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On adaptation and appropriation

Or: An essay on understanding Billy’s Violence in its reduction of complexities in William Shakespeare's Tragedies

If one does a quick look around the theatrical landscape of Norway, and by extension also Europe, there’s a current steadfast trend of adaptation of older novels, allowing the artists to play with the content of said text, appropriating it to a level of personal ownership. While this can easily be attributed to the sense of ownership for contemporary stage texts, and perhaps also for the extensive respect given to the dramatists of today, it creates the problem of audience members seeing old familiar stories in lieu of the new, contemporary drama.

Needcompany writes themselves into this trend, describing Billy’s Violence as “a radical adaptation”. Radical understood as Needcompany’s violent usage of ten of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, through removing “historical evidence and anecdotal content” Needcompany’s production is left behind with the conflicts between characters, often expressed through the climactic moments of the original plays. By employing the climactic moments in such a way, the audience is left with impressions of near constant violence, holding only the names and actions left of Shakespeare’s authorship. And perhaps it is within exactly this that I’m finding some much sought after refreshment on how to stage Shakespeare in our own time.

As the company behind the performance, Needcompany, writes on their own website, Billy’s Violence plays itself into this trend through describing it as “a radical adaptation”, but perhaps this is the wrong positioning of text itself. As if through the extraction of violence the play distances itself from Shakespeare’s intention, and appropriates it into something entirely new. It was in this line of thought, this removal of Shakespearean cultural notions, that a question on the reduction of complexity was asked during the artist talk with director Jan Lauwers. On whether that would be detrimental to the authors intentions of the original scripts. I find there to be some underlying issues with this question. Perhaps mostly with the fact that it implies some inherent, necessary complexion within the world of Shakespeare, that relies not so much on cultural affiliation for the audience of today, but rather a book induced knowledge based on the numerous analyses that exists on the work of Shakespeare.

Furthermore, I find that the question implies a want, if not a need, for usage of historical cultural knowledge in what can be described as rather pretentious. And it is in this understanding I’d say there’s been a change in the question asked of the audience to understand the performance itself. By asking us to swap the glasses from one of this historical cultural and rather to one of cultural contemporary social deciphering to see the violence of today reflected through the characters conceived 500 years ago. And through this removal of the Shakespearean dialogue and focus on the pure violence presesent, it may be necessary to look at the concept of adaptations in relation to appropriation. For is it not such that an art piece is to be made twice; once during the making of it through the artist, and a second time when it is witnessed by the audience? Thus it may also be necessary to look at how far away from the original material you have to move before the concept of adaptation is lost in regards to new creation. Perhaps then it is necessary to have a discussion on the limits within the word, and at which point adaptation becomes appropriation.

Jan Lauwers pointed out that he (and by proxy Needcompany) has a wish to reach a younger audience, to have the population aged 20-30 come more to see their theatre and perhaps a shift in the knowledge necessary to extract a social relevance is the way to do so.

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