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Why do we still watch Shakespeare?

You watch a good Shakespeare adaptation and you can't imagine it any other way.

Recently a lovely person took me to The Globe, to see As You Like It, one of the three whole Shakespeare plays I’d never previously read nor seen. And it was marvellous, anyone lucky enough to finds themselves near London this summer should go. Because this troupe are producing some amazing productions. As You Like It had gender flipped the romantic protagonists, which - in a play that already advances a female character, pretending to be male, pretending to be female - really danced some fascinating farces around the the constructs of identity.

It also had the character of Celia, our heroine’s cousin and best friend, played by Nadia Nadarajah, an actress who is deaf. And watching her signing furiously to Rosalind behind Orlando’s back, hearing her beseech her father in approximate sounds, seeing her hands move in sync with Oliver as they fall in love - this was no deviation from, but a perfectly realised form of the play. I realised, having never encountered this play previously, any future spectacle would be an adaptation for me, of a character who was deaf, I could not begin to suppose how she would work differently.

At school, studying plays I would always drive my English teachers mad. Every question they set me on any script, instead of even attempting to answer it, I would instead write some pompous essay on how the answering of it was impossible. What could I say of the character of a White and Devillish Vittoria, or the fall of an eponymous Othello, or any tragedy, or comedy, or history? All I had before me were the bassest of frameworks, the simplest of skeletons, upon which the play-proper was waiting to be hung.

Yeah, I would have hated to teach tenacious teenaged me.

But I still stand by such sentiments, if in less smarmy terms. I got through my muddlings of a degree by focusing on adaptations and ‘Reader Response Theory’. I still think a script is but an inspiration, a jumping off point, giving rise to many varied and conflicting Plays.

Recently the BBC has produced a new King Lear (watchable on Amazon in the US as well as the iplayer in the UK if you have access to either).

King Lear is not a new play to me, I have been oft well washed in waves of it. I have read it, been in it and distinctly remember seeing too much of it, in the guise of Sir Ian McKellen nakedly flapping about a stage to suggest madness.

Still this play did for me something I had not considered before, it - at least in its opening - presented as sympathetic Lear’s two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, played in this instance by Emma Thompson and Emily Watson respectively. I had never previously considered these two women as anything more than evil, scheming sister-stereotypes.

Eventually, the play seems to spring back to the accepted interpretation, as if it could not stray too far from the mould without triggering some elastic reflex. (Maybe there is just no way to present a character who gouges out eyes as sympathetic?)

But I concentrate on that first half, that opening, on Emma Thompson flinching away as her father bodily bellows in her face, as he swans and sways in and out of any personal space she may once have commanded, one minute physically grappling and pawing at her, the next pressing unwanted affection on anyone who ventures too close. Boorish, unpredictable, fearful - twice fearful for now being a figure she cannot reason with, a figure that might do her harm. But who once, perhaps, was not this way, who may once have been a father she had connection with.

The BBC adaptation, suddenly made this play something entirely different to me, it offered up to me something I had never seen in it before. Not a mythic fairytale of Kings eons-past, nor of chivalric lands and politicking, not even of a kingdom split between vicious snakelet queens.

It suddenly became a very human, very familiar, production, about your agéd parent, losing their poor worried mind. And there simply being no good or correct or in any way satisfactory responses to this.

Suddenly stretching across years, across disparate peoples and places, was wrought before me a perfect understanding. Of the pain of having to watch someone you love, lose themselves, and become someone else. Someone you do not know anymore. Who, without intention, hurts you and hurts themselves. You feel the need, though it wholly breaks you, to take away from them the things they want, that they profess they need, because they are unwittingly harming themselves and others with them. You try to explain to them, in tears, their own madnesses, knowing they now lack the ability to stand outside of and bear witness to such, knowing they cannot see themselves as such. Knowing you will necessarily be cast as villain to them, although that is the very thing you wish last in the world.

The tragedy of destroying your relationship with them because you believe it the only way to properly care for them.

Because the only way to, according to their logic, stand by them, is to go mad with them. So don your jester’s hat and go dance in the rain.

A great adaptation makes you stand up and say, I never got what this play was about, until right now, when you made it about this.

And maybe Lear was always about this. Sometimes you're not in the right place for the literature you come across. I hated The Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it, as a carefree young child, forced to pick it up, who could not even begin to imagine the pain Holden languished in. I reread it in later life and its familiarity fell upon me earth-shatteringly.

But I sometimes think we find the literature we need at the time of our lives when we need it. While also knowing that we find in whatever art we encounter the things that currently preoccupy ourselves.

And thus I dismiss a whole half a production for a glimmer in its opening that I could not help but find connection with. And I book myself in to The Globe again to see more of Nadia Nadarajah communicate to me in ways perfect and previously unconsidered. Because in that moment, bewitched by their productions, texts become plays, they become wholly and paradigm-alteringly illuminating. And although I surely will, a year down the line, upon a reread, in front the next production, see things differently once more, right now I couldn’t imagine them any other way.


‘The worst is not

So long as we can say “This is the worst.”’

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