Whose Shakespeare

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Guest Blog from Andrew Cowie:

I am delivering a series of schools workshops on Romeo And Juliet at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust so I was glad to finally catch up with Rupert Goold’s production at the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre which Michael Billington described as ‘the most volatile and exciting Romeo and Juliet I have seen in five decades.’

Plays acquire standard interpretations and it’s a brave and imaginative director who can break through the accretion of performance history and rediscover the text. Just as post-war Hamlets got stuck in a Freudian rut and The Tempest in post-colonial guilt, the standard reading of Romeo And Juliet is to play it as a metaphor for social intolerance in which the Montagues and Capulets represent opposing groups defined by ethnicity, class or other identifier. This interpretation is based on Marxist critical theory which dominated British theatre in the 1960s and 70s and it shows the lovers as denied free will by the conditions into which they are born.

But Goold’s production takes its cue from the first line of the play which tells us Romeo And Juliet is about ‘Two households, both alike…’ There is no real difference between the Montagues and Capulets, the argument is an ‘ancient grudge’ and whatever it was about is forgotten at the end. Goold turns the story from a conflict between opposing families based on social divisions into one between individuals, the characters of Romeo and Juliet themselves, and the rest of the world emphasised by dressing Romeo and Juliet in a different period from everyone else in the cast. By focussing on the lovers’ personal narrative Goold shifts the production away from Marxist collectivism to something closer to Conservative individualism.

Neil Bartlett did something similar in 2008  so the identical families/alienated children view of Romeo And Juliet seems to be a product of our times reflecting the blurring of traditional Left/Right politics and highlighting instead the individual’s relationship with the state. British theatre has an historical left of centre bias so a new angle is welcome, if only to rattle the cages of old-fashioned lefties like me. But if left wing politics is in decline it’s worth asking what is replacing it.

The Telegraph newspaper noted about an earlier controversy concerning a production of Romeo And Juliet, ‘There is a danger [though] that Shakespeare can be hijacked, by both Left and Right. Far from being an irrelevant ‘dead white male’, as the politically correct tend to dismiss him, his plays constantly reflect current events, and his views can be distorted into representing almost any point of view.’

Rupert Goold graduated from Cambridge University as did David Farr, who directed  King Lear and The Winter’s Tale. Every artistic director of the National Theatre since Olivier has been a Cambridge graduate as is Sam Mendes (former Donmar Warehouse artistic Director) and Dominic Dromgoole, now running The Globe in London. Cambridge graduates comprise a new British theatre establishment and there is a risk that, however gifted they are, they cannot represent the full range of artistic, social and political expression in the countryRomeo And Juliet is a stunning show and I look forward to seeing what Rupert Goold does next but I also look forward to hearing some new voices at the RSC next season.


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Interesting question Richard. I don’t know why Cambridge has become the preferred university for senior arts jobs but my point is that as the country become more socially diverse our political and cultural leadership is less so. I’ve nothing against Cambridge graduates in general or Rupert Goold in particular but in education we are always fighting the perception that Shakespeare is posh theatre for posh people so it would be nice to see a wide range of responses to the plays from, ideally, a wider catchment.

  • http://rbc-in-md.blogspot.com/ Richard Baldwin Cook

    Very interesting and informative piece. Probably, no school ought to dominate with its graduates, an important directorial post. But do we assume Cambridge takes a cookie-cutter approach “since Olivier” in turning out its grads. This so?

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