Theatre seems to have a constant loop of classic plays being shown, with our love of Shakespeare never wavering. But with these stories being told a hundred times over, is it possible for a theatre-maker to take the play and tell us something new?
Shakespeare is usually a person’s first introduction to theatre when you find yourself frantically learning quotes for tomorrow’s English Literature exam. But for many theatre-makers, the love (or occasional hatred) for Shakespeare and other classics doesn’t end there. Some writers look beyond restaging to find ways to take existing classics and turn them into something new.
Reinventing a classic could mean taking a piece and using the exact same dialogue but staging it in a new and exciting way – this is a common director-led approach. For writers, it could mean translating the original story into the playwright’s specific language; or it could even mean just using the classic idea as a springboard for an entirely new play. But for any new interpretation, the question is the same: how do you reinvent a classic play while telling your own story?
As a playwright who has only dealt with new work, I thought it best to turn to some experts for advice in answering this question.
One such expert is Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir, the co-adaptor and director of a one-woman show of Richard III that was recently shown at the Hope Theatre.
He pointed out just how important it is to look at what’s happening in the world when choosing which classic you want to engage with. Sigfusdottir noted that we return to certain plays again and again, simply because they feel relevant once more, meaning a modern audience will connect with them in (hopefully) a new way.
“A financial crash puts light on how we treat our fellow humans when they suddenly run out of money, [so] we stage Timon of Athens. If a discussion is ongoing about domestic violence in our society, we might return to Taming of the Shrew.
“When we are exposed to a war, with non-stopping violence on both sides, we might find Romeo and Juliet incredibly relevant. I think we as theatre makers have to have a current context in mind for a classical work to hit home with an audience.”
Ignace Cornelissen is another theatre-maker who’s no stranger to re-inventing classics. His adaptation of Othello for a younger audience will premiere at the Unicorn Theatre next year, and they have previous produced three other plays by Cornelissen based on Shakespeare.
With having returned to Shakespeare’s work so much, yet constantly finding new ways to tell these stories, I asked Cornelissen: how do you get your own voice across in a play that’s a retelling of someone else’s work?
“The original material is not sacred. It is the basis of an inspiration, but the important impetus in the creation of the new piece is your own feelings and imagination. The classical text you use is merely a springboard for a new piece of art,” Cornelissen says.
He adds, “It’s important for a playwright interested in adapting the classics to have a deep affinity or love for the original material.
“Secondly, you have to be sure that the themes you are interested in as an artist are there in the original. You borrow, as it were, a story and characters from an existing play and you get to work on the creation of something new.”
Sigfusdottir agrees with Cornlissen about the importance in loving the text you choose to re-interpret.
“Know why you have chosen this particular classic as a vehicle for the story you want to tell. What elements within it are of particular interest to you? What connotations does the classic evoke in the audiences’ minds already?
“How can you use that to your advantage? Do you want to change their minds about something in particular within this story? Why? How do you best achieve this? And the classic question, why this story now?”
If you can answer all of those questions, you’re well on your way to producing a compelling interpretation of a classic. Whether you’re reimagining Shakespeare or creating an original piece of new writing, the focus is still the same: you have to discover how the story connects to you and to other people today, and hopefully it will speak to your audience enough to get them into the theatre.
1 thought on “How to reinvent a classic play while telling your own story”
Since Shakespeare himself and the great Greek playwrights often used stories they heard from others, our own retellings or reinventions should seem not just acceptable, but an inherent and invaluable central element of living theatre.
You offer very good advice here, Jennifer. For the sake of discussion, I am not sure that I agree with Ignace Cornelissen that the themes that interest us should be in the original. That is because our own contemporary social and personal consciousness (about feminism, autocracy, or race, for example) can retell received stories and plots with utterly new themes and revelations.
Unfortunately I am stalled in writing an adaptation of a particular Euripides play, but I immensely enjoyed retelling the Book of Job from his wife’s perspective in a long-poem book (And Job Lies in the Feedlot Where He Fell). I think every playwright should try at least one adaptation of some work of significance to the playwright.