I feel a certain sympathy for Richard Eyre. The former director of the National Theatre was asked at a literary festival about alterations made to the text of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, in a recent RSC production that cast the actor Kathryn Hunter in the title role. His response – that to change “man” to “woman”, for example, fundamentally changed the rhythm of the play’s iambic pentameter, and should, therefore, be avoided – was appropriately technical. But, unsurprisingly, reports focused not on what a disruption to iambic pentameter might imply, but on Eyre’s more broadly applicable words: “The plays are there. Do the plays. You can do anything with them. Productions are like drawing on sand, the tide comes in. Do the plays. Don’t rework it.”
Hmmm. My benefit-of-the-doubt-o-meter twitches slightly here; not least because if each new production is a line in the sand merely waiting to be washed over, wouldn’t that be a greater inducement to experiment? But primarily because we know that Shakespeare’s works were themselves new versions of old stories, and because we have the evidence of their resilience in front of us – in the continuing flow of adaptations and staging around the world.
But is Eyre correct about the central importance of textual rhythm, and about the dangers of changing it? How do we determine what can be changed and what cannot? Who is the arbiter?
In practical terms, nobody. The plays are out of copyright and can be read or performed anywhere, by anybody, in whatever manner they prefer. And outside the scholarly world and the world of the theatre professional, those who can assess how greatly apparently small changes – in the case of changing man to woman, a single syllable – affect how those lines land and what they can carry, are a pretty small bunch. The thought of theatregoers emerging into the stilly night and saying to one another, “If I’d known there was going to be an extra foot in Act III I’d have stayed at home,” is an unlikely one.
And yet we all know that language has rhythm and that it has a profound effect on how we speak and how we listen; to reject that idea simply because it comes from the mouth of a ritzy theatre director comes dangerously close to not trusting experts. Eyre may be quite correct to say that the metre of the line is, essentially, its DNA; change the metre and you change the line.
That is why Shakespeare’s lines have entered our common language like no other playwright’s before or since; why we understand that the quality of mercy is not strained, why tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time”. Where Shakespeare departs from his chosen metre is as important as where he sticks to it; and the rhythm is as integral to his empathetic insight into the human psyche as the vocabulary he chooses.
But the plays are not simply texts. They are also works of performance, designed to be adapted by individual human voices, by pitch and timbre, by the interplay of spoken words and physical action. Naturally, it becomes more complicated. Most of us are ill-equipped to conduct a detailed argument about prosody, but nearly all of us are happy to weigh in on whether we think a hero can become a heroine; whether a role that has been played for hundreds of years by a white person can be played by a black or Asian actor; whether a piece of casting can change our view of what bodies we associate with certain characters.
This time last year, I sat at the Globe watching Michelle Terry take on the role of Hamlet. But it was Shubham Saraf’s appearance as Ophelia that provided the real jolt. A man, an Asian man, playing a young woman who is effectively gaslit to the point of suicide by Hamlet; a character whose default image is surely John Everett Millais’s painting of her floating serenely, white, pale, delicate – dead – among the flowers and reeds of the dark river. In that context, it is hard to see Ophelia as anything other than female, almost luminous, terrifyingly delicate. Not dark, nor masculine.
That dislocation ended up being one of the most powerful elements of the production, the thing that slowed the mind ranging ahead to the next familiar scene or speech, that brought it back to who Ophelia was time and again. And it underlined what should be an evident truth: that consciously widening a work of art’s capacity is not an act of generosity towards those now included – female actors, actors of colour, differently bodied actors – but an act of fidelity towards the work itself.
• Alex Clark is a feature writer