Canadian Shakespeare News

Wassup, Shakespeare? New Canadian Adaptations Tracked by CASP Show Trend in Modern Language, Slang, and Pop Culture

Spring and summer 2012 marked a busy period of research for members of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) team as they worked on major updates to the online Database. Updates included recent stagings of existing entries, the addition of some secondary sources, tidying up the HTML coding and overall read-ability of the Database, as well as the addition of new leads, which express Canada’s modern take on the work of perhaps the world’s most celebrated playwright, William Shakespeare.

Over sixty new adaptations were added to the Database, ranging from more classical media, (i.e. Peter Hinton and August Schellenberg’s all-Native production of King Lear; Mark Richards’s Hamlet: An Opera; and the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Hamlet) to more contemporary modes of adaptation (i.e. Repercussion Theatre’s DEADLY SIN, Macbeth in Hell: A Cabaret!; Bruce Ramsay’s noir-ish film adaptation of Hamlet; and the innovative graphic novel, Kill Shakespeare¸ by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col). Productions such as Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will and Rick Miller’s MacHomer have both been restaged consistently since their debuts, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has recently re-vamped the National Ballet of Canada’s version of Romeo and Juliet, which is entering its second staging this November. John Mortimer and Edward Atienza’s When That I Was has also been revived in 2008 and 2012 after only two performances in the late 1980s.

Other recent adaptations of note include: the Company of Fool’s hilarious retelling of Henry V, Corinne Jaber and Stephen Landrigan’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in Afghanistan, Jean Guy-Legault’s Tout Shakespeare Pour Les Nuls, an epic comedy that summarizes Shakespeare’s 37 plays in one 90 minute performance, and local University of Guelph professor and playwright Judith Thompson’s exploration of the trials and community of homelessness in Hamlet (In Tent City).  Considering that the CASP Database’s last major update was in 2005, this summer’s research shows a significant amount of activity in Canada’s literary and theatre communities. It is apparent that Canadians show no sign of tiring of the Bard.

Click on the gallery below to see photos from, among others, BASH’d!, discussed below at some length, the Company of Fools version of Henry V, Bruce Ramsay’s 1940s era family drama version of Hamlet from the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the 2012 all-Aboriginal production of King Lear performed at the National Arts Centre in Otttawa.

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For audio of Director/Actor/Adaptor Bruce Ramsay discussing his adaptation click below.

One clear trend evident as a result of cataloguing recent adaptations is the shift from the original Shakespearean tongue into a more modern, vernacular style of language, including ample use of slang and references to pop culture. The implications of this new trend are immense, especially in terms of the accessibility of this notoriously difficult literature, expanding across new social, cultural, and political borders. Contemporary adaptors combine present-day cultural and literary practices with the historical texts to create adaptations that are truly unique and, ultimately, Canadian.

There are a few adaptations from the recent updates that illustrate this growing movement. Crad Kilodney, a Toronto-based writer and blogger, has published a series of plays entitled, Shakespeare for White Trash. While the plot and characters remain the same, the language has been dramatically transformed into everyday English. Whereas the opening few lines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet read:

Act I, Scene I. FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO

BERNARDO: Who’s there?

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

BERNARDO: Long live the king!

FRANCISCO: Bernardo?


FRANSICO: You come most carefully upon your hour.

BERNARDO: ‘Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.

FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks: ‘tis bitter cold, ⁄ And I am sick at heart

BERNARDO: Have you have quiet guard?

FRANCISCO: Not a mouse stirring.

BERNARDO: Well, good night. ⁄ If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, ⁄ The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.

Hamlet (1.1.1-14)

Kilodney’s adaptation interprets the same scene as follows:

Act 1, Scene 1. Elsinore Castle. FRANCISCO is on guard duty on the watch platform when BERNARDO arrives to relive him.

FRANCISCO: It’s about time, bro. I was supposed to be off at midnight.

BERNARDO: Okay, you can go to bed. Wassup anyway?

FRANCISCO: Not much.

BERNARDO: If you see Horatio and Marcellus, tell them to move their butts. They’re supposed to be on duty, too.

Kilodney (1.1.1-4)

Approaching Shakespeare is a daunting task. The language is complex and full of metaphor and rhetorical and logical play: people simply do not speak like that anymore. Kilodney’s aim is to expand the availability of Shakespeare’s work by making the language easier to understand and more relatable to the general public (Kilodney 2010) In this sense, because Shakespeare’s plays are adapted using more currently commonplace language, their entertainment and moral values are no longer limited to highly-educated Shakespeare connoisseurs. Currently, Kilodney has adapted twenty-nine of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays, all of which are written to be performed––and he plans to finish the remainder within the next year.

Another recent adaptation created with today’s audience in mind is, BASH’D: A Gay Rap Opera, created and originally performed by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow. Rapping narrators, Feminem and T-Bag, tell the story of a gay Canadian couple, Jack and Dillon, whose marriage becomes marred by violence after Jack is the victim of a brutal gay-bashing. Both active members in the Canadian theatre and comedy scenes, Craddock and Cuckow wrote BASH’d!, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet (only now it’s “Romeo meets Romeo”), with the intention of raising awareness about hate crimes committed in their hometown in Alberta, during the national debate on equal marriage for gays and lesbians. BASH’d! expertly and humorously “explores the effect of homophobic violence and the emotions associated with being any marginalized population” (Homohiphop 2007). For extracts from the show, “Cocksuckaz!,” click below (warning that some of the content may be offensive to some) or click here.

