I started researching Filter Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Twelfth Night, which Duke Performances presents this weekend, by watching the ten-minute trailer on YouTube. It's quite entertaining. It devotes its first minute to a thorough, comic milking of the famous opening line ("If music be the food of love ..."). It captures the live feel of the madcap, music-driven show, which was conceived by a company of theater friends from college, and it tidily unfolds most of the plot.
The "radically cut, fast-paced" staging, as Filter describes it, is about ninety minutes long, but if it's possible to get the whole thing enjoyably done in ten, why an additional eighty? Why see the play at all, actually—and is the play even what we're seeing? Is a half-length Twelfth Night really Twelfth Night? And does it matter if it is—or isn't?
If all of this sounds familiar, it's because four years ago, Duke Performances presented another condensed, madcap, music-driven Shakespeare comedy created by college theater friends whose company name is a six-letter word starting with F (Cymbeline, Fiasco). How different is Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night, really? Most of Shakespeare, especially the comedies, is essentially interchangeable: a handful of famous scenes pried out of hours of dense, difficult, obsolete dramaturgy.
In our fifth century of doing Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, one wonders if we have finally squeezed his ideas dry, reducing him to some kind of theatrical click bait. This weekend, Carolina Ballet opens its Spring Shakespeare Festival with Love Speaks, in which his sonnets are set to Baroque music, plus just the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Next up is a "dance meditation" on The Tempest.
Maybe, in the era of Tinder and Twitter, Spotify and Auto-Tune, SportsCenter and sous vide, this is fine: Shakespeare not as theater so much as infinitely remixed content. Danced Shakespeare, mashed-up Shakespeare, shrunken Shakespeare. Twelfth Night in twelve minutes. Cymbeline in a thimble. The Tempest in tutus.
There are, perhaps, reasons to worry about this trend (and Tinder, and Auto-Tune), but the most boring Shakespeare productions are the ones that just do the whole play, solemnly, in doublets. They're like three hours of church in a foreign language. Nothing about Shakespeare comes naturally to us. We must resort to artifice. In order for Shakespeare to mean something, we have to do something to Shakespeare—or let him do something to us.
The first full-length play I ever wrote transposed Hamlet onto a truck stop. That gave my grungy diner-tragedy a philosophical spookiness I couldn't have created myself, along with murderous intensity. A few years ago, I was commissioned to raid Timon of Athens for a found-text script about the Vorticist art movement, co-founded by Ezra Pound. I'd already spent three years trying futilely to dramatize Pound. Three weeks of grafting him onto Timon made Pound's protean character clear: lordly benevolence undone by fatuity and flattery, finally driven to madness and misanthropy.
We may not hear our language in Shakespeare's, or see our rooms and cities in his castles and forests. But he explains our world to us through his stories and characters—and, especially, in the ways we stage his plays. Filter Theatre and Carolina Ballet may or may not reveal new things about his works. No matter; go and see. The greatness of Shakespeare is that every time we put him onstage, he reveals the way we see him, and thus the way we see.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shake it up"