David Pearce, Freedom of Narrative

October 10, 2011 in Essay

David Pearce is an actor and producer in The Propaganda Company theatre group, an ensemble of artists working and experimenting with performance and modern technology to express current issues and contemporary society. His article draws on this experience to discuss a connection between the freedom of discourse on the internet and the freedoms of contemporary theatre’s relation to tradition; it is published here under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence.

The internet and its multitudinous voices regularly remind me of that legendary property, that ethereal, mythic status held by Shakespeare and his works. In the online community, stories are borrowed from every orifice, from every nook and cranny on the information superhighway. Borrowed, acquired, improved, weakened and every other operation under the sun. There is now, at our fingertips, a vast, unprecedented repository of information, of both fact and fiction, that we draw upon for inspiration, and, more specifically, make metatheatrical comment on in contemporary performance (see the work of Rimini Protokoll for an example). The universal archive of the internet is enriched with such mammoth investment from all the peoples of the world that what I call freedom of narrative could not help but be born out of it. This freedom is rooted in the online ability to interpret, to adapt, and to debate every story, every picture and every single syllable of a sound bite; it is the internet’s most wondrous feature. No longer are we so tightly bound to a corporate or state perspective on events, should they have chosen to report them at all. Naturally bias and prejudice are is still rife, but there are, however, simply so many reputable bloggers, so many mobile phone recordings of live events and so many grassroots reporters that stories can no longer be easily quashed.

This free narrative that we discover on the internet pervades the best of contemporary performance on offer today, as evidenced by the latest rise of verbatim theatre, its renaissance due to the ease with which broad sample data can now be obtained. My troupe,The Propaganda Company decided that we should examine this multiple perspective phenomenon for our next show, by utilising one of the most popular texts in the theatrical canon. Enter Lear.

A scholarly chap once said of our King Lear script that we had “barbarized” the text. I can understand his view: our text comprises only a third of the original’s lines, is encompassed in a one act structure of thirteen scenes and has no Edgar, no Cordelia and even fewer attendants. Our play is, of course, far from being the unique recipient of such accusations, and many other contemporary reworkings of the Bard’s portfolio suffer opprobrium for choosing to highlight a small moment or issue and then magnify it through the phenomenon of multiple perspectives. To be honest, I would have to say that I’ve witnessed some dreadful productions that aim to do just that, providing ample evidence for those thinking it better to leave well enough alone when dealing with a Shakespeare work.

Nevertheless, a blanket disapproval of modernisation, contemporising or whatever you’d like to call it simply misses both the importance of contemporary, internet-inspired, polyphonous retellings and, I’d argue also, the joyful breadth of the Bard’s original works. The latter, after all, themselves commented with varied levels of success and audacity on the issues that permeated Shakespeare’s own society and continued, with the aid of adaptation, to comment on other cultures from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. This was one of the reasons for us selecting King Lear: the play was infamously altered in 1681 by Nahum Tate to create a happier, pacified ending; Tate’s version then ran for over 200 years and appeared in Johnson’s Shakespeare folio. This Restoration adaptation’s durability suggests that successful and bold adaptations of narrative can and have been found; in the technology-heavy culture of the twentieth-first century, it seems to me that there is now more adaptation activity than ever before, under the influence of what I previously identified as the freedom of narrative.

It is my profound belief that modern audiences crave shorter, more focused and hard-hitting performances that smack of originality. One has only to tour the works of Bond, Pinter and Kane for many a vivid example. Originality, though, and especially with regard to Shakespeare, has to mean an original use of free narrative, an original commentary or retelling of something. Much to my surprise, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent and glorious Merchant of Venice (or should I say Merchant of Vegas?) was my most recent experience of the spirit of free narrative.

Turning further back in time, I watched, last October, the Polish company Song of the Goat do a version of Macbeth. Condensed into 75 minutes of explosive physical action and ritualistic stick-bashing, the show was a master class in polyphonic performance with an astounding intensity. Such bold reinterpretation, characteristic of free narrative, goes back, of course, to the 1960s, when the internet was but a glint in a military milkman’s eye. Today, however, in adaptations such as this polish Macbeth, we witness the huge emphasis placed on transformative perspectives, what contemporary theory calls the “neo-new take”. This approach applies (with varying degrees of credibility and success) new, personal and often subversive approaches that, rather than drag a play into our century, coax it forward, organically drawing out what matters to us: it is partly the product of ensemble creation processes, but I also attribute it strongly to what we see our far-flung fellows doing in online communities, commenting, arguing, tweeting.

Take our Lear as an example, presenting power as a muddy business where the daughters are reasonable and brutal, where Lear is a sage but callous hedonist and the Fool is his compassionate spin doctor. The greatest homage we pay to the online spirit of powerful independent thought is in Poor Tom who features frequently as a physically disturbed servant, subjected to wrath and love, but ultimately dictating the fate of his oppressors. Timely stuff we hope. It discourages some audience members from ever straying from traditional Shakespeare again but I don’t doubt that others warm to it, thus ensuring a future audience for the Bard’s works on the contemporary edge of things.

One final comment: Shylock would no doubt have vomited at the thought of thousands of global performances – traditional or much less so – of Shakespeare annually, all free from copyright and royalties. In a way, it’s the ultimate practice and example of shedding the shackles of fiscal oppression … at least creatively. At a time when many are drawing lines in the silicon of the internet in an attempt to protect and commercialise every byte of data, note of music, second of film and pixel of image available, the Bard, by virtue of his age, represents a delightful pocket of resistance, an alternative to this all-enclosing juggernaut of a system. Shakespeare is freely accessible online, not least on Open Shakespeare, and this hopefully leads to a proliferation of work amongst the modern groundlings that the internet makes of all of us, ensuring that the bard remains universally affective, and the source of further free narrative.

1 response to David Pearce, Freedom of Narrative

  1. I have no objection to adapted Shakespeare, however radical, indeed the original Reduced Shakespeare Company included one of my best students: I thought their abbreviated “Hamlets” were terrific, including the ten-second one. But I do note that many other adaptations tend to make Shakespeare merely depressing (witness Bond’s vision). The assumption is that modern audiences are preferably addressed as masochists. While I can guess how Edgar was omitted by the Propaganda Co., despite his persistence as Poor Tom, it is obvious that it was the two most positive characters in the play who were suppressed. The best modernization of “Lear” I have seen was rephrased in “Waiting for Godot” terms (with boots) and was enormously funny, as that play should be too. I do not go to the theatre merely to be depressed, shocked, or offended, and I am baffled that anyone else would pay heavily to be so. Theatre is primarily entertainment not shock therapy.

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