In a festival that worships the new and the innovative, Shakespeare adaptations are surprisingly ten a penny at the fringe. Many are school groups, though there are some from professional companies in the mix. These are often adaptations or new work inspired by Shakespeare’s stories, characters or themes. Though more likely to be of higher quality, theatremakers often struggle to find a balance between innovation and the original source material.
Rosalind, a contemporary dance piece, is one of these. Four dancers, two men and two women, frolic in the woods, free from the constraints of gender. Beige corsets flatten their chests, and gendered costume is layered on top, discarded, then put on again by another dancer. Suits, frock coats and dresses are worn by all of the company in turn. They writhe in a heap of sinewy limbs, sweat and hair, separate, then join again.
Their hair’s a problem, because it’s a feature that isn’t covered or disguised and immediately indicates whether a dancer is male or female. The more significant issue is that the stakes are low – Shakespeare’s Rosalind initially disguised herself as a man as an act of self-preservation. She didn’t drag up and go play in the woods for a laugh, even though she eventually took to the freedom that dressing as a man provided her. Though a good piece of contemporary dance, it’s a massive disservice to its source material.
The Course of True Love takes the opposite approach. Rather than subverting gender norms, it embraces them. It goes so far as to frame sexual assault as the start to a romantic relationship that eventually ends in murder. This is no spoiler, it’s clear from the first scene how this play will end.
But despite their problematic premise, they’re faithful to Shakespeare’s text, bits of which are borrowed from most of the cannon and combined to make a new story. But their creation isn’t innovative, nor does it newly elucidate the scenes or plays it draws from. The text is also badly delivered; the actors aren’t helped by the removal of all names from the script. These new characters are not given any exposition or context, so caring about them or their relationship is a tall order.
Ross Ericson’s Gratiano is the most sophisticated of these three productions. Putting a minor character at the centre of a new story and recontextualising The Merchant of Venice to WWII Italy, this solo performance looks at accountability and loyalty after the events of the play we all know. Erickson endows Gratiano with an East London gangster persona and accent, which confuses the setting but places the character within a clear moral landscape. The hard man exterior eventually cracks, providing rewarding insight into a thoroughly developed character.
The action flips between a bar during the war and a police interrogation room about a decade later, with clear staging and language transitions. Gratiano speaks in imagery-laden poetry in the bar, then hard man rhyming slang at the station. Though the linguistic variation is pleasing to listen to, its an unjustified choice and there’s no continuity of speech from one setting to the other.
Relevance to contemporary immigration and hate crime is naturally embedded into the script, and without preaching or lecturing – complacency and following orders can so easily lead to the downfall of a society. Though it serves as a warning to us all, it’s saddening that world leaders are largely failing to see that we need to learn from history or be doomed to repeat it.
Gratiano runs through 28 August.
The Course of True Love runs through 28 August.
Rosalind runs through 26 August.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.