Justin Murray, 25 January 2015

By reworking Classical texts we build bridges to and from the past. Simultaneously

talking about now and then. By resetting The Merchant Of Venice in Las Vegas we

make some of the racial issues more recognisable, accessible. Sometimes a ‘hook in’

at least is nice, to usher an audience gently into the past. An example: a production of

Bartholemew Fayre where the opening prologue is replaced by a techie trying to fix a


But (a challenge) surely we don’t want to talk down to the audience? If we make

everything exactly like their lives, they have no legwork (or synapse-work) left to do -

maybe if we leave Elizabethan plays in the past we let people make connections for


It depends (a response) on what you want. Creative choices (in this matter, as any

other) are a composite of a) our instincts and fascinations as artists, and b) what will

‘land’ for an audience, what will ‘tell’ our story to others, make people feel what we feel

in response to these texts. Example: Frantic Assembly’s Othello - set in an English

pub, very close to home. Highly accessible, audiences (especially school kids) love it.

A further example: a production of Macbeth which starts period, ‘classical’ style, then

gradually breaks down and ‘contemporises’ itself - actors wearing sweatpants under

period costume. Works much better on people who have already seen the play.

Different choices make you reflect on the original source material in totally different


The conversation moves over to Greek tragedy. The thought is expressed that you

need to do a lot of work to make sense of tragedy to a modern audience. Several

welcome challenges. No, but tragedy is universal! People will connect with it! A

counter. No no, universals alone are not enough! Medea sitting onstage bemoaning

the fate of women in the abstract isn’t interesting unless it’s fleshed out with some

particularity, some comprehensible context. An impasse. Hm.

‘Why set The Cherry Orchard in the 70s? What do you gain?’ In the instance being

referred to (Katie Mitchell’s Young Vic production) it didn’t have a great deal of obvious

effect at all (other than allowing a nice way to play the intrusion moment by the

Passer-By). Maybe when we reset classics, our aim is to be as unobtrusive as

possible. At least, we don’t want to tack things on top of old texts as conceits, or

conceptual overlays. That’s important. But that production didn’t just involve resetting -

there was rewriting as well. Would Chekhov have preferred it if we treated his words

as they were written, or reworked them to have the same effect as they did originally?


Culturally we move on, understand things in new ways. When we look back on

something it’s not going to be the same as when it first came out. This forces us to

change things, do things differently. It’s important, we also agree, to ask ‘what if’ of a

text - pull something out to address and re-evaluate, tie it in, don’t plonk it on top.(eg.

Headlong’s production of Romeo & Juliet which focused on the characters’ experience

of the story and its possibilities).


contemporary, Theatre, classics, Contemporary, Chekhov, DandD10, shakespeare,

chekhov, THEATRE, greek, tragedy, Shakespeare, theatre