With Shakespeare’s works being regarded as ‘universal classics’, it is perhaps not surprising that they have so often been staged across the Channel, says French studies lecturer Dr Dominic Glynn, who is leading an exploration of the Bard from a French perspective at Senate House Library on 8 June, 11–6pm.
Earlier this month I attended the opening night of Emma Rice’s imaginative and playful Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, and was thoroughly engrossed in a production that managed to be both reverential and irreverent. Staging Shakespeare is akin to walking a tightrope, as the plays were written for audiences 400 years ago yet can still have something to say to us today. So the fact that Emma Rice, the Globe’s new artistic director, acrobatically balances an astute reading of the gender politics and homoeroticism within Elizabethan culture with a lively satire of twenty-first 21st-century London is some achievement.
The tension between treating Shakespeare as a contemporary and as a distant other has been at the heart of many landmark productions of his work in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. From Peter Brook to Ariane Mnouchkine, Thomas Ostermeier to Ivo Van Hove, leading directors on the European scene have grappled with making the Bard speak to their audiences, translating his work across centuries and languages. Whether by performing in empty spaces or mud pits, wearing Kabuki-inspired costumes or jeans and t-shirts, they have uncovered new meaning, challenged conventional wisdom and subverted the texts.
Today Shakespeare is the most performed playwright in many places around the world, including in countries very proud of their own literary traditions. To take the example of the country closest to my interests, despite French being referred to as ‘la langue de Molière’ and English as ‘la langue de Shakespeare’, more of Shakespeare’s than Molière’s plays are staged every year in France. The prominence of the Avignon theatre festival, with its incredibly atmospheric spaces such as the courtyard of the Palais des Papes, has in no small part contributed to this. Indeed, from Jean Vilar’s production of Richard II in the inaugural festival in 1947, to Vincent Macaigne’s Au moins j’aurai laissé un beau cadavre (At least I’ll have left a nice body) and its blood-soaked bouncy castle in 2011, Avignon has played host to many bold interpretations of Stratford’s local lad.
We’ll be considering some of these on 8 June, as part of Senate House Library’s Metamorphosis season. We’ve got an action-packed day (generously supported by the Cassal Trust) exploring Shakespeare in various French guises, which includes looking at Victor Hugo’s celebration of the Will’s genius, translingual productions, as well as a screening of Marcel Carné’s classic, Les Enfants du paradis. We’ll also be looking to declaim Henry VI in English and in French.
The lofty aim is to go some way to understanding how William Shakespeare has become such a global (no pun intended) phenomenon. I hope we can count on the attendance of many groundlings in the yard.
For more information and to book tickets, see the Study Day: Shakespeare in French event page.
Dr Dominic Glynn is a lecturer in French studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Dr Glynn joined the IMLR in 2015, having previously worked in professional theatre and academia in France. His main area of scholarship expertise is in contemporary French theatre and his next research project engages with the cross-disciplinary question of what it means to be a writer by studying contemporary French theatre.