How do we make Shakespeare less terrible in the 21st century?

Some Shakespeare plays, where history has overtaken them, should just be buried.” That’s what actor Juliet Stevenson argued earlier this year, singling out The Merchant of Venice as especially problematic for its antisemitic tropes. But what if, instead of shelving them, we tackle them head on?

Many directors have risen to the challenge of grappling with the Bard’s more anachronistic plays, with fascinating results. In 2018, Josie Rourke’s production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse staged it conventionally – then moved it to the present day after the interval, with the actors playing the Duke and Isabella swapping roles, commenting on our perceptions of female power. At the Globe in 2016, Caroline Byrne tackled the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew by moving it to 1916 Ireland, against the backdrop of the Easter Rising and the battle for female independence. And last year, Ola Ince’s version of Romeo and Juliet directly tackled a deeply troubling matter often overlooked: that the play ends with a dual teenage suicide.

This month, director Abigail Graham’s new production for Shakespeare’s Globe will take on The Merchant of Venice. But it’s anything but straightforward. “I didn’t want to be the only Jew in the room,” she says, “because the Jewish experience is a really complex one. We’re not a monolith.” That means that about a third of the cast is Jewish, working alongside global majority performers, with one common goal. “The real thing we don’t want to do is perpetuate any antisemitic stereotypes,” says Graham. “We’re all on the same task, and it’s about chipping away at it like a fungus.”

Rehearsals began with an anti racism workshop, a workshop on antisemitism, and a talk about decolonialising Shakespeare. After all, this team has got centuries of convention to fight against. In 2016, British novelist Howard Jacobson wrote that Shylock confirms: “every anti-Jewish prejudice… the medieval stereotype of the grasping and vindictive, hook-nosed, knife-wielding Jew whom no appeal to a common humanity could soften”.

Although other writers have argued that Shylock is a more complex figure, depicted by Shakespeare as deserving the audience’s sympathy, there’s also a risk that staging this play could confirm negative stereotypes that have been used to justify centuries of oppression.

Director Abigail Graham in rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice

/ Marc Brenner

Graham’s approach to the antisemitism in the text isn’t to rewrite or bowdlerise the text, but to reframe it: “It’s about where you would place the lens, if this was a film: where do you direct the audience’s focus?”

Her production aims to explore how Shylock is bullied by a powerful social elite: “In rehearsals, it’s become really clear that it’s a play about how white Christian men use their power to pit minorities against each other”, she says. “That’s the conversation we need to be having.”

She’s supported in her vision by Shakespeare’s Globe’s education department, which is led by Professor Farah Karim-Cooper. Karim-Cooper’s current focus is on anti-racist strategies for staging Shakespeare. And like Graham, she’s clear that hiding these plays away at the back of the bookshelves isn’t the answer. “Some people seem to think that antisemitism was invented in the 20th century,” she explains, “but it’s really important to note how long these tropes have been around. If you hide it away, then you’re saying that Shakespeare is innocent in all of this, but he has a role to play.”

“In 1290, the Jews were expelled from England,” Karim Cooper continues, “so the medieval antisemitic tropes that people inherited were all they had really to go on, because there was not a massive population of Jews in England at the time.”

Still, there’s a balance to be struck. On the one hand, it’s valuable to expose the antisemitism of Shakespeare’s time. On the other hand, there’s the danger of perpetuating that same antisemitism, and causing harm to Jewish audiences.

Adrian Schiller plays Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

/ Marc Brenner

Karim-Cooper is very much aware of this risk. She says that “this is the conversation which each production has to have with itself. You have to provide an environment where actors are empowered to decide together that ‘that line, we can’t have it in there’.” And there’s also a question of tone. “If you stage it simply as a great play we all love where everybody’s happy at the end, then that’s actually doing more harm,” Karim-Cooper reckons.

This approach, of exposing the darkness underneath Shakespeare’s neatly wrapped up endings, is something Byrne mastered with her 2016 Taming of the Shrew, another work that Stevenson suggested should be “buried”. Byrne lent this story new bleakness by capturing the toxic patriarchal world that Katherine lives in, showing her suspended in a web of ropes after she’s given against her will to her arrogant suitor Petruchio.

Director Josie Rourke’s 2010 production of the same play went one step further, adding a new framing narrative by playwright Neil LaBute that explored a lesbian couple’s struggles with another kind of ‘taming’: the pressure to enter a monogamous relationship. “You can read endless academic essays on how potent women’s silence is within these plays,” Rourke says, “but sometimes it’s just annoying – it just doesn’t feel like enough.”

Still, these experiments aren’t always popular. Rourke says that “the work that I’ve done that has been less radical and more conventional has been more praised.” (A case in point – one critic reviewed her Donmar Warehouse Measure for Measure as two separate plays, awarding the traditional telling five stars and the non-traditional just one.)

Rebekah Murrell and Alfred Enoch in Ola Ince’s production of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe

/ Marc Brenner

Ola Ince agrees. “Lots of people don’t like you messing with Shakespeare,” she says. Her production of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer was controversial for its stark perspective on what’s normally seen as an uncontroversial love story – it even made the front page of The Sun under the headline ‘Wokeo and Juliet’.

“When these two young people decide to take their lives, it’s considered romantic,” says Ince, “but that was really troubling to me.” So her take flashed up interventions including statistics on teen suicide on caption boards. The Globe gave audiences a content warning and details of charities and helplines for support if they were affected by the issues.

It’s a strategy that’s in keeping with Shakespeare’s Globe’s artistic director Michelle Terry’s artistic policy, which mixes care with radicalism. “She leads from a place of empathy,” says Graham. “It’s all about care for artists, for full-time staff, and for the audience.” Graham’s production of Merchant of Venice is a case in point: it’ll be supported by a ‘scaffolding’ of content warnings, contextualising blog posts, and a free webinar about anti-racist Shakespeare, all designed to tackle the issues this staging raises. But it’ll also be unafraid to confront the audience. “It’s set 100 per cent in modern London”, says Graham, “and we will recognise the people we see on stage, because they literally do walk among us.”

Some people might see these 21st century reinventions of Shakespeare’s plays as harming his legacy. The counter-argument, of course, is that they’re strengthening it. “People who say you shouldn’t touch Shakespeare’s work are kind of killing him,” says Ince, “because they’re setting him in stone in the past.” This current crop of punchy approaches to Shakespeare’s most contentious works suggests that he’s very much alive, and kicking.

The Merchant of Venice is at Shakespeare’s Globe from Feb 18 to April 9; book tickets here

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