My name is Ben Spiller and I’m artistic director of 1623 theatre company based at QUAD arts centre in Derby, East Midlands, UK.
I first became aware of Play On! when I was a guest artist at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
When I was on a panel to talk about 1623 theatre company’s work in the context of Shakespeare in contemporary Britain, someone in the audience asked me what I thought about Play On! – this new project where all of Shakespeare’s plays were going to be translated into modern English by playwrights.
As soon as I heard the question, my mind and heart raced with excitement. What a great project! And much needed, as we’re not all Shakespeare scholars and we can often find some of the more obscure language and references in Shakespeare’s plays much like stumbling blocks on the road to understanding as a performance moves along.
Someone in the audience said they felt that Shakespeare didn’t need ‘dumbing-down’ or replaced by new writing. He wrote what he wrote. And that was that.
But that’s not that, is it? Really? We don’t know exactly what Shakespeare wrote – he had nothing to do with the publication of his plays and it wasn’t until seven years after he died (in 1616) that the complete(ish) works were first published (in 1623).
This gives living playwrights a freedom to imagine and bring their own voices in conversation with Shakespeare’s as fellow artists, despite the differences in time and place, and gives theatremakers and audiences a more accessible script with which to engage. My answer to the question was along these lines, and that there’s space in our world for Shakespeare’s works and new translations of them; the former being companion to the former, not a replacement.
As these formative thoughts passed and the conversation moved on, I couldn’t shake off the pangs of desire to know more about Play On! It wasn’t long until I met Lue Douthit, the director of Play On! And this was – and still remains – a watershed moment, so vivid is my memory of our initial conversation. Here was a woman who was – and is – smart, passionate, poetic, talented, generous and driven – all the qualities of Shakespeare.
Lue explained to me that she was in the process of commissioning 35 playwrights to translate the 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare. At least half of the plawrights were to be female. And at least half were to be people of colour. Not only was the scale mind-blowing, but the demographic of playwrights liberating, blasting away the myth that Shakespeare belongs to white men. Shakespeare is ours, everyone’s birthright. Hell yes, Lue; hell yes!
A special space for Play On! formed itself in my mind, as I flew back to the UK to continue working on new adaptations of Shakespeare for new audiences with 1623. This space started to expand as 1623’s vision changed to empowering marginalised people with Shakespeare by widening horizons and putting ignored voices centre stage.
When Lue and I met again, this time at the National Theatre in London, UK, she had commissioned all the playwrights and most of them had made a start on their writing. Each one was working with a dramaturg to support their process and Lue was overseeing the whole project to make sure that each playwright had their own freedom to translate Shakespeare in their own unique way.
There were still dissenting voices from people who hadn’t read any of the translations (which were still being written) and who didn’t really understand the purpose of the Play On! approach. This not an attack on Shakespeare, his work, his legacy. “Do no harm” was Lue’s mantra to the playwrights.
Shortly after Lue and I met in London, she emailed me Migdalia Cruz’s translation of Macbeth and I was blown away by it. It has the same scenic structure as Shakespeare’s play and largely follows the same beats, rhythms and metres. What was changed was some syntax and this in itself unlock meanings in Shakespeare’s script in an immediate way, without having to refer to footnotes or similar. Some of the language was updated and therefore more readily accessible when reading. I was really struck by how little Migdalia had changed the script to make it speak more clearly. Her changes were considered and respectful.
A few weeks before meeting Lue, I had been working at the National Theatre Studio as dramaturg on the Deaf Hearing Ensemble’s adaptation of Macbeth, which is now known as Fair is Foul. As part of the development process, we had to translate Shakespeare’s play into modern English before interpeting into British Sign Language. If only we’d had Migdalia’s translation! We could have used it as our source text before translating into BSL.
Thinking about this a lot and ways of making Shakespeare more accessible and engaging to audiences today (which is my primary aim almost every day), I bit the bullet one lunch time at the QUAD office and booked a ticket to Play On’s rehearsed reading of Migdalia’s translation of Macbeth in New York City. As this was part of a festival of readings of all 39 translations, I booked myself onto a few more readings. And before I knew it, I’d booked onto a full week of readings. Thank goodness I’d just been paid. Only problem was that I’d not looked into accommodation (I’m not the most logical of people sometimes). How was I going to make this all work on a tiny budget? Would I even get to New York at all?
Want to find out more about Ben’s company, 1623? Click the logo below!