BASH’d! also successfully navigates a controversial topic by pairing it with hip-hop and rap language, both of which have become staples in North American pop culture. It is easy to make the generalization that rap and hip-hop music have had a significant impact on young people. One sees evidence of this in how young people dress themselves to match the fashion of their favourite music videos and how they adopt the slang and personas created by their favourite artists. With upbeat and bawdy lyrics like, “Yo what’s up global citizens? / Yo Yo Yo  – Where my homo’s at? / Put your hands in the air everybody c’mon / Where my lesbians at? / And flap your wrists like you just don’t care” (Homohiphop 2007), youth are perhaps far more likely to pay attention to, remember, and internalize the message of a rap performance as compared to original Shakespearean-style dialect, where the content of the performance can be blurred by linguistic and generational barriers.

Additionally, it is well-known that rap originated as a discourse of defiance and not being held down by dominant social ideology. In an interview with the New York Times, Craddock stated that their use of rap music, “was a way to turn hip-hop on its head because of the ultra-masculinity of it, but also to take it back to its roots, to back when hip-hop was a tool of social justice” (NY Times 2008). Just as rap set out to reclaim the “N” word, the goal of BASH’d! is to do the very same for the derogatory and ill-used term, “faggot.” By adopting the style of rap and hip-hop music, Craddock and Cuckow “take back” a genre tied to constricting notions of heterosexual masculinity thereby reappropriating it to create a new and more accommodating aesthetic structure. Doing so allows them not only to entertain and appeal to the musical tastes dominating modern pop culture, but also ensures that their ultimate message – that of acceptance for all, regardless of sexual orientation – is accessible and relevant to today’s youth, who are arguably our best prospect for initiating change within society.

One more adaptation worth highlighting in the many new additions to the CASP Database is Peter Hinton’s The Comedy of Errors, produced by the National Arts Centre (NAC) of English Theatre in collaboration with Centaur Theatre. The basic plot follows two sets of twins who were swapped at birth and come together after a series of errors and mistaken identities. In this production, the Anglo-Canadian Toronto represents Syracuse and, in contrast, the Franco-Canadian Montreal represents Ephesus. Actors perform in street-clothes while listening to their iPods and typing on laptops and the urbane set includes towering walls of silver skyscrapers, Bixie bikes, and Via Rail signs, with a soundtrack of pop music playing overhead. Although it maintains Shakespeare’s original language and themes of mistaken and loss of identity, Hinton’s adaptation has been revamped to portray present-day fashion and sensibilities. Set in the Montreal and Toronto we know today, it reflects a modern discourse of Canada’s political and social issues, norms, and values.

In Shakespeare’s original comedy, Ephesus was the disorderly city in need of being controlled and being put in its place such that it better resembles the amenable and stolid sister-city of Syracuse. In Hinton’s Comedy of Errors, Montreal is set up as a wonderfully chaotic, accepting, feminine world with a vibrant nightlife while Toronto is a masculine, stoic city, with more traditional values. While the direct settings have been changed, the parallels between Montreal/Ephesus and Syracuse/Toronto remain evident. This echoes historic tensions that exist between Franco-Canadian Quebec and the Anglo-Canadian majority. Hinton himself has said, in an interview for the NAC that “[he] really tried to think of a way that best expressed these two ideas and thought of our own Canadian solitudes, the division of Quebec and English Canada” (National Arts Centre 2009).

The play’s other focus, relating to the omnipresent problem of cultural identity, is on marriage. Contemporary Canadian perspectives on marriage are a whole lot different than what they were in the 1500s. Women certainly have more of a voice and sense of agency, no longer subject to the discretion and orders of their father or husband. Even so, today’s society struggles with some of the same issues that concerned people in Shakespeare’s time, especially when considering notions of freedom and the expectations placed on partners within a marriage. Performing The Comedy of Errors within a modern set and style of dress really contextualizes this for the audience. “A key part of comedy is recognition” (National Arts Centre 2009). The audience is able to recognize the characters and directly relate to their experiences and their story. This aids the performance of the play comically and also expands the horizons of its accessibility.

There is something innately Canadian about these productions. Canada is well-known for its open-mindedness and acceptance of other cultures, traditions, and philosophies and perhaps this is one reason why Shakespeare remains such a celebrated playwright despite his native English origins. By modernizing Shakespeare’s language, adaptors are making his plays more accessible to a wide variety of Canadians from any and all walks of life. Shakespeare is not exactly an easy read nor are his language and rhetoric easily understandable in current contexts. Plays such as the ones discussed in this article contextualize Shakespeare for today’s audience through their use of slang, references to pop culture, as well as the inclusion of current social and cultural issues, making them entertaining and edifying for ‘white trash’ and academics alike. This break from the conventional mode of dialogue allows adaptors to put a bit of themselves back into Shakespeare. Shakespeare, a theatrical and literary phenomenon who has pervaded time with an allure that continues to inspire generations, has, literally and figuratively, become a powerful medium for expressing and perpetuating the Canadian voice.

Jennie Hissa (CASP URA/Research Associate)

For a master list of new updates to the CASP database click below:

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