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"Play on Shakespeare" - changing the language but not the drama

Play On Shakespeare is a non-profit company promoting and creating contemporary modern translations of Shakespeare’s plays. It partners with artists and organisations across the globe to deliver these translations through different channels including publications, podcasts, theatrical productions, film, and audio books. It's mission is "to enhance the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays in performance for theatre professionals, students, teachers, and audiences by engaging with contemporary translations and adaptations."

Sam Wannamaker's Globe Theatre - timber framed white building
Sam Wannamaker's Globe Theatre on London's Southbank

But why alter some of the most well known lines in poetry and drama? Is this heresy?

We were invited to The Globe Theatre (where else?!) to probe this very question and to gain an idea of the process involved in re-writing Shakespeare to make it more accessible.


Actually, apart from The Globe, most productions change the era that the plays are set in and the costumes, but not the language. Play on Shakespeare flips that - it changes the language but leaves the plays in an Elizabethan setting.

Interior of the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, pale wood stage and seating
The pretty Sam Wannamaker Playhouse

The evening we attended took place in the smaller Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, an intimate atmospheric candle-lit venue. We were led by Lue Douthit, the President of Play on Shakespeare, and read examples of the re-wording by some actors and then invited to discuss and ask questions. One great comment from an audience member, was along the lines of, "I'm just an A level student, but if I could have seen a play re-written like this before tackling the Shakespearean language, I'd have felt a lot more comfortable". And that's really the whole point of the exercise.


We also got to meet one of the modern playwrights and the actor that she'd worked with. Her version has taken an incredible 3 years to perfect. 39 plays have been translated so far. The sample below will give you an idea of where the original is adhered to, and where the modern replaces it.


All the world’s a Stage

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like a snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballard

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the

justice.

Arden Shakespeare


All the world’s a Stage

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one person in their time plays many parts.

Their acts; seven generations. The infant,

Wailing and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then, the whining schoolchild with his their book bag

And sleep-shined face, snail-slow pacing it

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Breathing like furnace, with tortured poem

Writ to lover’s eyebrow. Then a soldier

Tongued with foreign words, with panther stealth

Ready to defend, deft and quick with fight

Seeking quick fleeting fame as head inserts itslef

Into cannon’s mouth. And then the justice.

David Ivers ©2019

What do you think? Could you have done better? Will you listen to one of the plays on the podcast or seek out a stage version? I know that I'd certainly like to see one the next time London is the venue.


More information about Play On Shakespeare

The Podcast can be found here New episodes are aired each Monday.

More information about Play on Shakespeare can be found here

The Globe Theatre here

The next production by Play on Shakespeare in England is in Sunderland here

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