Half-way through last month, Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, made an announcement that sent my heart into freefall (The Times, 14th June). No longer would the NT put on “fairly straight adaptations” of European classics, as it seemed these only appealed to ‘theatre aficionados’ (people who go to the theatre?). Instead, well-known plays would be remodelled to appeal to a ‘broad audience’ (ie the general public) who apparently have demanded that Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, for instance, should morph into David Hare’s Peter Gynt, while Sheridan’s The Rivals be rewritten by Oliver Chris and Richard Bean as Jack Absolute Flies Again. (This last ‘fresh’ interpretation is particularly confusing as Jack Absolute is a series of books written by Chris Humphries 2003 – 2006.)
Really? The general public has demanded this? How does Norris know?
An Improvisation of Sandwiches
It all started with the huge success of One Man Two Guv’nors (2011), a new version of Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters, created by Richard Bean. The 1746 farce had to be rewritten as no one found its quickfire humour funny anymore (actually, they do), and slowing the pace to a standstill to allow James Corden’s character to ‘improvise’ ad nauseam about sandwiches was apparently much funnier (it wasn’t).
But the production proved a hit, encouraging the NT to ‘update’ other classics: turning Jim Hawkins, the hero of Treasure Island, into a girl, and creating a Christmas show called The Light Princess which grudgingly credited the Victorian fairy tale writer George MacDonald for the original idea while producing a different story altogether.
Gradually, over the last few years, new season’s brochures began to describe more and more plays as ‘a reimagining of’ (a warning light if ever there was one). Meanwhile wonderful, traditional productions of ‘unimproved’ plays like Hedda Gabler, She Stoops to Conquer, Man and Superman and several by Terence Rattigan gave reassurance that, while a few might be earmarked for ‘updating’, the classics in general were safe with the National Theatre.
Classics no longer safe at NT
Not anymore. From now on, we can’t be sure that, for any famous theatre piece put on at the NT, the words spoken are actually what the playwright wrote. Norris has effectively given the NT leave to update all plays, taking into account the sensibilities of our current age.
To be fair, he’s not alone in this: for its 2018 Christmas Show, The Royal Shakespeare Company put on A Christmas Carol, ‘adapted’ by David Edgar; and in his current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, Nick Hytner has swapped Titania’s and Oberon’s lines, thereby making Oberon lovesick for Bottom the Weaver. Ye gods.
Nahum Tate’s excruciating King Lear
The funny thing is, we’ve been here before. Nahum Tate, anyone? The 17th century poet and dramatist is now chiefly remembered for his excruciating ‘improvement’ of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Deeming the tragedy too harsh, he rewrote it to provide a happy ending, with Lear restored to life and health and Cordelia marrying Edgar, who exults that ‘truth and virtue shall at last succeed.’ We laugh about it now; but because Tate’s The History of King Lear (1681) suited the sentimental mood that blighted drama for much of the following century, it chased Shakespeare’s play off the stage for – wait for it – over 150 years. Not until 1845 was King Lear performed again in its original Shakespeare text.
By chopping and changing plays written generations ago to suit the sensibilities of our age, these directors and writers are doing nothing new. Whether they’ll wish to go down in theatre history as so many 21st century’s Nahum Tates is another matter.