In fact, both the Hamlets—Ian McKellen in Windsor and Cush Jumbo at the Young Vic—are previously announced rescheduled productions, and I totally understand the desire for theatres to go ahead with them. Ticket holders will probably be keen too. Tickets for the Cush Jumbo Hamlet sold out long before the pandemic was a thing.
But I see your argument, Rosalind, despite the fact you are named after one of Shakespeare’s most engaging heroines. When the last year has squeezed opportunity for so many playwrights and theatremakers of all kinds, one of the things that theatre might think about is programming more new work rather than giving stage space to Shakespeare and other playwrights in the classical canon. Playwrights who are, of course, predominantly male, almost entirely white, and very dead and probably not in urgent need of the income that the UK’s theatre freelancers so desperately need .
Listen, I think there is a place for Shakespeare and indeed other classical plays – unlike Samuel Pepys, who was not a big Shakespeare fan, dubbing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life,” or Leo Tolstoy who definitely didn’t rate King Lear, rejecting its “mirthless jokes,” and “wild ravings”. It all demands on how you stage them (and cast them), whether you treat them like corpses or breathe new life into them. Unless it’s the latter, surely there’s no point?
But maybe exceptional times also demand exceptional and unprecedented responses. As theatres start to open their doors, one of the concerns is whether we are going to see a log jam of work that makes last week’s Suez Canal blockage look pretty minor. Many theatres are already committed to playwrights and productions that were cancelled or postponed because of the pandemic and that will make some schedules look very tight well into 2022. It's also likely that theatres will be very strapped for cash as they move forward, and will produce much less than they have in the past.
Where does that leave new work, particularly new work by less well- known artists, work which is frequently seen to be more of a risk by theatres than classic plays that are more of a box office draw? It’s a tricky dilemma for theatres at a time when they will be so desperately in need of income. But if theatre can’t or won’t take risks, it is putting its own future at stake. So many talented artists of all kinds are currently leaving theatre because they have had little or no income for the last year and don’t see much hope of that changing. Those who hold programming power need to recognise that and act on it. Even the RSC could usefully shift the balance of its programming for a short while.
So, I reckon there is an argument that at this exceptional moment that maybe we should indeed back pedal on the classics for a couple of years, and go full throttle on new work. Shakespeare and the classics won’t go away. If they have survived the last few centuries, they are not going to suffer if they're not produced that much for a short period. Who knows, when directors return to them, maybe they will see them so completely afresh and through new eyes so the plays will once again be a revelation to us all. That would be a win for everyone.
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