To touch up or not to touch up the classics

Revisions of literary works, which rewrite characters, situations or endings to make them politically correct, open a debate that also reaches the theater.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
12 February 2024 Monday 09:25
7 Reads
To touch up or not to touch up the classics

Revisions of literary works, which rewrite characters, situations or endings to make them politically correct, open a debate that also reaches the theater. The classics are omnipresent on our stages, but the works are rarely presented as they were written. Not even the National Classical Theater Company, directed by Lluís Homar and which these days visits the Romea theater, presents the works being faithful to the original. La Vanguardia has spoken with five directors to express their point of view and also how they do it in each case.

“What I like is to contextualize the work when it is needed,” declares Carme Portaceli, director of the TNC. That is, see the moment in which it was written and what it would mean in the present. From here I start working. What I do is look at it as a woman and from the 21st century; In my case, I can't do it any other way.” And she gives an example: “In the adaptation of Terra baixa, by Àngel Guimerà, I don't touch his words, I don't amend his story. But I do consider that, with its text, other things can be created, which help to interpret and update it. On the other hand, in the case of The Mother of Frankenstein, by Almudena Grandes, all the words that appear in the performance are those of the author.”

Josep Maria Mestres, who has just premiered Els Watson, by Laura Wade, at the TNC, explains: “A classic always has to be considered and looked at from a perspective of now and here. If it doesn't tell us anything, there's no point in setting it up. If the view on things that come out is doubtful, I think that has to be maintained, because we cannot deny the past. Having the perspective from which it has been written, we have to explain it, paying attention to the things with which we do not agree.”

“Els Watson, although it is a current work, is part of Jane Austen's novel,” continues Mestres. At the time it was explained that a woman could not have a complete life if she did not marry, and Wade has done the job in the play. Austen romanticized marriage, because it was the feminist gesture she could make.”

Sergi Belbel explains: “I am not in favor of excessive adaptation because the public is intelligent enough to make the change. When a work is truly good it is when it touches what is universal. In this sense, the problems are more of form than substance.”

And Shakespeare appears: “I have never liked a play like The Taming of the Shrew. It is a minor work and when I read it when I was young, I already saw that I couldn't stand it. I think that in this work he went a bit astray, because he was very sexist. On the other hand, The Merchant of Venice, which touches on the theme of racism and hatred of the Jew, has always seemed interesting to me because Shakespeare doubles himself and when he treats the Jew, he gets inside, he does not judge him from the Christian point of view. It seems to me to be a universal work and when a work reaches the universal, like most of the Greek tragedies that have been preserved and that are in this line, why should we not visit it?

Director Sílvia Munt also mentions Shakespeare's work: “Lluís Pasqual's last year at the Teatre Lliure suggested that I direct The Taming of the Shrew and I said no, because if I have to start fixing things, I won't stop. If a woman has to be domesticated, we are no longer doing well. And I suggested doing Dogville. On the other hand, you can make a thousand adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, because the spirit of the work is in all of them.”

Munt adds: “When you face a classic text, there is no single truth. When we made Eva contra Eva, with Pau Miró, he wanted to make a revisitation of Eva Naked, that iconic and wonderful film. But eighty years have passed, life has changed, and the role of women, too; Therefore, you revisit it with the eyes of now. If you watch the film today, there are moments, like when the critic slaps the actress, that are intolerable today. Now, when I made El preu, by Arthur Miller, in 2016, I put it together as is, I didn't need to locate it now, because the problems of an era and the crash of '29 were still the same as the crashes we have now. They were absolutely current period characters. I believe that each creator has the freedom to do what he considers in each case, and that any decision is honest.”

Ferran Utzet declares: “In theatre, as it is a living representation, there is room to intervene in the text and revisit it. If you make it literal, what it causes is rejection. You have to intervene a little, not to go towards what is politically correct, but to ensure that what the author wanted to say continues to reach him, but trying to iron out the rough edges and obstacles that could prevent it, not to be purists.

And he gives an example: “Hamlet is a textbook abuser. He is a great character in the history of theater, with great complexity, but he psychologically abuses Ofelia. He is not a model of behavior, but recovering Hamlet and softening that is not fair, because you whitewash the character.”

Belbel adds: “Theatre has to be violence, conflict, so that the spectator reacts. What tires me is that the artist tells me what I have to think. What superiority does he have? Are you so sure of your morality? I'm a little tired of pamphlets on stage. In the theater I need what is politically incorrect, I need it to shake me.”

“There are no canonical readings, but each text is different,” continues Utzet. Now, with Beckett, for example, you can't, because his works are like sculptures. Luckily, since we have to translate it, we have a little leeway here. In the case of Esperant Godot it seemed to me that if a mischievous poet like Josep Pedrals did it, we would win. But because it's so deeply abstract, you can't manipulate it. "You have to lock yourself in a room with those two guys and wait for something to happen that you know won't happen."

“However, if you want to be realistic, make films. Theater does not have to be documentary,” she concludes.

Catalan version, here