Presenting Shakespeare to a modern audience, whether on screen or on stage, always raises the question to the producers of how faithfully to stage a play. One can make purists happy and simply present it as written. This is a frequently chosen option on stage. On film this approach has had success here and there – though on film “more-or-less faithfully” is almost always the qualifier. There is no doubt, though, that this approach limits your potential audience, especially with regard to the majority of people who were force-fed some Shakespeare in high school but haven’t read him since. While few among this majority will admit up front that they don’t appreciate Shakespeare, the truth is that they typically expect to struggle with the Elizabethan dialogue; they seldom are eager to work that hard.
Sometimes producers and scriptwriters completely and loosely re-write the whole thing into a modern setting, e.g. West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) and 10 Things I Hate about You (The Taming of the Shrew). Others re-edit, as in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which combines extracts of plays in which Falstaff is a character. Still others change the setting while keeping violence to the text to a minimum, as in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 Richard III set in an alternate 1930s with Richard III as a fascist leader. All four of those examples work. I could list many that don’t. Nonetheless, I’m not put off by experiments of these kinds any more than by the faithful productions, which brings us to the off-Broadway Macbeth, currently playing at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village.
The description sounded too off-beat to pass up: Macbeth set in a 1920s speakeasy. Oh, it’s a musical and Lady Macbeth is in drag. Oddly enough, it works. There are liberties taken with the text, but far fewer than one might think – mostly in the form of cuts, but then we get a couple of sonnets sung that are not in the original. Only the sets, costumes, and demeanors place the events among Prohibition crime bosses; when the characters speak they speak of Scotland, not of territories of Chicago. Will’s iambs prove remarkably adaptable to bluesy tunes written by Eric Fletcher – again the words are straight from the text, with relatively few liberties such as line repetitions as refrains. The Weird Sisters are a burlesque troupe including Eric himself. Despite the surreal elements and the humor, this Macbeth is still a dark and effective drama. I don’t recommend it for Shakespeare novices. It would be hard to appreciate this production properly without a familiarity with the play as written or as traditionally performed. But with that prior exposure, this version is marvelous.
Regrettably, it closes October 4 after a (planned) short engagement. One hopes this will not be the last we see of it.
The Weird Sisters