45 Transgressive Spins on Shakespeare, Past and Present

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After seeing The Public’s most recent production of King Lear this summer, Ira Glass came to the incendiary conclusion that “Shakespeare sucks.” The comment riled many, for reasons that are largely obvious to anyone who understands the Bard’s place in the literary canon, but also because of the threat that such an influential public figure’s disapproval poses to an art form that’s already been noted to be “dying” at the slow pace of a stabbed Shakespearean character. Now, some would counter that theater’s adherence to the past is what’s dooming it in the first place, and that our reverence toward Shakespeare in particular is the core of the problem. But Shakespeare has actually proven to be one of the most vital vessels for change in theater: among directors who aren’t too reverent, who see it as a basis rather than a bible, his old texts have contributed to a great deal of innovation and theatrical radicalism. Here are 45 productions that — through radical politics, outlandish visuals, and enormous Kevin Spacey heads, might change the way you (and Ira Glass) — view Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet — 1845 — Haymarket Theater, London

Charlotte Cushman was, across various productions in which she played Romeo in the play about star-crossed-lovers (but not usually sisters), dubbed the “the only woman who could play Romeo,” at least during the not-too-queer-culture-oriented mid-1800s. According to Lisa Merrill’s When Romeo Was a Woman, after numerous stints as Romeo, the already-infamous Cushman brought on her unknown sister, Susan, to play Juliet in a production at the Haymarket Theater in London, thinking her esteemed Romeo act would bolster her sister’s career. Susan’s performance was tepidly received, overshadowed by Charlotte’s towering Romeo. Notably, one critic said that Susan “does not possess the powers of her sister” but that she nonetheless “strongly resemble[s]” Charlotte “with the addition of a pleasing and feminine expression.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — 1900 — Her Majesty’s Theater, London

Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream took the fantastical woodland romp to another level: intent on adhering to the early-1900s prizing of ostentatious, painting-like sets, he created the most true-to-life fairy wonderland possible. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare in Performance) describes how Tree employed flocks of children as extra fairies, bedecked the set in “thyme and wild-flowers,” “brakes and thicket full of blossom,” and live rabbits. Lots of live rabbits. At one point, the actor playing Bottom became upset that a rabbit was upstaging him; he was bitten when he tried to put an end to its hammy antics by clutching it under his arm.

Hamlet — 1911 — Moscow Art Theater

This production was noted for its very early implementation of Cubist imagery, as well as for being a collaboration between Edward Gordon Craig, Constantin Stanislavski, and Constantin Stanislavski’s method. While the play ended up being visually revolutionary because of its monolithic screens (note that the production of Midsummer on the previous page happened, and was visually normative, only ten years prior), Craig and Stanislavski had many disagreements, which led to a stifling of many of the potentially weirder conceptual flourishes (most of which were Craig’s). If Craig had has way, it would have been a “symbolic monodrama” — i.e., it would have implied that everything onstage was in Hamlet’s head. Actors would have played anthropomorphized concepts like Madness, Murder and Death, and the play would have included little to no movement.

Macbeth — 1936 — Federal Theater Project

Nicknamed Voodoo Macbeth, this production, directed by the almost-21-year-old Orson Welles, was expected among the black community to be an exploitative burlesque: for this reason, there were protests outside the theater during rehearsals, and a man attempted to cut Welles’ face with a razor. However, the production, which included an all-African American cast and reset the Scottish play in 19th-century Haiti, ended up inspiring a great deal of pride among the community and the greater New York public. On opening night, Seventh Avenue was jammed for ten blocks around the theater, as a rumored 10,000 people swarmed outside the theater, trying to get tickets.

