Should the Bard's work get updated?

Craig Hepworth looks at how updating the works of Shakespeare is beneficial for the audience.

Before Juliet
Before Juliet
© Manchester Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare: it’s the one word that sends a shiver down my spine. As someone who is obsessed with theatre and embraces it in nearly every form, Shakespeare is one I just cannot get on board with. Maybe it was having it shoved down my throat in school and at drama school, or maybe I just don’t understand what makes his works so much better than anybody else’s that they need to be revived a billion times a year, who knows.

I know John and Gina, who own the trendy fringe venue the 3MT, very well. I often take my own plays into the venue and have a great time whilst there. One day they sat down with me and told me all about the new venture they both wanted to do. I sat eagerly awaiting them to tell me. "It will be a production company called the Manchester Shakespeare Company," said John. Shiver down spine moment.

Did we really need another company producing Shakespeare? I mean, surely we have enough, and honestly how many different ways can you do the same play before it gets old? Romeo and Juliet set in space, maybe, or Hamlet told as a rock musical (oh wait, that actually happened). It turns out, though, that John and Gina, along with John’s writing partner Hannah Ellis, had other ideas.

Theirs is not a traditional approach to the material. In fact the dialogue has largely changed; instead the stories are being transplanted to modern day situations and all have some connection to Manchester, something Gina was passionate about keeping in these new works.

The company’s first play based on Measure for Measure, called Desperate Measures, moved the action to a not too distant future and played around with the politics of today, making the piece instantly relatable while keeping the basic story of Shakespeare’s work in plain view.

As someone who does not enjoy Shakespeare (did I mention that?), I was reluctant to see Desperate Measures. It turns out I loved it; it was a very entertaining night at the theatre. What is wonderful, though, is that the team managed to please both his fans and people who either did not read any of his plays or could not stand them. Now that is impressive.

John and Gina have been writing and performing on the cabaret circuit for a few decades, in every country imaginable. Owning the 3MT just kind of happened.

"We had no idea what we were doing when we started", John said, but over its three years the building has managed to become one of the most diverse venues in the city. The pair love the venue, but always knew they wanted to get back to their writing and creating – that’s where their real passion is. Cabaret and touring is behind them (we always try to get them to perform again but they won’t) so this new venture is exactly what they needed. The two talk passionately about the plays the company has coming up, especially John who is doing what he loves to do.

Both agreed they had no interest in just producing his works as written. It’s done so many times, and as Gina points out, "if you want to go and see a great one audiences will travel to the RSC." Their love for the writer is obvious, but they want to merge that with John’s love for writing. And why not? Look at West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet: in some respects it’s very similar to what the Manchester Shakespeare Company are doing, taking Shakespeare's work and putting a new spin on it.

This somehow feels different than that though, more organic I guess. It also feels like a real passion for the original work is still very much presented throughout these updated plays. This is not a company doing it to cash in on the great man's name; this is a company of people who adore him but think more stories can be told through his work.

The old meets new is also evident in the writing partnership . Hannah, who is originally from Australia and in her early twenties, is adding the youth of today's voice to the pieces, while John is representing Shakespeare’s voice with his vast knowledge of the work and his years of experience on the scene, it’s quite a bohemian (for lack of a better word) partnership and is clearly a winning one. Gina is co-director on the plays along with Matt Cawson, both of whom Gina describes as academics, approaching the directing from that angle whilst also embracing the fresh approach that the writers are bringing to the table. It’s an eclectic mix, but one that works superbly. The cast are all fringe actors from the city as well and that is one thing that will never change, which I applaud.

The next play is Before Juliet, and I have to say I am very excited about this show. Written by John and Hannah, we are told the story of the star-crossed lovers from a different perspective: Rosaline Hope’s eyes. Setting the story around this much smaller character from the original story and using her to guide us through the events, but from a different perspective, is fascinating. After seeing a glimpse for the design of the show as well it looks like it’s going to be another exciting night at the 3MT.

Their first play Desperate Measures is about to play again at a Shakespeare festival, proving the new work is crossing over nicely to all audiences. With a another play opening by them later in the year, it would appear the company is thriving, and I could not be happier for them.

So have they cured me of my Shakespeare phobia? Not quite. The only time I would go to the RSC would be if I could go back in time to the 80s and watch their co-production of Carrie the Musical, but it most certainly has made me appreciate the stories he told and how adaptable they can be to today’s society. I may not be a Shakespeare fan but I most certainly am a Manchester Shakespeare Company fan.

Before Juliet opens at the 3MT from 17 – 22 March and further details are here.