‘Truly to speak, and with no addition’: Making Changes to Classic Texts

Last night you may have seen that I went on a bit of a Twitter rampage about Julian Fellowe’s massacre adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I say ‘bit of’, because I could have been much harsher! But fortunately for Fellowe, I only had 140 characters in which to express my loathing of his film.

It starts off with a festival of jousting being held. That doesn’t happen in the original. But at least they keep the Prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona where we lay our scene.

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny.

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Great, keeping the original text, awesome.

And so the Prince has called a tournament.


Basically it just got worse from there on out. Dropping ‘thou’ in favour of ‘you’, dropping some lines and updating others to attrocious modern English, and not only adding lines but storylines too (Benvolio lusting after Rosaline, considering whether to ‘take advantage’ of Romeo falling for Juliet…WHAT THE FUCK?!).

As well as making me extremely angry, this also got me thinking: am I a bit puritanical when it comes to staying faithful to classic texts?

And the answer is yes. But with good reason.

I know Romeo and Juliet inside out, and when I watch a production of it, I am literally saying the lines along in my head. And when they drop or change a line, I immediately am like: ‘What the fuck, excuse me…?’

In my eyes, Shakespearean texts and other plays are enduring because of the language. And when Julian Fellowe’s or whoever says we should update the lines for a modern audience, that basically shows a lack of faith in the very crux of the play: the text itself. These plays have survived for hundreds of years and have continued to be performed with the original text. And that’s because the poetry of the lines is timeless. You do not need to have studied Shakespeare at university to understand the plays, like Fellowe’s has said. I have seen children as young as 7 at Shakespeare’s Globe, completely immersed in the experience and understanding the majority of it, through storytelling and great acting alone.

But let me make this clear: just because I’m saying we shouldn’t add lines, that’s not to say we shouldn’t encourage adapting the texts in other ways.

I can think of a number of shows I’ve been to where certain additions have benefited the overall production. And I don’t just mean plays but musicals too.


Sondheim’s Assassins is a perfect example of this. In the original version, the Balladeer provides a moralistic, optimistic voice against the company of assassins:

I just heard, On the news

Where the mailman won the lottery.

Goes to show:

When you lose, what you do is try again.

You can be, What you choose,

From a mailman to a president.

There are prizes all around you,

If you’re wise enough to see.

During this song, his voice becomes drowned out by the assassins and ‘Another National Anthem’ they subscribe to. And in the original version, the character is unceremoniously forced offstage and never seen again.

But the 2004 revival made a few changes. Instead of being pushed offstage, the Balladeer is instead surrounded by the assassins, has his clothes ripped off, and re-emerges, reborn as one of them: Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot JFK. It’s an inspired change, and really makes the following scenes that much more powerful and upsetting. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s recent revival of Assassins included this change, and Jamie Parker was magnificent in both roles.

A similar addition is becoming the norm with productions of King Lear. In the original text, the Fool, who has been a constant companion of Lear, simply disappears after Act III, scene 6. There is one possible reference to him later in Lear’s death speech, ‘And my poor fool is hang’d’, though this could equally be about Cordelia who has just been discovered hanging.


Rather than have such a memorable character Exit, never to be seen again, increasingly productions are including the non-canon death of the Fool onstage. In The National’s production last year directed by Sam Mendes, I remember the particularly brutal death as Simon Russell Beale’s Lear battered the Fool to death in a bathtub, having mistaken him for one of his daughters. In Trevor Nunn’s production, Ian McKellen’s Lear does not kill the Fool, but he is not spared from death. Instead, Nunn takes a page out of the original text, having Sylvester McCoy’s ‘poor fool hanged’ onstage in a particularly gruesome scene.

I’m not a massive fan of having unscripted or offstage deaths moved onstage, but while Nunn’s version worked, Mendes’ production was particularly guilty of doing this. Not only did the Fool die onstage but Goneril and Regan, whose dead bodies literally litter the stage. This then diminishes the subsequent deaths of Edgar, Cordelia and Lear himself. It was literally the embodiment of overkill. It can work well, in the case of the Fool’s death, if done right. An example where adding an otherwise unscripted onstage death didn’t work is the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III, starring Martin Freeman.


I am a big fan of Jamie Lloyd as a director, but his changes to the text seemed all over the place in last year’s production. In the original text, Richard ominously instructs, Rumour it abroad/That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die’. After this scene, Richard reports, And Anne my wife hath bid the world good night’. The manner in which the previously healthy Anne dies is not detailed, but the audience assumes that she is murdered offstage at Richard’s behest. For some reason, Lloyd felt the need to bring this death onstage and have Richard murder her himself. Which completely changes our perception of the character: a man who has referred to himself as ‘lamely’, who wields words more than swords, and we are to believe he would murder his wife in cold blood?

In addition to this, Lloyd decided to update the setting of the play to a modern political situation: the 1979 winter of discontent, fittingly. I am absolutely fine with transposing productions into a modern setting or playing with time periods. This worked really well with the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet a few years ago, starring Sam Troughton: at the start of it, a modern dressed Romeo and Juliet listen to the Prologue being relayed over an audio guide in the present day. As the play progresses, the roles are reversed: Romeo and Juliet finish the play in period clothing, while the remaining actors are dressed in modern clothing, thus emphasising the lovers’ continual isolation from society for their alternate views on love.

With Lloyd’s Richard III, it didn’t work quite as well. If you have to read the programme to understand what setting or situation it’s been updated to, because it’s not immediately obvious despite extensive sets, then maybe you shouldn’t have updated it at all. And to the younger audience which this production attracted, this was not at all obvious unfortunately.

So yes, I am more than happy with updating productions. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet is an example of how this can be accomplished really well: keeping the language the same, but updating to the modern setting of Verona Beach, with guns instead of weapons, and cars with horsepower instead of steeds.


Which brings us back to the beginning and the opposite of this: Fellowe’s production is the complete antithesis, keeping the setting and time period the same and yet for some reason updating the lines.

So here’s my message to those attempting to adapt Shakespeare or other shows: make changes by all means, stamp your own interpretation on it…but only if it makes sense! And don’t mess with the words. Otherwise you mess with me!


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