for quality Shakespeare translations in modern English, about ten years ago I began translating Shakespeare’s plays. I maintain the verse structure and the complexity. McWhorter mentions my Shakespeare Translation Project in his article.

    Go to this website to see excerpts of my work: http://www.fullmeasurepress.com or http://www.csulb.edu/~richmond/Shakespeare.html

    I read a few days ago that Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wants to stage translations during the Olympics in 2012.

    Kent Richmond

  3. […] To update or not to update… that is the question January 20103 comments 5 […]

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