As You Like It
Over the weekend I attended a production of King Lear at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and was struck by Will's endless malleability. He is all things to all people, and in this case, bent obligingly to an interpretation of Lear's usurpers as wiseguy goombahs, pretenders to the throne who bow and scrape with one hand resting on a shiv. It's so head-smackingly obvious, but still, it's by no means a definitive interpretation. In fact, it's pretty clear that unlike the man who, "in his time plays many parts," Shakespeare keeps on evolving long after his time. As long as the English language appears onstage, I doubt a definitive Shakespeare production will ever emerge. Drop him anywhere in the last half-millennium--or heck, just throw a dart at any decade in the 20th century--and somehow he works.
I'm well aware this isn't an original observation, but I dunno, I guess every year I enter Shakespeare season filled with some vestigial dread of bad Elizabethan impersonators and iambic pentameter endurance tests, and each year someone shifts the perspective just enough to allow the excitement of rediscovery to come flooding back. There are clunkers in his canon, it's true, but they're so rarely produced that when they do pop up it's always a treat to see them come to life outside of the printed page.
I don't know why other playwrights haven't lent themselves to so much subjective interpretation. Despite Vanya's arrival on 42nd Street, Chekov is usually presented in context. Marlowe doesn't have any companies devoted to his works (at least none that I know of). And though the Greeks often get a makeover, it's not one Greek and one play's original text reimagined a dozen different ways every summer across the country.
Inept Shakespeare productions can ruin you for life--my father-in-law was so scarred by compulsory elementary school viewings of subpar productions he refuses to give the man another chance. And even loyalists have to wonder how many versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream it takes until they finally reach the tipping point?
Well, here's the answer: it only takes a couple of bad ones. But when a director comes along to patch some new element in the culture to the precise spot where the script has become worn, the whole thing is so magical again you can almost see the fireflies.
PSF's Pulp Fiction Lear served as a literal reminder that the bard was the straight-up O.G. And I'm already looking forward to seeing what insights Ian McKellan's naked Lear will, ahem, reveal.