Julius Caesar — 1937 — Mercury Theater

Orson Welles based his production of Julius Caesar, in a very timely fashion, on the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. It’s extremely common, if not hackneyed, for theater companies nowadays to tailor Shakespeare’s history plays to feed off fear of the threats of current-day totalitarian governments, or, for that matter, those of the recent past, such as Mussolini’s or Hitler’s regimes. But, as he so often did in film, Welles got there first.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — 1970 — Royal Shakespeare Company

In a production considered to be a turning point in the way Shakespeare was interpreted in the 20th century, Peter Brook sought to do away with realist approaches (though A Midsummer always fought realism textually), and rather to set it in “the heightened realm of metaphor.” The actors employed no realistic props, and the play was set in a white box, in total opposition to its traditionally overdecorated forest. The trees were made of slinky toys; when Bottom turned into a donkey, he didn’t suddenly appear in the traditional donkey head, but rather, simply, in a clown’s red nose. Similarly, the fairy’s magic was represented in circus tricks. By expunging the literal, tired “magic” from Shakespeare’s play, Brook somehow brought the magic back.

Hamlet — 1977 — Shauspielhaus Bochum

Peter Zadek’s Hamlet was a minimalist production whose only theatrical props were plain chairs, and whose set centered around a large metal bungalow — the type used on construction sites as provisional offices. The soil in the world of this play, as suggested in Ophelia’s burial scene, was made of garbage, and everyone wore intentionally unattractive modern-day attire. German actress Angela Winkler played Hamlet.

The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz — 1977 — La Comédie des Deux Rives

The Merchant of Venice has become known for its egregious anti-Semitism, and for its production of the detrimental stereotype of the miserly Jew. Tibor Egervari reconstructed the play to envision it as it might have been performed in Auschwitz, at the height of anti-Semitism. He portrayed Shylock as a wholly evil character, not only to emphasize the one-dimensional ugliness of propagandistic portrayals of Jews by Nazis (as that’s a given), but to link them back to canonically disparaging depictions of Jews like Shylock that were undoubtedly somewhat causal.

Taming of the Shrew — 1978 — Royal Shakespeare Theater

Apart from the very obvious transgression of the onstage motorcycle in the modern-dress production you see pictured above, this interpretation of Taming by Michael Bogdanov used something even more commotion-stirring to rile audiences: playing off the show’s blatant misogyny, the production had Jonathan Pryce stage an epithet-hurling fight with a female usher in the audience when the houselights first came down. His character, a drunk, then took to the stage and, before the play had even begun, started smashing parts of the set. Audience members though it was real: some left the auditorium to call the police.

Tale of Lear — 1988 — Tadashi Suzuki

Tadashi Suzuki is known for creating the rigid Suzuki training method, which has actors militaristically stomping across floors while reciting passages of Dante’s Inferno to flute music in order to hone a sense of bodily specificity… or perhaps, more simply, to make actors look silly. But he’s also known for how he trimmed Lear down to 100 minutes and employed an all-male cast with thin to entirely nonexistent drag (Lear’s daughters were said to have had full beards). His was a ramshackle set of only “metal gratings and a chair,” on which “Lear spends a long while stuffed into a laundry cart.”

Lear — 1990 — Mabou Mines

This “legendary gender-bending adaptation of King Lear,” in which Lear was a Southern matriarch with three sons, gave actress Ruth Maleczech what many considered the best role of her successful, adamantly experimental-theater-oriented career. The show went beyond gender-bending, though. It also species-bent: Lear’s retinue of knights were played by a pack of dogs. The production, which took place in Georgia in the 1950s, was so polarizing that The Village Voice critic Michael Feingold predicted, “People who learn that you were in New York in 1990 will want to know what you thought of this Lear.”

