How to rewrite Shakespeare
And still respect yourself in the morning
A few months ago, I got a call from a friend in Copenhagen. He wanted to know, Would I like to rewrite Hamlet?
This sounded like a trick question. "Tell me more," I said.
It was complicated. Troels explained that every year, Shakespeare's work is celebrated at Kronborg Castle - Hamlet's (actual) castle. Look at that place:
Theater companies have been performing Hamlet at the castle since 1816. The BBC explains: "Many of the world’s most highly acclaimed actors have breathed life into Shakespeare’s immortal characters [at Kronborg], including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Michael Caine, and Jude Law."
Here's Sir Olivier now, emoting his face off on the castle grounds:
2016 marks the 200th anniversary of this performance tradition, as well as the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. For this anniversary, they wanted to try something new, and they needed a writer for the job. Was I interested?
I was both interested and confused. "Tell me more," I said.
Their idea was to take a section of Hamlet and turn it into an interactive performance. The audience would engage with the performers, who would then interact with actors wearing mocap suits performing behind a green screen. It would be part theater, part choreography, part puppet show. After the Danish debut, the production would then travel around the world, for performances in front of non-English-speaking audiences.
They needed a scriptwriter with a background in interactive storytelling that could take the original text, strip out the language, and transform the piece into a wordless, interactive performance.
Was I interested?
I said, "I'll do it."
And then I looked up and thought,
How in the world was I going to take Shakespeare's words away and still do justice to the work?
No writer has done more to shape the English language than Shakespeare. He introduced over 1700 new words into our vocabulary. He perfected blank verse. He has influenced the work of poets and playwrights for centuries. Listen to Sir Ian McKellen's analysis of Macbeth (his voice sounds EXACTLY the same - it's Gandalf):
The flip side, of course, is that most people find Shakespeare's language dense. Impenetrable. Daunting. That's why comic books like this one exist:
Shakespeare gave us so many insights into human nature. He understood us, at the deepest level. We, however, struggle to understand him. Maybe that is because most of us had to read his works in high school, against our will, and have never seen the work the way it's meant to be seen -- performed, on stage.
Watch this trailer for Benedict Cumberbatch's recent staging of Hamlet, and see those words take on a new life:
Could we bring Hamlet's story to life -- without words?
We were about to find out.
Next week: the rewriting process begins.
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