No, wait! I don’t mean Shakespeare himself is nude, and he’s certainly not live. Not for five or so centuries. What I mean is…oh, just read on:
I’ve been involved in the arts virtually all my life. While theater is not my main artistic pursuit, I’ve been involved in most of the facet of production, including acting, set construction, lights, sound, directing and I’ve even written a few short plays. I’ve also played the guitar and/or bass in a variety of shows, and directed pit orchestras. Those experiences have given me a real appreciation for the craft, and for the brilliance of playwrights like William Shakespeare. That’s why I’m always dismayed by contemporary directors that try to improve on Shakespeare, particularly by trying to make it more “relevant” for modern audiences, by, for example, making the actors nude, as the Huffington Post reports:
Earlier this year, enterprising theatre troupe The Torn Out Theatre company stripped one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays down to its bare bones.
Okay, we’ll cut it out with the euphemisms. The troupe’s actresses performed “The Tempest” in Central Park in May, naked. And although a cast of undressed women might seem like a gimmick, the play wasn’t a shocking one-off ― it’s set to return to New York on Sept. 7, this time at the Music Pagoda in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Nude. But of course! What classic work of theater isn’t immeasurably improved by nudity, particularly when there was no nudity in the play to begin with. Why, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this exchange:
Theater Goer#1: “Hey, “The Tempest” is playing downtown this weekend.”
Theater Goer#2: “Great, but tell me, is it the nude version?”
TG1: “I don’t think so.”
TG#2: “Damn! It’s just not relevant then, is it?”
TG#1: “I guess not…”
On second thought, I’ve never heard an exchange like that. But why would any theater troupe want to run about on stage naked, regardless of the material?
A statement on Torn Out’s website explains that its wardrobe choice worked in harmony with ‘central themes of identity and liberation’ in the play, building on ‘a long tradition of free expression in theatrical productions held in outdoor settings.
Oh, well, if it’s about identity and liberation…after all, that’s what The Tempest is all about…what’s that you say, The Tempest isn’t about that at all? Are you sure? You are? Oh.
But the performance stirred up controversy among theatre-goers.
No! I’m shocked, shocked!
The Huffington Post’s original writeup pondered the value of Shakespeare sans clothes ― considering the Bard’s affinity for expressive dress…
Uh, I’m not sure what “expressive dress” means in terms of Shakespeare’s costuming choices, but I’m relatively sure it doesn’t mean exposing the actor’s naughty bits, as the British might say. I’m sure if Shakespeare believed nudity would tell eternal truths, he would have specified it.
Still, we didn’t anticipate such a huge, largely negative, backlash to the production. While Salon hailed the play as ‘brave’ and ‘beautiful,’ CBS reported on frustrated parents who felt the play was inappropriate for park-going children. More nuanced decriers dismissed the production as inartistic, or a misconstruing of Shakespeare’s themes.
“Brave” and “beautiful.” Right. Obviously those parents are abusing their children and keeping them from experiencing the true beauty of the theater, which is best experienced in a park, naked, without any of the technical artifacts of the theater.
I can just hear the audience dialogue:
Little Girl: “Mommy that lady is naked! Why is that lady naked?”
Mommy: “She’s being brave and beautiful, and expressing a central them of identity and liberation.”
Little Girl: “Oh. But why is that lady naked?”
Whatever happened to such old-fashioned concepts as good acting, brilliant costume design, and enlightening interpretations of the dialogue designed to bring out every nuance the playwright intended?
Unsurprisingly, the cast is apparently convinced of their bravery and beauty:
You can do only so many Facebook rants about women’s equality, and this felt like direct action,’ Reanna Roane, who played the sprite Ariel, told The New York Post. ‘This is my body, I’m proud of it, and I’m using it to tell a story.
Uh-huh. A story. Which is…?
Among the things I teach my students is that Shakespeare is eternally relevant because he knew human nature so well. As with all great literature, every time one returns to Shakespeare’s works, there are always surprises, always something new, something we didn’t see or consider before. No, not nudity.
I’ll admit, as a card-carrying male, I enjoy the sight of comely, naked women, whether they are expressing identity and liberation, or just laying about naked in general. However, where drama is involved, particularly Shakespeare, seeing naked ladies is not my primary goal in play attendance. As a matter of fact, I generally do not expect to see naked ladies on stage. But I’m apparently a fuddy duddy:
Shakespeare purists may object, but it seems that modern attempts to keep his work relevant aren’t going anywhere.
Thank goodness ground-breaking artists never rest in their attempts to improve on Shakespeare. What’s next? Painting clothing on Adam in The Creation, or draping burlap bags over David? Aren’t those works irrelevant otherwise?
Meh. It’s so hard to keep up with what’s hip and naked these days.