Shakespeare Under Modern Lights


The plays of William Shakespeare have been set in just about every time or place imaginable, from the circus to Nazi Germany to modern-day California to colonial Japan to the moon. What’s more fascinating is that his works, which were written almost 400 years ago, can withstand a wide variety of settings and still remain compelling. For this year’s Shakespeare Repertory at Juilliard, featuring members of the third-year class in productions of Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, the directors (Ralph Zito and Gus Kaikkonen, respectively) were led by a variety of factors to set the plays in realms far outside the norm. 

In 2009, third-year drama students performed Love’s Labour’s Lost under the direction of Gus Kaikkonen.

(Photo by Jessica Katz)


The process that led to choosing The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth involved logistical concerns more than anything else. Immediately following the closing performances of Othello and Love’s Labour’s Lost last year, a core group of Drama Division faculty and staff assembled to debrief. This sort of meeting has been a yearly event ever since the Shakespeare Rep was created four years ago, when Jim Houghton, newly appointed head of the Drama Division, decided that the third-year of training should be capped off with two Shakespeare plays, and that they should be done in rep. A repertory company is one in which all the actors are in both shows, usually with a larger role in one and a supporting role in the other. The trickiest part of any repertory company is always the scheduling of rehearsals. 

In the 2009 rep, the large number of two- and three-person scenes in Othello made scheduling easier and more successful, and, noting this, Zito, who had already been asked to direct one of the productions, proposed Macbeth because of its abundance of smaller scenes. The ball was then thrown to Kaikkonen, the predetermined director of the other production and director of Love’s Labour’s Lost last year. Kiakkonen was particularly concerned with casting issues, which led him to consider The Merchant of Venice. “I really love the play and I also thought it gave opportunities for the women in the class to have some roles,” Kaikkonen said in a recent interview. “There already are three very strong roles in Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica, and then, looking at the script, I thought, why not have a female Shylock?” The male characters of Balthazar and Salarino become women as well. With the plays decided on, both directors dove into the creative processes.

The concept for Macbeth arose from many passionate discussions. “The word tribal kept coming up a lot for me,” Zito said. “This sense of the families in the play—the clans which were led by these tribal war lords.” An important event at the end of the play caught Zito’s attention. Malcolm, son of the murdered King Duncan, comes back to Scotland from England and overthrows Macbeth, and in the very last speech of the play, he declares, “My thanes and kinsmen, henceforth be earls.” Zito saw this moment as Malcolm returning to his homeland and imposing English social order upon his people. Led by a desire to highlight this pivotal event, the creative team hunted for a location and found the perfect context in contemporary Afghanistan. However, the production will not formally be set in a realistic, modern day Afghanistan. “You know, if I was a different kind of director, I might have made Scotland very specifically contemporary Afghanistan or Iraq, and made the British soldiers contemporary American Marines,” Zito said, “but to my mind, any resetting of the play that became too culturally specific became reductive. I wanted to find a frame of reference that wouldn’t diminish the ideas of the play, and also would allow us to create this image that what Malcolm’s doing at the end of the play isn’t necessarily a good thing in the long run.” 

When the students were presented with the idea for this Macbeth, there was, at first, some skepticism. “My first response was ‘Why?’ What about the play gave them that idea?” said third-year actor Evan Todd. “However, working on it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Especially all the covering up and concealing of the women.” Auden Thornton, who plays one of the witches, noted: “The costumes for the women are thick and cover our entire bodies as a sign of our lesser power in a male-dominated world, but as the witches in Macbeth, we rebel against this oppression by throwing off the hoods and robes when we’re alone and doing our ceremonies and sacrifices. It’s really fun to work with.” 

The concept for The Merchant of Venice took root much earlier than that of Macbeth, because Kaikkonen selected the play based on his vision for a number of the male roles to become female roles. However, realizing this concept without asking the women to dress up in drag demanded that he set the play vaguely in America, sometime in the last decade or so. In this setting, Kaikkonen and the cast have discovered many clever ways to use modern technology. “It gets rid of some coincidences in the play that seem awfully coincidental,” Kaikkonen explained. A major plot point that revolves around receiving information about the progress of trade ships suddenly becomes more believable when everyone is checking their iPhones and BlackBerrys. “It also gives the students a chance to bring as much of themselves to Shakespeare, to remove another layer,” Kaikkonen added. “Even though they’re using all of their language techniques, they get to look at these characters in a modern way, which is what we ought to be doing no matter what period the play is set in.”  

Both directors will be relying on props and costumes rather than the physical set to convey their worlds. Juilliard has used the same set for every Shakespeare Rep production in the past four years. It was designed based on the Globe Theater in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, and it is constructed to meet the specific needs of all of Shakespeare’s plays. 

At the end of the day, it makes no difference if a Shakespeare play is set in the desert or on the moon. The human experiences shared in these works are the true reason we still do them today.


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