Is the first always the best?
OK, before your minds go to all sorts of unlikely places, I’ll narrow down what I’m talking about. Does the first time you see a show (or a film or TV adaptation) leave you with an indelible impression – right or wrong – of what the characters are like?
That’s certainly the narrative I was brought up with, and why I generally try to always read the book before watching the telly or seeing the film*. Although I must admit with Shakespeare I have generally taken the opposing view that I won’t struggle through the footnotes and instead I’ll let the actors do the hard work for me. It’s true what they say – he is much easier to watch than to read…
Strangely enough, though, it strikes me that so far I haven’t seen much I would regard as definitive. Even those plays I haven’t seen before, I can imagine that lines could be said very differently. I don’t think it’s the quality of what I’ve seen – the National Theatre’s King Lear left me absolutely drained, for example, and I still like to play back bits of Measure for Measure at the Globe. Perhaps time will tell a different story, and in years to come I’ll join the ranks of commentators who like to talk about how no-one is as good as some star was twenty-five years ago, before they were famous**. But – not yet.
It’s not just stage productions, it’s films too. Of course – of course – some part of my heart will always belong to Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick (even as I avidly watch EVERY SINGLE OTHER PRODUCTION EVER). Some minor roles come close to perfection – Pete Postlethwaite’s Friar Lawrence in Romeo + Juliet, Derek Jacobi as the Chorus in Henry V. But in general – no. Which makes me wonder – is it the staging, or the writing?
I suspect it is the latter. Shakespeare’s writing is so full of angles and layers that each member of the audience can find their own interpretation, their own story – and it probably changes every time they come back to the play***. It must also make it hard to direct an entirely consistent version when your characters can’t be relied upon to stay in character in the script. And that’s leaving aside the mood changes you find in the “problem plays”…
Perhaps it’s one of the reasons that Shakespearean adaptions can manage to be more consistent in vision – they find it much easier to cut the extraneous plot-devices. Thus it is that West Side Story dispenses with Rosalind, that She’s The Man cuts out Malvolio, even that Richard III cuts out Queen Margaret. And it’s true that a little part of me**** will be very disappointed if Petruchio and Katerina aren’t like Patrick and Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You. And even more of me who knows that Romeo will never be as pure and hopeful as Eddie Redmayne’s Tony in West Side Story.
I’d be interested to know your views. Are there any Shakespeare productions – or indeed any other productions – you regard as definitive? Or any individual performances in otherwise incomplete productions? What should I be seeking out, and what am I going to regret never having seen?
* It’s not like that always works in any case – I mean Alan Rickman was so wrong yet so good as Severus Snape that even JK Rowling started writing speeches with him in mind.
** I certainly hope so. I love the idea Lyn Gardner put forward in this article http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2016/may/16/football-theatre-the-curve-leicester of following a theatre company like you would follow a football club.
*** Every time I see Coriolanus I’m struck by the public voting and the demagoguery of the tribunes – and yet no-one has staged me the Rome’s Got Talent version I see so clearly in my head!
**** OK a large part of me. A massive part of me, in fact.