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Blog: Radical productions are breathing new life into classic plays

Posted by Theo Bosanquet on 5 Sep, 2018

Recent adaptations including Julie, Yerma and Oresteia  have brought our dramatic canon bang up to date

Vanessa Kirby and the cast of Julie © Richard Hubert Smith, National Theatre

Thursday sees the NT Live broadcast of Julie, an impressively original reimagining of Strindberg's Miss Julie by Polly Stenham. This is a great opportunity to catch a bold and visceral retelling of one of our greatest stage dramas. An inherently cinematic production, I imagine it will work very well on the big screen.

It's also a chance to experience the latest example of a recent glut of productions that have taken our classic plays by the scruff of the neck. Whether it's Carrie Cracknell, Ivo van Hove, Katie Mitchell, Simon Stone or Robert Icke, a wave of theatremakers are making some of our best-known plays distinctly their own.

And although some purists may balk, I'd argue it's a great time for fans of classic drama. Because what these productions and many others are doing is bringing these works bang up to date with a boldness that has been absent from the theatrical mainstream for far too long.

The idea that 'messing with the text' was tantamount to sacrilege dominated for much of the 20th century. The dramatic canon sat behind plate glass. But the new generation of directors, writers and designers have taken a sledgehammer to the cabinet and set these texts free. They have dared to mess. They have applied fresh layers of paint to long-dried canvasses, and the results have been electrifying.

I remember watching Icke's Oresteia and feeling a sense of genuine shock that I was witnessing Greek tragedy. Ever since studying these plays at school they had been among my most loathed to watch, for one simple reason; they bored the pants off me. Watching a production that retold the story of Agamemnon's doomed family as a Netflix-esque thriller made me realise why these stories gained their classic status in the first place.

In Julie, Stenham recasts the title character as a rich London socialite (played by Vanessa Kirby), and makes striking points about race, class and the hypocrisies of the metropolitan elite. Carrie Cracknell's production intriguingly fuses Strindbergian naturalism with extensive dance sequences; the play at times feels more like a party with occasional dialogue scenes rather than the other way around.

Listen to our recent podcast featuring the cast of Julie:

It's tempting when watching such radical overhauls of classic plays to ponder what the original dramatists would make of it. Would they appreciate the rewriting of their dialogue, the updating of locations, the shifting of character profiles? Without wishing to speak for Messrs Strindberg, Chekhov, Shakespeare et al, I usually conclude that they would surely love to see fresh takes on their ideas and new audiences introduced to their work.

After all, as I learnt long ago while studying adaptation as part of a Drama degree, faithfulness to an original text does not necessarily mean rigid fealty. It's the communication of ideas, emotions and themes that counts above all. And on that front, the current crop of classics must surely be considered as a golden age for rediscovery.

Julie is broadcast by NT Live on Thursday (6 September). For a list of cinemas, see

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Why theatre is the most collaborative artform

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Topics: Blog


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