Where Does Shakespeare Belong within Modern Society?

Lewis Baird 

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

As an actor, there is one playwright that I love more than any others. And that playwright is William Shakespeare, his work is simply stunning and it feels like it has been purely written for actors. 

I’m sure many of our readers have experienced an audition where they have had to perform a monologue to either get a part within a play/musical or even get a place within drama school. One of my go to monologues, which I experiment with regularly is, Launcealot Gobbo’s monologue from 'The Merchant of Venice'. I first used it back in 2014, since then I have used it time and time again. The thing is, each time I perform it, I try so many different things, this is mostly because of the dialogue and the fact that Shakespeare’s writing is perfect for you to use the techniques you have learned to perform this classical piece suitably for a more contemporary audience. 

Within Scotland, also probably within a majority of the United Kingdom plus perhaps some parts of the USA, Shakespeare’s work is being perceived as complex, boring and overused. This is mainly because within school, children/teenagers are being taught Shakespeare in a pretty boring way. Luckily in my case, my English teacher was very enthusiastic about Shakespeare and loved teaching us about Hamlet the Dane. This has obviously helped give me a positive outlook on William Shakespeare’s work. However, Shakespeare is not being appreciated because children and teenagers have previously felt forced to enjoy or dissect his work therefore if they do go on to study acting, they stay clear of this work as they had such a poor experience of Shakespeare originally. 

There are also people who genuinely just don’t have any interest in performing Shakespeare or enjoy his work. Which is fair enough. However, I feel anyone who has had a bad experience in encountering Shakespeare for the first time should give him a second chance, especially if you are an actor or a performer, as his work genuinely is brilliant for performing. As the way his scripts are written, they are open to interpretation, which really does help us as actors to be more creative and question the character’s situation.

Also the language they are written in is simply stunning. People may find it complex but honestly if you sit and read through the play you will eventually understand exactly what is happening. It is really good to have Shakespearian language still active within theatre, especially through the perspective of younger actors and directors. I really don’t want to see a future where Shakespeare is hardly used by our younger generation.

I have also noticed that people aren’t getting excited about new productions of Shakespeare’s work anymore. The Royal Shakespeare Company in the United Kingdom are still going strong and are definitely the world’s best Shakespeare producers, however, I have seen a decline in interest and enthusiasm. One of the things we do not see is a Shakespeare play having a permanent residence in Broadway or the west end (no 'The Lion King' does not count). Perhaps we need theatre companies to make productions of Shakespeare which they expect to be a more permanent production rather than just a seasonal run. If someone manages to pull off a stunning, creative production of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, then it should deserve to last longer than 4-8 weeks.

One of the latest Shakespeare productions I am looking forward to seeing is the National Theatre’s production of 'Twelfth Night'. It is being shown in cinemas around the UK as part of National Theatre live, which is aimed at making the company’s theatre productions more accessible not only for people out with London but people who cannot afford theatre ticket prices. Tasmin Greig stars as Malvolia and Simon Godwin directs. This production seems fresh and different. I cannot wait to see if it is successful and also hope that it reaches an audience that usually wouldn’t associate themselves with theatre or Shakespeare.

For any reader who really isn’t that keen on the playwright and would like to see some productions of his work that I would recommend, then look no further than RSC’s production of ‘Hamlet’. Starring David Tennant with Patrick Stewart, also directed by Gregory Doran, this production was filmed gloriously for us to watch time and time again. It’s a contemporized take on this brilliant story about the young prince whose father has been killed, his uncle has taken Hamlet’s mother’s heart and the crown. David Tennant is stunningly suited as the young price and holds the audience in the palm of his hands for the full 3 hours. Another notably stunning film production of 'Hamlet' is directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, seriously check it out, it’s brilliant. There is so many film/TV adaptations of Shakespeare’s work to mention, however, a recent one which is also notable is BBC’s production of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' which is adapted by Russell T. Davies, starring Matt Lucas, John Hannah, Richard Wilson, Nonso Anozie, Maxine Peake and Bernard Cribbins. This brilliant production is directed by David Kerr and is possibly one of the best films BBC have produced. All of these are brilliant adaptions of Shakespeare’s work which really are brilliant introductions to how enjoyable William Shakespeare’s work can be.

Of course the best place for you to enjoy the work of the poet, sonnet and playwright is the theatre. Just hop on the internet, search your area and see if any Shakespeare plays are being performed nearby, they are brilliant pieces of theatre.

And if you’re an actor looking for monologues or duologues which are different and open to interpretation, buy yourself the complete works of William Shakespeare (like myself) and go crazy. It’s brilliant to use his work, plus if you are going out into the industry, some of the best actors are those who seamlessly tackle Shakespeare.

Photo: Romeo and Juliet at Garrick Theatre, London