450 years on: Shakespeare in the on-demand age
James R | On 23, Apr 2014
To update or not to update? That’s the question facing people when they choose to take on a Shakespeare play. The Bard turns 450 years old today and that question seems more relevant than ever.
The idea of updating a Shakespeare text for modern audiences is nothing new. Written in Iambic pentameter, his plays switch between measured verse and prose to reflect characters’ social, emotional and personal states – a novel device that worked for a 16th Century theatregoing audience. Surely viewers now would struggle to decipher the da-dum-da-dums and unravel any rhymes?
The decision to translate Will’s work into contemporary vernacular has yielded some brilliant results. 10 Things I Hate About You won over hordes of teenagers with its wry realisation that The Taming of the Shrew’s gender politics are issues dealt with every day in high school – and gave the world a chance to fall in love with Heath Ledger’s singing voice. The Lion King, aka. Hamlet with a happy ending, is arguably Disney’s finest animation.
Others, though, were not so successful: the less said about O, featuring Josh Hartnett as a basketball-playing Hugo, the better. While Gil Junger’s sassy Shrew update produced gems such as “Tell me something true” / “Something true… I hate peas”, Tim Blake Nelson’s story of sporting rivalry spouted nonsense like “I always wanted to live like a hawk”.
Some of the best on-screen adaptations have found a happy halfway house between the two, retaining the Bard’s way with words but adding new visual meaning – an approach epitomised by Baz Luhrmann’s superb Romeo + Juliet and Joss Whedon’s sparky Much Ado about Nothing. These productions realise that Shakespeare can still stand up in the 21st Century and entertain young minds without needing a total rewrite.
While attention is usually given to textual tweaks, though, the more radical updates have occurred off the page: in format, rather than content. 450 years on, old Bill permeates digital life in ways that are as exciting as his dictionary was to Elizabethan England; a time when angry birds meant something very different.
Social media is already friends with William: @IAM_SHAKESPEARE tweets one line of Shakespeare’s complete works at a time, working its way through all 112,000 odd in a couple of years. A few years ago, The Royal Shakespeare Company even staged a modern version of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter, called Such Tweet Sorrow. (The complete archive of all tweets is here – via Naples News).
“Where is Jeremy Kyle when you need him?” asked Mercutio on 2nd May 2010.
The Bodleian Library has recently digitised its copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, making it available for everyone to read for free.
Video on-demand has found a home for Shakespeare too. 10 Things I Hate About You is on Netflix, along with Ethan Hawke’s modern Hamlet, but those keen on a more traditional experience can now rent or download a collection of his plays on Digital Theatre – an on-demand library of recorded productions across the UK.
The site’s collection of shows ranges from Henry VI starring Roger Allam at the Globe Theatre to Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear at The Almeida Theatre, making old Bill accessible to a much wider audience than was once the case.
At the National Theatre next month, Sam Mendes’ highly cinematic King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale is beamed directly into picture houses through NT Live – a fantastic scheme that has been running for years and, surely, is not far from becoming an at-home streaming experience too.
The digital worlds collided on Valentine’s Day this year with a live tweetalong of David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s Much Ado About Nothing on Digital Theatre, which saw Shakespeare celebrated around the globe in unison.
Thanks to technological innovations such as VOD and social media, all the world remains Shakespeare’s stage. Whether the vocabulary stays the same or not, the testament to the Bard’s near-five-century-old brilliance is that his work continues to inspire and engage – in ways that, thanks to on-demand accessibility, are bound to only become even bolder.
As people work on new adaptations for the screen and stage, “to update or not update?” feels like a more relevant question than ever. In our constantly evolving culture of digital arts, though, “to update” is surely the only answer.