Today Book Angel Booktopia welcomes Jenni Nock of Juniper’s Jungle to the blog. Jenni has written a wonderful post about Live Performances of the Classics. Over to Jenni: 

When I said yes to taking part in this excellent Classics Carnival I agreed to think a bit about the language used in the classics and the barriers it could pose to readers. I asked a couple of teenagers for their opinions and experiences. Patrick says that the language could be a barrier “because you can’t read it as fast. You don’t get as lost in the story when you have to keep stopping and figuring out what the words mean.” Luke finds the same, particularly with Shakespeare, he’s enjoyed the works he’s read in class when the teacher is there and can explain the meaning of words and phrases which adds depth to the story but when he reads on his own he feels he loses out because he can’t always put it into the context of the day and therefore loses the fuller meaning of the plot.

Two ways past this barrier have already been discussed over the course of the month. Matt has written an excellent post Classics and Comics about some of the brilliant graphic novel versions of classics that are out there and Laura has highlighted some of the excellent Film adaptations of classics. I think one of the real benefits that these interpretations of classics is the added information that they give to the reader – the body language and facial expressions of the characters along with watching them move and interact all help to convey the story, adding the necessary context to the language.

Thinking about these benefits led me to thinking about live performances, I love going to the theatre, I love seeing stories unfold in front of my very eyes whether they’re accompanied by lively songs, beautiful dancing or they’re simply straightforward plays. Over the last few years a number of the plays I’ve seen have been adaptations of classic texts, I thought I’d talk about three that I particularly enjoyed.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at Kensington Gardens, London.

This summer has seen The Threesixty Theatre return to Kensington Gardens and host a wonderful adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ classic story directed by Rupert Goold, a name that you’ll hear again soon. The theatre was a specially designed big top, with seating in the round. Lighting effects and images were projected onto the inside surface of the tent roof so that you were transported to Narnia alongside the Pevensie children. When Lucy first makes her way through the wardrobe I felt the chill of Narnia’s perma winter, despite the fact it was a really warm summer’s evening. The use of puppetry and wirework added to the performance making it feel like a fully immersive experience, from where we were sitting I could see a number of young audience members being turned into fans of the story there and then. Threesixty’s previous residence saw their version of Peter Pan, I’m certain that whatever they chose to do next I’ll be keen to see it.

Merchant of Venice at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

I studied Merchant of Venice at school for my GCSE English but we only read the bits that were relevant to the essay title we had been given. This production was directed by Rupert Goold (last time he’s mentioned, I promise) and had been relocated to a recent version of Las Vegas. The cast were excellent, Patrick Stewart’s take on Shylock in particular, and the loud, vivid setting meant my attention was held from start to finish – I managed to navigate the sometimes uncommon use of language with relative ease. Any attempts to modernise Shakespeare tend to be met with suspicion, and I have seen a couple of stagings that deserve the criticisms often aimed at anyone updating the Bard’s work. This production of Merchant of Venice however showed that it can be done incredibly well, and then when it does work it’s really something rather special.

Frankenstein at The National Theatre, London.

When I first started to think about this list I instantly knew that Frankenstein had to be in on it. Danny Boyle’s direction combined with the beautiful soundscape and innovative lighting made this a production that kept the entire audience glued to the story unfolding in front of them. Much was made before the play opened of Boyle’s decision to cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the two lead roles, alternating their performances as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature to reflect that the two characters are so intertwined and dependent on one another. The adaptation shunned the green skinned bolt through the neck image of the Creature that we’ve become used to seeing, instead portraying him more accurately and sensitively. It was gripping, clever and very thought-provoking. It went on to be shown to sellout audiences in cinemas worldwide through the National Theatre Live scheme, and this summer returned to cinemas in encore performances. I sincerely hope that these will not be the last ever screenings, if you do find it coming to a cinema near you then I would definitely recommend it.

I could go on talking about other adaptations of classics I’ve seen but I think these three illustrate my point well enough. There is something pretty special about seeing live theatre, and I really believe it has a role to play in helping to bring the classics to a wider audience.