Heather Reynolds investigates whether there is a ‘right’ way to adapt text for stage, or if factors such as audience and comfort should be catered to when developing a production.
There is something so unique about seeing a play, something in the experience of live theatre, its communality, its immediacy, that sets it apart from any other medium of art we have today. The experience of theatre, in how everyone in the room, performers and audience alike, are experiencing this art together but separate, communally but individually, that has assured its longevity as a form of artistic production and distribution, going back as far as we can find any details about historical life.
The largest impact of this vast history, and definitely the one that is the most exciting for anyone looking to get a start in theatre, is how many ready made plays there are out there to stage and enjoy. The downside of this massive opportunity that it provides is that it opens up a perpetual question to theatremakers; how are they to adapt this historical piece for a modern audience?
The decision of whether or not to modernise a historic play hinges on two main factors, each given more or less weight depending on the visions and goals of those involved in its making. The first of these factors, and the one which is most often prioritised in more academic circles, is how much of the original production do you want to retain. There are obviously restrictions here that are tied to immovable aspects of the production: for example, if you’re looking to adapt something incredibly ancient, such as Sophocles’ Antigone, a play originally performed in Ancient Greece, outdoors during Summer, you will have to make some obvious changes for a staging in Dublin in the middle of winter.
Changes like these may make a purist clutch their pearls, but at the end of the day it means that someone who is new to the work won't need three sets of footnotes to understand that you just made a dick joke
The second factor is what changes do you think will elevate the play for a modern audience, like adapting language from an Edwardian play to more recent turns of phrase, to ensure a reference isn’t lost in historical translation. Changes like these may make a purist clutch their pearls, but at the end of the day it means that someone who is new to the work won't need three sets of footnotes to understand that you just made a dick joke.
There is, of course, a writer whose works are constantly being examined through this lens, the works in question being that of William Shakespeare, a popular Elizabethan South-Bank entertainer, whose plays have suffered the privilege of surviving in their entirety all the way into the modern day. These plays, having originally been staged during a time where keeping written records of a script past the show's run was incredibly uncommon, hold a unique position between academic resource and entertainment, meaning that the correct way to stage them is constantly being debated, with no clear answer ever coming to the fore. The most notable instance of this occurred in 2016, when the then artistic director of The Globe Theatre in London, Emma Rice, stepped down due to controversy surrounding her decision to modernise the Bard’s plays. Not in the text mind you, that, as ever in The Globe, remained whole and largely untouched, but in the set and costuming.
This controversy was partially due to The Globe’s reputation as the pinnacle of historically accurate Shakespeare, with the theatre itself being a recreation of the original Globe, which burned down in 1613. The costuming, the staging, the acting, having traditionally been, and since Rice’s departure are now again, as true to Elizabethan standards as possible.
It is also my personal least favourite place to see a production of Shakespeare. Having seen many in my life, as an avid fan of theatre, and Shakespeare in general (I own three separate copies of the Sonnets), The Globe is stuffy, often difficult to see and hear, and uncomfortable after thirty minutes, let alone the four hours a Shakespearean play can last. Seriously, the benches are as hard as rocks, and the standing area has you, well, standing. For four hours. The Globe, in my opinion, is a fantastic experience from an academic perspective, and not much else. If you’re looking to see the complete text, and don’t want to be physically sore at the end, see a Royal Shakespeare Company production, they at least take place in an actual theatre. They have cushioned seats and all.
Staging Shakespeare does run you into another issue, however, that the majority of historical plays have in common. If you retain the original text, or the earliest translated text, your audience will need to have a familiarity with the play to understand it in their first viewing. Again, this is less of an issue for those who are already passionate about the Bard, such as the purists who complained about Rice, or if you’re staging a play for a Leaving Certificate class, who have all already read it at least once by the time they get to your theatre, but if you’re staging for a more general audience, you might want to think about what version of the script you’re using, particularly when it comes to comedies.
Comedy in general is the fastest of the genres to age, and so if you are to stage a historical comedy, script changes should be at the front of your mind. Unlike tragedies, or more “straight” productions, if your play isn’t making your audience laugh, it's not doing its job.
Here in UCD, a module on the classical Greek comedian, Aristophanes, uses not the most faithful translation of his plays, but the funniest one, because the humor is such a key aspect to the overall point of the work.
To take a more modern example, and to move away from Shakespeare, in 2019 UCD Dramsoc staged a production of Drag Queens on Trial, a dark comedy originally written and set in 1980’s Canada. The play underwent heavy rewrites, with the cast and crew spending a substantial amount of their rehearsal time workshopping how to modernise and localise the jokes so that they would work for a 21st century Dublin audience, while also retaining the original point of the joke in the play. The result was a faithful adaptation, not just in how they were able to retain overall plot, but in how they were able to get the audience laughing themselves to tears with An Tríal jokes and Vine references. I left that production not only having had a wonderful time, but with an urge to find my own copy of the original and see how they compared.
This even goes as far as in academia, where here in UCD, a module on the classical Greek comedian, Aristophanes, uses not the most faithful translation of his plays, but the funniest one, because the humor is such a key aspect to the overall point of the work. To use a more faithful translation, but one where it’s less clear where the jokes are and what they are joking about, would be a disservice to the plays themselves.
There is a stage for every variation on modernisation, and for each variation there is also an audience. There are always going to be stages and audiences that prioritise purity to the old way of producing plays, but modernising plays a massive role in keeping this wealth of scripts alive for now, and into the future. You’re never going to make everyone happy adapting a classic text, so the first step is figuring out who you’re adapting it for, and making sure that you keep creating the plays that you want to see in the world.