Robert Wilson’s Hamlet: a Monologue — 1995

Robert Wilson is predominantly known for being the director who deconstructs classical works, slathers actors in white makeup, and has them ever so slowly drift across the stage while being dramatically backlit, until, maybe, they collide and do a silly vaudeville routine or song, then return to slowly drifting. But for his adaptation of Hamlet, he decided a) to take it upon himself to play Hamlet, and b) to make Hamlet the only character in the entire play. Said Wilson in Absolute Wilson: The Biography:

People say that I’m not interested in words so some years ago I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do Hamlet.’ It was a big challenge and I think that often it’s important to take that one. Hamlet may be the greatest play ever to have been written, the greatest text ever written. Initially, I had thought to do it with a group of actors but eventuallyI decided I would do it myself, as a challenge: first, because it is a classical text, and then because it’s a work where the concentration is primarily on the text, in addition to the images. I did it as a monologue, a kind of dream memory of the entire play. I restructured the text, beginning seconds before Hamlet dies. So the work is seen as a flashback, with Hamlet speaking the text of Ophelia, Gertrude and all the other characters. The play really takes place in Hamlet’s mind. It begins with his last speech and ends with his last speech.

Othello — 1997 — Shakespeare Theater Company

Patrick Stewart allegedly made “a commanding, fascinating Othello” — but what, you must be curious, was Stewart doing playing Othello? He’d wanted to play the role since he was 14, but since it’s usually played by a black actor (and since the play very much revolves around the character’s otherness, and his vulnerability amongst characters who have an easier time fitting in and thus an easier time destroying him), Stewart’s production switched the racial context entirely: the rest of the cast was black. The concept was met with much acclaim, despite what could be construed as insensitive and ignorant substitution: in some ways, it’s excellent to see theatrical justice served, to see an Othello production doesn’t perpetuate the idea that in Shakespeare, Othello is the one role for black actors. But it also, of course, suggests a universality to othering — a universality that clearly isn’t the case. Another controversial element in the contemporary-dress version of the play was a “vine-like tattoo that cover[ed] half of Stewart’s bald head [and was] too suggestive of a ‘Star Trek’ alien.”

Umabatha – The Zulu Macbeth — 1997 — The Globe

The strength of this South Africa-set production of the foggy tale of Scottish insanity, blood, and betrayal is just that: its location. By changing the setting to South Africa and replacing the somber Scottish clans of the original with characters of Zulu tribes, writer/director Welcome Msomi intensifies the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and gives it a physicality not often seen in traditional reproductions. As Ben Brantley said, commenting on a 1997 Johannesburg Civic Theater production of the play, “While the scenes of carnage are mild to the point of implausibility, those showing martial and royal assemblies (from which supplicants will rise from a crouched position to a gazellelike leap) and ritual dances are glorious, synchronized yet spontaneous-seeming and infused with a joy of performance.” — Shane Barnes

King Lear — 1997 — Ong Keng Sen

This production of stylistic pastiche featured six actors, each of whom performed the play in a separate Asian acting tradition, and each of whom solely spoke in text translated into their own language — which was different than that of everyone else onstage.

Pericles — 2003 — Cardboard Citizens

The Cardboard Citizens is a unique theater group, made up entirely of homeless people. This 2003 production of Pericles draws on its performers’ lives as refugees from society, interspersing their own personal stories with the stories of Pericles, who was forced to flee his home of Antiochus for little more than the knowledge he possessed. — Shane Barnes

Measure for Measure — 2004 — National Theater

Simon McBurney cast Angelo, the licentious antagonist politician, as what a Guardian critic called “a young neo-con who turns the lax society he inherits into a repressive state complete with endless surveillance, prison beatings, rigged trials and arbitrary punishments. Grounding it, if not beating it, with contemporary politics, using ‘mimetic illustration and pervasive TV images’ to do things like broadcast George Bush’s image at the mention of a “sanctimonious pirate.” The production also portrayed Angelo’s obsession with the nun, Isabella, more graphically than most: he self-mutilates when he finds the thought of her has given him an erection.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — 2004 — The SITI Company

Far from the majestic, magical Greek forest of Midsummer’s prescribed setting, Anne Bogart’s SITI Company reworked the play to evoke a Grapes of Wrath-y depiction of Dust-Bowl America. “It is a place of migration and poverty, a stark yet beautiful place full of yearning and dreams. The enchantment appears as if by magic via the imagination of people who have nothing to share but their hopes and dreams.”

