07/02/2013 09:18 am ET

Is It OK To Rewrite Classic Plays?

The Guardian

Do we need to rewrite the classics? Increasingly, people seem to think so. The latest news is that Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler are among the novelists who have signed up to a project involving "prose retellings" of Shakespeare's plays. Actually, I have no problem with that, since the original works are in constant revival. Where I get a bit shirty is when rare Elizabethan and Jacobean plays – which we hardly ever see on stage – are adapted on the grounds of their supposed "difficulty". There's a ripe example at Stratford-on-Avon right now, where Thomas Middleton's A Mad World My Masters has been "edited" by Sean Foley and Phil Porter on the dubious assumption that modern audiences are too dumb to understand it.

Foley and Porter keep the basic story but change many of the names, set the action in 1956 and cut or rewrite the text. But are the name-changes really necessary? Middleton creates the wonderful character of an insanely jealous husband called Master Short-Rod Harebrain. By dubbing him Mr Littledick, Foley and Porter give us only half the original joke. In trimming the text, they also rob it of much of its texture.