I just finished watching Antony Sher’s Primo; it’s a one-man performance Sher adapted from Primo Levi‘s description of his experience surviving Auschwitz (If This Is A Man).
I found it after reading Sher’s biography Beside Myself about his life growing up gay in South Africa and moving to London to become an actor. I had to read it for one of my classes at the Shakespeare Institute, because he’s famous amongst bardolaters for playing Richard III, Macbeth, and Leontes (as well as recently playing Falstaff in last year’s RSC 1 and 2 Henry IV).
What has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? Well, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of “dangerous Shakespeare”; that is, how and in what ways is performing Shakespeare dangerous?
For example, Nazi Germany’s favorite Shakespeare play was Merchant of Venice. Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play? Can we still perform it today? Should we?
Most bardolaters go round and round about Shakespeare being the “universal humanist.” He was 400 years ahead of his time with his characters and his sympathy for them. He wrote great parts for women, sympathized with black and Jewish characters, and wrote about the horrors of colonialism before anyone even knew there were any.
Or did he? What if Shakespeare thought Petruchio should tame his shrew, Othello deserved to die, and/or it was right to force a speechless Shylock to become a Christian? How would our view of Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in performance on the modern stage, have to change?
I wonder if someone would let Sher perform Primo in rep with Merchant. It might make for some interesting conversations.
What do you think?
I was looking at my notes from a lecture I listened to at the Shakespeare Institute on eastern perspectives on Shakespeare, and it struck me how complicated the idea of Shakespearean appropriation is. One of the questions I was given to consider for the class was, “Is Ninagawa a Westernized director who uses Japanese actors or a Japanese director who uses Westernized scripts?” The teacher, Erin Sullivan, asked “What are we supposed to think about British-born black actors playing a version of Julius Caesar set in Africa?”
Or even more interesting to me, what do we think about a failed interpretation of Troilus and Cressida by the RSC and the Wooster group being retitled (now Cry, Trojans!) and kept in production? Why is it that somehow, by changing the title, it’s okay to keep performing a play that was previously derided as “strangely infertile” and “awkward stylistic collision”?
The short answer is, if you retitle it then the Shakespeare scholars and critics don’t have to pay attention to it anymore.
Why do we care? As Shakespeare shifted into a cultural icon (around the time of Garrick, whether due to his influence or in spite of him is a subject for debate), the battle began as to who, when, where, and how it was acceptable to perform Shakespeare.
My still forthcoming review of Reviewing Shakespeare will mention some of these issues, as Paul Prescott brings them up in terms of the act of reviewing. Critics are, or at least they were, “night-watch constables,” vocal defenders of what is considered “authentic” Shakespeare. What is not “authentic” is called such (an “awkward stylistic collision”). But to what extent do we have to accept the verdict of critics as true? The famous response (“you may be lost in the wrong century”) to Billington’s review of the 2011 production of the Globe’s Much Ado argues that critics are not the final defenders of what is culture, as much as they would like to think themselves such.
So who does get to decide? Directors? Actors? Shakespeare?
In the end, it has to be you.