Hamlet — 2005 — The Wooster Group

This production featured video footage from John Gielgud’s 1964 production of the play, starring Richard Burton. The original production was shot from 17 angles and shown in 1,000 cinemas throughout the US. But The Wooster Group “attempt[ed] to reverse the process, reconstructing a hypothetical theater piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film,” channeling “the ghost of the legendary 1964 performance, descending into a kind of madness.”

Love’s Labors Lost — 2005 — Kabul

Roy-E-Sabz, an Afghan Shakespeare company, staged the play in an ancient garden in war-torn Kabul in 2005. Not only did the play controversially include four men and four women acting together, but the women onstage occasionally removed their headscarves. A book, Shakespeare in Afghanistan, goes into detail about the mixed emotions this bold work stirred in its actors, who had to come to terms with their anxieties about transgressing gender-related boundaries.

Titus Andronicus — 2006 — Royal Shakespeare Company

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, and stages are known to be varnished in whatever cloying syrup they make fake blood out of by the end of its performances. But Yukio Ninagawa’s production used only the sinewy silk yarn shown above; rather than dulling the play’s unrelenting violence, it made it seem all the more real — stage blood often looks tacky or doesn’t read from afar, but the yarn allowed for a slow, expressionistic portrait of the repercussions of violence on the body.

Macbeth — 2007 — Washington Shakespeare Company

This DC production of Macbeth, cleverly described by USA Today as “Macduff in the buff,” was noteworthy predominantly for that reason: through all that fighting, dupery, and witchcraft, everyone was naked. The whole time.

Twelfth Night — 2007 — Propeller

Edward Hall’s (son of famed theater director Peter Hall) production of Twelfth Night (double-billed with Taming of the Shrew) featured an all-male cast and sets inspired by Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

Isabella — 2007 — Pig Iron Theater

Isabella resets Measure for Measure — Shakespeare’s dark non-tragedy which centers around the proposition that a nun lose her virginity to a sleazy politician in order to save her death-sentenced brother — in a 20th-century morgue, with the antagonist, Angelo, as a mortician reigning over his empire of corpses: all of the other actors appear as naked cadavers.

Radio Macbeth — 2007 — Siti Company

Similar but so superior to Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, Radio Macbeth‘s conceit is that the text of Macbeth is being performed by a group of radio actors in the 1930s. What we see live is the performance of a radio show, with the cast making silly sound effects and cracking jokes between lines, but what we hear is the tragedy of Macbeth.

Coriolanus — 2007 — Barbican

Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s most revered plays, but it’s still widely reproduced. It typically follows the rise and fall of Coriolanus, a Roman general who attains military stardom only to fail miserably at political life, leading to his banishment from, and eventual assault on, Rome. This production by Yukio Ninagawa, set in feudal Japan, stuck to the skeleton of the story, but infused the lead character with a fatal loyalty to masculinity. As The Guardian wrote, “In this Japanese-language production, Coriolanus is a deeply flawed man who is felled not by another’s sword, but by a failure of masculinity and an inability to visualise a world in which it is not brute strength but humility and compromise that are required.” — Shane Barnes

Troilus and Cressida — 2008 — Cheek by Jowl

Shakespeare’s Trojan War-based play (which was once considered “unperformable,” and led critics to wonder if Shakespeare had suffered a breakdown while writing it) was given an update by British troupe Cheek by Jowl that allegedly underscored the play’s condemnation of war, in all its absurdity and futility. Helen of Troy — the war’s strange, human objective — appeared, according to The Telegraph, “in white silk and tulle and is seen posing for photographs with the new man in her life, Paris, as if for a spread in Hello! magazine,” while Thersites, the one-man Greek chorus, was played as a drag queen. As for the soldiers’ dress — see the photo above.

