Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Thane and the Flapper

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



  1. Sounds like this turned out to be a good one. Glad it was. I could see how this adaptation could work out. Macbeth translates easily into gangster territory. I'd heard of an Australian film that placed it among teen gangs.

    In my youth of wanting to be a film director I actually came up with a treatment that turned Macbeth into a Space Opera tragedy, and switching the sexes so that Macbeth was a female general and her husband was the manipulative government official that pushes her to act. Witches were aliens and all kinds of craziness. I wonder if I still have that floating around somewhere. It could be fun/horrifying to read again. :)

    1. Definitely dig that one out. Who is the current Caroline Munro-type to play Macduff in a bikini?

      Actually, in this stage version Banquo was a femme-fatale. It made little difference.

    2. I think my favorite disguised Shakespeare is Forbidden Planet. Never thought of West Side Story as Shakespeare, don't know why, I guess I get caught up in the song and dance numbers. It's an interesting idea though to recreate his work into some other genre. I wonder if he'd been translated into a horror story before. Interesting idea from Roman above to do a space opera.

      I have a cousin that teaches drama here and writes plays--one which made it to off-Broadway. I've only seen one off-Broadway play when me and my brother were in NYC. It was a unique experience, and I'm sure some are better than others, but it was a very small venue and cast (as I remember three or four actors). Sort of shattered some allusions. It was about a serial killer, and that's about all I remember. I don't remember if we got discounted tickets or they were free given to us from some guy on Times Square, but it was fine for what it was.

  2. I don't know, but Titus Andronicus seems ready made for a horror film. The quasi-faithful Titus (set in an alternate reality with a modern Roman Empire) is an interesting version from 1999, but a full adaptation is possible too.

    Off-Broadway is definitely a mixed bag with its share of stinkers, but when it's good it can be very good.