Simon Hoggart

Playing with Shakespeare

Playing with Shakespeare

The notion of updating Shakespeare always strikes me as a curious one. For a start it assumes that the audience is stupid. Do we say, ‘I hadn’t realised that Julius Caesar contains universal themes of ambition and betrayal until I saw it set on the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade’? Or, ‘It never occurred to me that Macbeth might have significance for our time until they played it in a Birmingham Starbucks’? And why doesn’t it work the other way round? You never see The Caretaker set in imperial Rome, or Abigail’s Party at an 11th-century Scottish castle.

The one time when this updating works is when it’s merely the plot that has been dragged kicking and yelling into the 21st century. Someone declaiming ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ in a space suit just looks silly. But the great plots — Pride and Prejudice, King Lear — are hard-wired into the minds of any half-educated person and have a resonance which a playwright can use and play with. Which is what David Nicholls did when he wrote Much Ado About Nothing (BBC1, Monday) and put it in a regional television newsroom. This was one of a series of four Shakespeare plays re-set in modern times, and, if the others are half so good, then the BBC will be very pleased.

For one thing it was a happy idea to set it in a news studio. The alleged sexual chemistry between male and female presenters is a cliché now, but it provides all the scope a writer needs to exploit the bitchy, wise-cracking Beatrice and Benedick relationship.

And a regional newsroom is rather like a court — there are those who matter and those who don’t. Everyone is gnawed with anxiety about their own position.

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