The Tempest — 2009 — Steppenwolf Theater

Contemporary-dress productions are so common now that it almost says more to stage a backward-gazing production of Shakespeare. However, with their purposeful implementation of the contemporary, Steppenwolf’s production of The Tempest is worth mentioning, predominantly because of its suggestion that the island’s magic is being simulated by Ariel’s laptop.

Twelfth Night — 2009 — Barbican Theater

Yukio Ninagawa’s three-and-a-half-hour Twelfth Night was performed entirely in the kabuki theater style and starred Onoe Kikunosuke V, the youngest in a line of onnagata actors (male actors who portray women in Kabuki) dating back to the 18th century, as Viola.

Throne of Blood — 2010 — Ping Chong

Not too dissimilar to The Wooster Group’s Hamlet, Ping Chong’s Throne of Blood is something of a labyrinth of adaptations: it was adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film, which, itself, was an adaptation of Macbeth.

Sleep No More — 2011 — Punchdrunk

Sleep No More has become one of the most famous site-specific productions in history. It’s a meandering dance-theater mashup of Macbeth and Hitchcock, in which theatergoers are given anonymizing white masks and then “choose their own narrative” by following certain performers, losing their friends, and getting discombobulated, all of which typically ends up leading just about everyone to feel inadequate about the narrative they “chose,” and to worry that their friends got the better show.

Coriolan/us — 2012 — National Theatre Wales

Here’s yet another adaptation of an adaptation — which also mixes the former adaptation with the original. If that makes any sense. A combination of Brecht’s Coriolan and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Coriolan/us was a production performed in a Welsh airplane hangar, where National Theatre Wales choreographed the feeling of a modern city in the midst of riots. The audience used headsets to hear the text, and could see action throughout the enormous hangar on video screens. Guardian critic Michael Billington noted the immediacy of scenes such as that where Coriolanus and Aufidius “sit stony-faced in the front seats of a Volvo while Menenius ignominiously creeps into the back to plead for Rome to be spared.”

Richard III — Bridge Project — 2012

Sam Mendes did this 1930s rise-of-fascism-style production of Richard III, a vaguely cautionary gesture towards our (or Britain’s? or the world’s?) near-fascist right wing. Because a lot of its tropes (used, as seen above, in Orson Welles’ Caesar during the actual advent of two fascist dictatorships) were deemed clichéd, it’s mostly noteworthy for containing what’s probably the most massive rendering of Kevin Spacey’s face ever made.

Such Tweet Sorrow — 2010 — Royal Shakespeare Company/Twitter

The Royal Shakespeare Company often makes bold, and successful, attempts at vitality. And depending on who you are, this is either really cool or the biggest abomination in theater history, and the foreshadowing of its ultimate decline (I happen to align with the former camp). This production is what it sounds like: a play whose theater is “the Twitter.” Over the course of five weeks, six professional actors tweeted a modern-day (obviously), improvised adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Facebook, Xboxlive, Audioboo, YouTube and WordPress were also incorporated into the production.

Unto the Breach — 2012 — Al Zaytouna

Set in modern-day Palestine, British-Palestinian troupe Al Zaytouna’s dance-theater version of Henry V, directed by Ahmed Masoud and Hadjer Nacer, layered Shakespearean text over movement that “highlight[ed] the efforts of Palestinians,” in light of the Arab Spring, to act to “change their circumstances.” Said Masoud, “We chose Henry V for themes that would fit in more as a celebration of resistance and revolution, which ties in more with the Arab spring.”

Forests — 2012 — Old Rep Theatre

Forests is exactly what it sounds like: a thicket of collaged Shakespearean texts amounting to a very dense work predominantly about… trees? For the production, Catalan director Calixo Bieto thoroughly sifted through Shakespeare’s oeuvre to find all mentions of the colossal photosynthesizers. Unlike your ordinary non-narrative forest, though, this piece is broken into three parts: paradise, purgatory and the inferno. Bieto told The Guardian, “The first part is about childhood and innocence. The second part is about the loss of that innocence and man’s discovery of the brutality within himself. The final part is a crazy fantasy of violence and destruction, a descent into the apocalypse.”

