First Ira Glass, now Julian Fellowes.
There’s a new movie version of Romeo and Juliet out this week, adapted for the screen by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame*. I say “adapted” because Mr. Fellowes has “taken liberties with the original text,” according to the New York Times review of the movie. The way I hear it, he uses less than half the original text and even adds some new scenes. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so perhaps it’s unfair of me to judge. But then again…
Regarding why he changed the text, Fellowes told the BBC,
When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship, and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.
I can do that because I had a very expensive education; I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that, and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.
Well la-dee-dah, Mr. Fellowes. It strikes me as unbelievably condescending to suggest that people who do not share your fancy educational background are therefore too stupid to understand Shakespeare, no matter how “perfectly intelligent” they may be.
Last summer I directed Romeo and Juliet for Midsommer Flight, a free Shakespeare in the park production in two Chicago neighborhood parks. I cut the script down for time to run about 100 minutes, but our version was still 100% Shakespeare’s words. Plenty of small children came to the see the show, and totally loved it. Plenty of neighborhood residents (most of whom probably didn’t attend Cambridge) came to the show and told us it was one of the best things they had ever seen. We made our audiences laugh, cry, and cheer. The phenomenal cast did their job as actors, to communicate the story with clarity and passion. And audiences had no trouble understanding it.
Maybe Mr. Fellowes himself doesn’t understand how universal Shakespeare’s plays can be when good actors communicate the story. Maybe he doesn’t know how to pull those kinds of performances from his actors, or doesn’t trust that his actors are capable of doing so. Whatever the case, he’s just plain wrong.
This piece in The Guardian quotes several folks who pretty much nail my point of view on the subject. I’ll give one of them the last word:
Fiona Banks, head of learning at Globe Education, said his comments risked alienating potential audiences. She told the BBC: “To see Shakespeare in the original, in its absolutely unchanged form, we need nothing more than a performance space and a company of actors who are able to share his stories in a way that engages their audience.” She added: “It would be very worrying if anyone read [Fellowes’s comments] and felt excluded from Shakespeare’s original language because of their level of education.”
*Disclosure: I confess I do love Downton Abbey, this post notwithstanding.