The Barbican’s Hamlet is well into its run by now, and it’s no secret that it’s been updated to a modern setting. The press photos and promotional material already suggested this, with cast members appearing in modern dress.
And, personally, I’m a big fan of modern versions of Shakespeare.
When done right.
I have seen countless ones needlessly updated which haven’t worked, and I won’t name any names, although if you look back through my blog you’ll find a few mentioned. I’m yet to see this adaptation of Hamlet, so will weigh in on that come October. But I’ve seen it done well on stage before, with the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet being a great example of this. By playing around with different period costumes, this created a sense of isolation surrounding our star crossed lovers. Starting the play in modern dress, Sam Troughton’s Romeo and Mariah Gale’s Juliet contrast against the outdated, period clothing of the other citizens of Verona; by the end, Romeo and Juliet are the ones dressed in period clothes, while the supporting cast are now in modern outfits.
Another great adaptation which has benefited from transferring the story to a modern setting is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which updated the setting to Verona Beach but retained the original language. I won’t go on too much about it now as it’s likely I’ll do a piece on it later this week.
The final great example of a modern retelling is the aptly named: ShakespeaRe-Told. Commissioned by the BBC, this series took some of Shakespeare’s most well known plays and transposed them into the present and without the original text. The plays adapted for screen were Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and each had all star casts including Billie Piper, James McAvoy, Damian Lewis and Imelda Staunton.
What’s great about these productions is it’s not just updating them for the sake of making it original or giving a new twist on a classic. And sometimes when a story is updated to a modern setting, it doesn’t translate well: the context doesn’t make sense, making the plot seem outdated or unfamiliar. Fortunately for ShakespeaRe-Told, the situations which these characters now find themselves makes sense. In the present, Macbeth can no longer be looking to ascend the throne of England. That storyline would now more resemble E!’s The Royals than the original play! Instead, he finds himself as a sous chef, trying to climb ranks in a well-reknowned restaurant, to owner. By keeping the same conditions and direction of the story but changing the setting and language, we still recognise and identify Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his characteristic ‘vaulting ambition’:
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
Macbeth is without a doubt my favourite adaptation of the four and some retellings work better than others, but all are worth a watch. You can purchase the DVD online, and you can watch some clips (or even the whole thing) on YouTube.