Saturday, December 8, 2012

Theatre For Thought, December 8, 2012

joel fishbane

Raised on a literary pedestal, hailed as the greatest playwright that ever lived, poor William Shakespeare has long been a victim of his own reputation. Traditionally seen as the domain of the theatrical elite, it usually takes a gimmick or a radical re-interpretation of the text to get the average audience involved in his work. Last year, the Stratford Festival shoved Seanna McKenna into the title role of Richard III while down in New York, audiences can still see Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s site-specific, immersive re-telling of Macbeth. 

Now, for those who don’t fancy a night in the theatre, there’s a new adaptation in town: To Be Or Not to Be: That is the Adventure, a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet by Canadian comic book writer Ryan North.

The idea is as simple as it is brilliant: readers can opt to be Hamlet, Ophelia or the ghost of Hamlet’s father and then follow that character through the story (Yes, Hamlet’s father dies right away and, as a ghost, you are tasked with solving your own murder). While readers can follow the same choices as Shakespeare’s counterparts, there is plenty of leg room to change everyone’s fate. “You can battle pirates or invent indoor heating or both,” says North on the video found on his fundraising page at Each storyline is written by North, who founded Dinosaur Comics and co-edited the bestselling short story anthology Machine of Death

The book is written in modern language, but readers can have the option of reading the original text when it comes to the famous speeches.

“This is great literature in what has to be the most accessible, friendly format ever,” writes North on his fundraising page at “If you ever struggled with wondering what was going on and what people's motivations were in the play, you will totally understand everything once you play through this book, assuming you make the same choices Shakespeare did when he played it.”

North goes on to assure potential donors that the book will appeal to everyone “even if you've never had any particular interest in to being or not to being.” The book is written in modern language, but readers can have the option of reading the original text when it comes to the famous speeches. 

North isn’t the first artist to reinvent the Bard. In 2010, scribes Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery created the 12-book comic book series Kill Shakespeare. Set in the world of Shakespeare’s plays, the story mashes together several of Shakespeare’s works, so that Hamlet is able to gallivant with Falstaff in a brothel while Lady Macbeth murders her husband because she’s in league with Richard III. 

While the theatrical purist in me is a little dismayed by these abuses of Shakespeare’s work, it has to be said that re-inventing Shakespeare is a time-honoured tradition dating back hundreds of years. Restoration writers rewrote Shakespeare’s work to suit their tastes and there’s the infamous Bowdlerisations that occurred once moralist Thomas Bowdler got his hands on things. And at least writers like North, Del Col and McCreery aren’t pretending to be presenting Shakespeare’s work when they’re not – unlike certain theatre companies who change the text and don’t bother to tell the audience (I’m looking at you, Stratford Festival). 

The support for Kill Shakespeare and To Be or Not to Be suggests that the classic version of the Shakespeare fan – some stuffy academic or a member of the theatrical elite – may no longer apply. Is it possible that theatre companies should be marketing Hamlet, Richard III and Othello to a much different demographic? Kill Shakespeare has a cult following and when Ryan North launched his appeal on Kickstarter, he made $20 000 in just under four hours (according to the Guardian, that fund is currently hovering around the $150,000 mark). Clearly there’s an interest in Shakespeare’s world that isn’t coming from the usual suspects – and hopefully these innovations will encourage more people to return to the text and see for themselves why the Bard has survived for so many years.

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