TIMON OF ATHENS (2014) and THE TEMPEST (2017)

When the Literary Manager of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Lue Douthit, asked me to consider working on a “translation” of a Shakespeare play, I felt as if she was asking me to consider testing my sense of balance by seeing if I could walk over the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

In the past, between my other professional work in theatre and television, I had written versions of classical Greek dramas for contemporary audiences, including two commissions for London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. But this was something different - presumptuous, perhaps even condescending to all lovers of Shakespeare. Who would even suggest such a thing?

As it turned out, many people, including scholars, critics, and theatre historians, have proposed exactly that - most recently, Columbia University Professor John McWhorter, a linguist, writing in the New Republic in 2011 His point is that Shakespeare’s language is no longer ours. Granted, with the help of notes, and some quiet reflection, you can work out the sense of some of the more obscure dialogue - but in a theatre? In a matter of seconds? While the action speeds by and the actors deliver the lines with all the urgency and emotion demanded in the moment?

Not so easy.

So it’s time, goes the argument of these scholars, for versions that will do for a contemporary English-speaking public what all other versions do for the rest of the world where Shakespeare is performed in the native language of the audience - make every word intelligible.

Naturally, controversy has surrounded these proposals from the beginning - but I won’t rehearse that here. Google Professor McWhorter’s article and you’ll see how high emotions run on this subject.

So I decided that the tightrope act would be a fascinating adventure - and a chance to test out the possibilities of making the underlying story and architecture of one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing plays, the moment-by-moment pulse of the action, clear and compelling to a contemporary audience.

I soon discovered that the trick was to leave what is immediate and alive to our ears in the original untouched, and elsewhere to unpack whatever might hinder the free flow of the story in a way that is clear, not over-reverent, and above all, actable - which, by the way, often demands more than a simple word-for-word rendering.

As a result, a great deal of what audiences heard when these versions were performed is precisely as written by Shakespeare or, in the case of TIMON OF ATHENS, by his presumed collaborator, Thomas Middleton.

So the result is not exactly a translation, not even an adaptation. I like to think of it as a transcription, along the lines of the work that one composer does of the work of another - changing the instrumentation but keeping the melody.

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