I was recently reading an extract from Charles Saatchi’s book Be The Worst You Can Be in the Evening Standard. He relayed how during his Sensation Exhibition in 1997, a painting by Marcus Harvey, which controversially depicted the portrait of Myra Hindley with children’s handprints, was defaced by protestors. Three art restorers gave their expert advice on trying to restore the painting, all options costing thousands and would take months. Harvey however took the painting home, scrubbed it with cleaning fluids and had it returned to the exhibition the next day.
The thing that struck me about this incident is how Harvey was unafraid to confront the actions of the protestors. He rolled up his sleeves and scrubbed his painting, which, given that Saatchi deemed it worthy to feature in his exhibition is quite a feat. Harvey wasn’t precious, he rose to the challenge, even if that meant potentially damaging the work he had poured hours over.As part of the World Stages London festival, playwright Simon Stephens collaborated with director Sebastian Nübling and designer Ene-Liis Sempe to stage Three Kingdoms. Here in the UK it is often considered that theatre is given over to the playwright as the lead, but in Germany the director rules. Stephens’s may have written Three Kingdoms but that didn’t mean Nübling treated it as a finished product. The director went into rehearsals and drastically cut, rewrote and added lines, without the assistance of Stephens. Of course the playwright respected Nübling enough to trust his artistic vision, but how many playwrights would be willing to let go?
Preciousness is something that I believe dogs our theatres. It starts before an audience sees the work, and it seeps out of the closed doors of rehearsal rooms. The process of making a theatre piece is very much a secret process, with artistic directors, writers and devisers camped in their rehearsal rooms creating the work to amuse the brick walls around them. I’m being harsh of course, the process of any artistic practice needs to question the fragile nature of experimenting, failure and indeed keeping something precious, but we must be careful to not become those art restorers, resolved to meticulously piecing work back together.
So what does any of this have to do with Shakespeare?
Preciousness of text is something that the words of Shakespeare seems to, at times, live upon. There is still an inherent protectiveness that seems to surround the work of Shakespeare when it is performed. Where a production seeks to replicate the conditions of Shakespearian times we have the historians huffing and puffing, whilst an adaption causes more than a sceptical eye by purists of the Bards’ work. I wonder if Shakespeare would have objected to such preciousness of his work?
The problem with preciousness is how easy it becomes being cautious, and being cautious can lead to stifling of new ideas and stagnation. We’re all in agreement that the works of Shakespeare are what they are, a masterful body of work, but that doesn’t mean we should keep them on a mantle and protect them from dissemination. In an age where we are hyper-connected and information is passed between users in a click of a button we’re seeing an increase in the Creative Commons Licence. This predominant digital licence allows creative content to be licensed for distribution, editing and copying within the limits of copyright. It encourages enhancement, sharing and the shake up of the original content, which a normal copyright licence doesn’t. It doesn’t allow for preciousness, it often encourages a bit of creative chaos.
As Shakespeare is a little past his copyright date his work is readily available in the public domain, so perhaps it’s about time we apply more of the Creative Commons approach to his work. Let’s do away with preciousness and find new ways to shake up his work. If contemporary playwrights such as Stephens can give up creative control on his work for it to be excelled, we need as an audience to encourage creative’s to do the same with Shakespeare’s words otherwise we risk stifling his words altogether. Holding such devotion to Shakespeare is like that of the art restorer, dedicated hours of meretricious time and commitment to reproducing the same precious product. Is that what Shakespeare needs? I think not.