Shifting Shakespeare’s Setting

My book club watched Kenneth Branaugh’s recent movie version of “As You Like It.”

Despite some really marvelous individual performances, the movie didn’t really work. In part because Kenneth set the piece in 19th Century Japan (apparently because he liked the look of the setting) – but then did nothing to make it fit the era or location.

The characters were from an English settlement, and behaved as if in England.

So other than some of the look, and the wrestling match being Sumo style, the director ignored his choice of setting – and the film rang rather hollow as a result.

Our on-line discussion group picked up on the larger question: should we ever muck with Shakespeare by playing around with era and settings?

Friend Corrie Moore (co-founder of Seattle Shakespeare Festival) added this to the discussion:

“The audience always wants it done in Elizabethan clothes.

However, that has become tradition in an interesting way, of course. Back in Elizabethan times, they were just wearing very nice street clothes, as if we modern folk were wearing our tuxes and ballgowns, for much of the time. Shakespeare performed them in “modern dress”, no matter if they were fantasies or not. Because fashion was part of the deal, and if the Queen attended, one wore one’s best in the play, especially if one were the boy playing Juliet. Heh heh.”

Here’s my two cents:

“On the “mucking with Will” question: I think staging a play is a lot like adapting — there are a few things to hold onto, including Author’s Intent and Emotional Core. (See W. Goldman)

But Author’s Intent does not always mean staging it exactly as the author did (or his producers, actually). For example, when H.G. Wells wrote WAR OF THE WORLDS, he set it in modern (for him) London, because he wanted his readers to personally feel the threat of the alien invaders. When Orson Welles adapted the book to radio, he could have set it as H.G. did — in 1890’s London — but that would have been contrary to H.G.’s intent.

Instead he set it in modern (for Orson) New Jersey, so HIS listeners would personally feel the threat of the aliens. (And boy, did they!)

As Corrie pointed out, Willy’s producers weren’t all that concerned with setting historical pieces in a historical setting. So maybe the question isn’t so much “tights or no tights” as much as “what best honor’s Shakespeare’s intention with the play?”

Setting his play in Japan to draw out the themes in a deeper way for the audience (Kurosawa) would probably please the original author; setting his play in Japan ‘cuz it looks kinda pretty (Branaugh) probably would not.”

Just my thoughts,



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