|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Poor Shakespeare has been getting a good battering again. In fact, no sooner does an anti-Shakespearean campaign subside than a new one starts. The current one, giving rise to many a heated argument among teachers and academics, is vehement.
The issue centres around one important question: why is it that present-day school children are bored by the Bard? And, given that they are, why should they have him? In the latest issue of the Independent's Education Supplement, Susan Bassnet, a professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick, challenges Shakespeare. Many modern productions of Shakespeare, her argument goes, are unintelligent. The actors, she claims, cannot understand the words; they compensate for their ignorance with silly antics. At the same time the directors, themselves having trouble with the texts, resort to extravagant gimmicks, hiring expensive, pretentious designers to make their productions "relevant" and "meaningful."
Bassnet goes on to say that when in doubt, directors "insert a dance or a procession." Boredom and Shakespeare, she asserts, "go increasingly hand in hand," a rather harsh assessment. Yet the professor has even harsher things to say. Why bother with Shakespeare at all? she asks. Why not relegate him, along with Chaucer and the dozens of other "Great unreads" of the English canon, to the dusty shelves of deserted libraries? "Why are we still so obsessed with Shakespeare that we insist on boring teenagers out of their minds with plays in a language they find foreign?"
The problem with Shakespeare, Bassnet believes, is primarily one of language. The Bard's tongue has become obsolete, she insists. His jokes are meaningless and his witticisms seldom hit their targets. What is needed, she concludes, are good English translators to take Shakespeare in hand and liberate him for a new generation. There is, she says, a need to throw away once and for all the outdated and untrue notion that everyone can understand Shakespeare. Admitting that some of his plays, especially the tragedies, are more accessible than others, Bassnet insists that the problem is with the comedies. A good English translation must be commissioned in order "to save the Bard from extinction."
But this is not all. While Bassnet rages on, a revolution is going on at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Company is landmark of English cultural life and no visitor should miss the opportunity to attend at least one performance in Stratford. Now the company seems to be undergoing major changes, described by John Peter in the Sunday Times Culture Review as "a combination of arrogance and secretiveness" that has left the RSC in turmoil. At the root of the crisis, Peter suggests, is the company's director, Adrian Noble. His plans for change aim at seeking larger and younger audiences and adopting a more flexible system of contracts for artists. Another aspect of change aims at giving the company more mobility, ridding it of what Noble describes as "the tyranny of buildings," so that performances may go beyond Stratford and the Barbican Centre in London. Productions are planned to open in the West End and even abroad. Several RSC troupes, it is planned, will be on tour simultaneously. This will result in fewer productions in Stratford. What has caused the furore, however, is that stage staff there will inevitably be made redundant.
The driving force of change, in other words, is commercialisation, hence the question asked by a number of writers: is the RSC a subsidised theatre, a national asset, or a global business conglomerate mistakenly funded by the state?
The RSC, as Peter notes, "does not compete with the National or the Royal Exchange in Manchester, still less with the Comedie Francaise or the Lincoln Centre, in the way Unilever competes with ICI. It has a specific artistic agenda, dominated by Shakespeare and the English classics.
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