I've seen over half a dozen Macbeths over the course of my career. We're going to have Romeo and Juliet running off-Broadway the same time it is running on Broadway. I'm often asked: Why? Yes, they are Shakespeare classics. But do people really want to see them again and again? Do producers think they will sell just because they are Shakespeare? I think there are two big reasons beyond "they are good." And these two reasons I am listing below apply to more than just Shakespeare.
First, people have this need to reinvent these shows. This fall St. Ann's Warehouse is hosting an import of Julius Caesar that is set in a women's prison. (So excited.) Last season, New York hosted two very different one-man Macbeths. We've seen Shakespeare set in all different time periods, to all different types of music. When I was in college, my friends tried to drag me to a backwards Macbeth with puppets.
Some reinventions do not include a new setting or a change of actor-to-character ratios. These are about a director and a star (or stars) working together to make a possibly small change to delivery, which often as a huge impact on the play and its meaning. Jude Law's Hamlet was not introspective, but rather frenetic. Law and director Michael Grandage made a decision to show an overtly angry Dane, which changed many of the line readings and therefore the play as a whole. Last season I wrote about how having a stronger George and a less histrionic Martha completely transformed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I feel the same way about this season's The Glass Menagerie (produced by two of the same lead producers, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel). Cherry Jones offers a much more grounded, protective Amanda; the rest of the Wingfield clan also have added warmth to their performances. I've seen this play multiple times, but never like this. That's reinvention. It's done without a nouveau concept, but it is nonetheless effective. (Go see this Glass Menagerie, it's amazing.)
Second, actors in general -- famous ones too -- grow up wanting to play these parts. We've all read countless interviews where Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Julius Caeser, Iago, Henry V, Romeo, Juliet, etc. are named as dream roles. These are plays we all read in school. These are plays actors recite monologues from. The roles are familiar and yet open to interpretation. Shakespeare has the benefit of indoctrination of the young. The same goes for other classic plays. A Raisin in the Sun anyone?
Of course, none of these are new theories. I am writing nothing you don't all know. Yet every few years, in the face of the glut of such offerings, the same questions abound. Charles Isherwood had a whole conversation with himself about "his" reluctance to see so many of these productions. But we do. Actors keep wanting to do them and we go, hoping to see something new in plays we know so well.
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