The Guardian’s critic Michael Billington sparked controversy earlier this month when, at a question and answer event with Dame Judi Dench to mark the reopening of the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, he suggested that recent decades have seen a decline in the quality of Shakespearean productions in British theatre.
He criticised modern directors for assuming that audiences would find the work boring and therefore for seeking to popularise the plays.
Dame Judi agreed with him, suggesting that the industry feels the need to “do something different” to
Inevitably there was an immediate backlash from the likes of Gregory Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and from The Globe’s Michelle Terry – whose appointment after the departure of Emma Rice seemed to suggest the venue’s deep commitment to a traditional style of Shakespeare performance.
Personally I cannot agree with Terry’s comments, who suggested that “it’s more useful to be necessary than relevant” – has she found some necessity in preserving something irrelevant?
However, I also have to disagree with Billington.
While apparently speaking in opposition, both seem to suggest that a drive towards socially and historically relevant productions of Shakespeare comes at the expense of any respect for the original texts.
In truth, the search for both contemporary relevance and reinvention has been demonstrated by directors of Shakespeare since the plays were written – and this is not representative of a steady decline from a position of some notional state of purity.
Rather it is the natural response of any society restaging the work of one of its most cherished writers for the audience of the day, and the ability to use Shakespeare to interrogate contemporary concerns is surely evidence of the timelessness of the writing, not an abuse of something historical.
Billington also suggested a decline in the quality of Shakespearean acting, but that view is an almost inevitable result of covering theatre for so many decades.
The perception that Peggy Ashcroft or Judi Dench gave iconic performances in years gone by, and that they are not matched today, is an illusion.
If there is a definitive production every decade, then reeling off those definitive shows from the 1950s to the 1980s suggests a body of work, whereas picking one show from the current decade suggests a dearth
of good productions.
However, even that does a disservice to the modern era.
Doran named David Tennant in Richard II and Tony Sher as Falstaff among the great performances, and I would add Andrew Scott in the Almeida’s Hamlet.
The productions clearly exist. Judi Dench is right that producers and directors often seek to present Shakespeare in a new way, but that is because audiences have seen a classical production already.
For audiences presented with so many shows to choose from, there has to be a reason to see a new production of Macbeth or King Lear.
We rarely read the same novel twice, so why would we see the same play twice, unless the same play is presented in a different way?
That still does not suggest a drop in quality – there has not been a decline in the standard of Shakespeare production in this country, and there is certainly not a lack of appetite for his work among theatre-makers. Completely the opposite in fact.
The reason that there are so many new versions, new productions and new approaches to choose from, and so many theatres competing for audiences for Shakespeare, is precisely because the appetite for his work is as strong as it has ever been and the high-quality productions, which still exist, continue to draw a crowd.