Roman Tragedies — 2012 — Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies condenses Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra into one six-hour play to look into the singular nature of politicians, whose corruption and callous power-hunger hasn’t much changed since Shakespeare was writing about them. For the production, audience members can, should they choose, move from the theater onto scattered couches onstage. While an intermission-less six-hour play may seem like a cruelty more extreme than those inflicted by the play’s characters, snacks and drinks were sold throughout the production at an onstage bar. The set also featured an Internet station for audience members interested in tweeting about how trapped (or drunk off of stage-booze) they felt.

Macbeth — Barrymore Theater — 2013

While the re-staging of a classic play in a mental institution is nothing new, Alan Cumming’s Macbeth truly evokes the madness that eats away at the titular character by playing every role, with the exception of Duncan’s son Malcolm, expertly played by the doll pictured above.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — 2013 — Theater for a New Audience

This Midsummer was more than just a post-Spiderman Julie Taymor production where actors didn’t get horribly maimed! With the Rude Mechanicals dressed as New York construction workers singing what The Hollywood Reporter likens to Danny Elfman’s songs for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, gargantuan projections of neon flowers, and elements of Balinese and Japanese theater, Taymor here asserted that she could bricolage her groove back.

Measure for Measure — Cheek by Jowl — 2013

Again, the setting makes all the difference. Cheek by Jowl relocates this play to a modern-era Russia, where things get intensely Russkie-fied. Its Mariana is not just a kind of ballsy lady, but also a blues-singing one who indulges — or, maybe, medicates — with vodka. It makes for a much more heightened comedic atmosphere than most productions of Measure for Measure, at times labeled one of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” but which is typically not very “comedic” at all. — Shane Barnes

Macbeth — 2014 — Sydney Theater Company

For this production of Macbeth, which starred villain-visaged actor Hugo Weaving, director Kip Williams chose to flip the theatrical environment completely. With the audience pressed against the back wall of the stage, the traditional audience section of Sydney’s Performing Arts Theater became the chasmic backdrop to the action of the play.

The Comedy of Errors — 2014 — Actors’ Shakespeare Project

The Comedy of Errors is about all the comedic errors that arise when two pairs of twins get intertwined: as twin actors with twin schedules and twin interests in acting in small Shakespeare productions that won’t likely pay them exorbitantly are hard to come by, directors often opt, as is not at all surprising, not to cast twins, and therefore to draw on the twins’ comedic differences. In David R. Gammons’ production — which was staged in a high school gymnasium — one Antipholus is black and the other is white, and one Ephesus is male while the other is female. This all makes sense under the Gammons’ overarching conceit that the whole play is being put on by a low-level circus troupe, which also includes a set of ersatz conjoined twins, who are tasked to play characters that often appear together, such as the Duke of Ephesus and Egeon, and then Adriana and her sister Luciana.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets — 2014 — BAM

Another day, another Robert Wilson production that looks like… that. And thank goodness they do. Where would we be without the occasional expensive ticket to see impish actors do things that we don’t wholly understand but — because of a genius formula of breathtaking lighting, geometrically surprising costumes, and impeccable musical accompaniment — that nonetheless “impact” us? Wilson and Rufus Wainwright collaborated on this genderqueer pop-opera reading of 25 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.

The Tempest 3 — 2014 — La MaMa

Currently at La MaMa, this is actually a series of three productions of The Tempest, all running consecutively — one from the US, one from Korea, and one from Italy. This triple-production was brought about in an effort to explore the impact of Hurricane Sandy. According to La MaMa artistic director Mia Yoo, “When former Mayor Bloomberg responded to a reporter’s question at a press conference with the simple statement, ‘The tide is rising,’ it struck such a chord with me. La MaMa is honored to have the opportunity to present an American, Korean and Italian production of Shakespeare’s bracing play, THE TEMPEST – each of which brings a unique cultural perspective to the enviromental and social crises we all face.”