King Lear: On Adapting Shakespeare

In King Lear, much of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language comes to us across the centuries as sublime poetry but his scripts are also full of fairly mundane, repetitive sections and archaic language, which can create a fog between the audience and the story. While there’s great satisfaction in studying his work in depth and understanding the meaning and derivation of words and phrases that have disappeared from our conversations, our task is to present an engaging piece of theatre, with clarity and feeling, that we can share with the general public – whether they are fans of Shakespeare experts or indifferent novices.   

Small-scale, open-air touring imposes its own special demands:  to start with the running time needed to be reduced from over 3½ hours to under 2. This meant cutting about 40% of the text. 

The next challenge was to tell the story with only five actors. This has been achieved with the use of many convoluted spread sheets and adopting Miracle’s well established principle that actors should be able to bring any character alive, regardless of age or gender.   

Then we looked at making the dialogue slightly more familiar, without inflicting noticeable damage! This is surprisingly simple.  By replacing ‘thou’ with ‘you’; ‘mine’ with ‘my’ and changing words like ‘did’st’ to ‘did’, the language instantly becomes more contemporary – and without any alteration to the rhythm of the lines. 

Changing the word order has the same effect. The moment of Gloucester’s blinding is all about horrific action. The text is there to support the action. So in our version ‘see’t shalt thou never. Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot’ becomes ‘you shall never see it. I’ll set my foot upon your eyes’. It’s a small adjustment but makes the language more transparent and lets the audience focus on the matter in hand. 

These days we expect an economy in story-telling that would have been disappointing to Elizabethan audiences, who liked to while away a long afternoon at the theatre. Shakespeare wasn’t one for saying a thing once when he could repeat it several times in different ways.  In King Lear there are continual references to the storm: ‘tis a wild night…bleak winds sorely ruffle…the fretful elements…the wind blow the earth into the sea…the to and fro conflicting wind and rain…blow you cataracts and hurricanoes…sulph’rous fires…oak-cleaving thunderbolts…all shaking thunder…such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder…groans of roaring wind…this dreadful pudder o’er our heads’, to name a few. What’s the betting, if Shakespeare were producing this play today, he would have chosen a few of his richest images and bombarded his audience with suitably dramatic, downloaded sound effects? 

Occasionally, when a key snippet of information is presented in sixteenth century language and we require the information to follow the story but don’t need to put our brain into deciphering mode, a re-write may be called for.  For instance, as the opposing armies confront each other at the climax of the play, a Gentleman informs Cordelia that ‘the British powers are marching hitherward’. She replies, ‘Tis known before. Our preparation stands in expectation of them’.  Or the Gentleman could say,  ‘the forces of Goneril and Regan are advancing this way’. With the reply: ‘our army is prepared for war’.  

These approaches will certainly aggravate some people, regarding it as desecration of the holy text, but it has been done with great love and respect and with the spirit of William Shakespeare always brooding over our shoulders. It is offered as a celebration of his sublime writing, richly drawn characters and unforgettable story, to be enjoyed at inspiring open-air venues across Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the South West. 

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The moment Shakespeare’s plays will become endangered is the moment the Shakespeare police put up fences around them and erect “hands off” signs. But for the moment Shakespeare is doing just fine, and will continue to do so as long as we don’t claim there is a right or wrong way to stage the plays. 

– Lyn Gardner