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Casey Biggs as Oberon and Emily Donohoe as Puck, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Arena Stage; PC: Scott Suchman


Simon Reade discusses how the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Shakespeare in Hollywood

by Simon Reade
for The Arena Stage Production Journal

The name rang a bell. “He’s called Ken Ludwig, Simon,” said Adrian Noble, then Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “He’s in Stratford. Big supporter of the RSC in the States. He’s got some ideas he wants to run past us.” Ken Ludwig? Surely not Lend-Me-A-Tenor-Crazy-For-You Ken Ludwig? What on earth would that master of American screwball comedy want with a classical, Shakespeare ensemble? As Literary Manager at the RSC at the time I was a champion of poetic theatre, pursuing commissions that tended towards political epics. The imp in me surmised that the RSC could well do with upsetting its own applecart; but it is a state subsidised theatre. This Ken Ludwig is the darling of commercial theatre.

Curious, I met the guy.

Well, never judge a writer entirely by his output. Just as Dostoevsky probably wasn’t all doom and gloom, wisecracking Ken Ludwig’s got his serious points too. Sure, he’s fun, full-of-beans. But he’s also exceptionally well-read, bright as a button, with an enthusiasm for comedy and music theatre across the centuries. He’s an expert who kept – who keeps putting me to shame in my lack of appreciation of the popular stage, of the movies. And I don’t just mean the cheesy matinees we’d snigger and sneer at today. He can extemporise on the clown in European Renaissance drama, on the wit of the 18th century playwrights, on the inter-War stars of the Silver Screen… On our first meeting, in the sunshine of Stratford-upon-Avon, he charmed me, he delighted me. And, canny fellow he is, he’d pitch several ideas at me before I’d even realised he’s started.

Some had been long in gestation: a rewrite of a Regency Tony Lumpkin sequel to She Stoops to Conquer. We read the original and realised why it necessitated a rewrite. It was trash. We decided not to go there. Some ideas had been dreamt up on the hoof: inspired by walking backstage, along the narrow passage where the huge 1930s Royal Shakespeare Theatre collides with the Elizbethan-style Swan Theatre, Ken had seen the actors from contrasting shows co-mingle, mid-performance. What if, in this collision, the modern dress performers get confused with the doublet-and-hosed, take a wrong turning and end up on the wrong stage in the wrong play, mused Ken. We laughed and laughed as he improvised and then had the good grace to admit Michael Frayn had written Noises Off, Alan Ayckbourn House and Garden. Ken’s is still an even wilder idea, but we didn’t pursue this either.

We also talked about the whole Shakespeare industry and how the recent movies – from Ken Branagh, via Baz Luhrman, to Shakespeare in Love - had introduced the plays and the man to a whole new generation who’d rejected the works in the classroom or in the lyric theatre. Shakespeare in Love in particular inspired us. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s marvellous screenplay had illustrated how the Elizabethan Theatre of ruthless producers and jobbing script writers, wasn’t a million miles away from the Hollywood studio system.

It was then that Ken mentioned something in passing and we both had that ‘ping’, light-bulb moment. A film I should have known about, but didn’t – Max Reinhardt’s 1936 movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was even more amazing in its making than the finished product itself. It was a story which got right to the heart of the commercialisation of art, the opportunism of Hollywood, the use and abuse of the most venerated writer of all time, Shakespeare. It charted the creative quirks of a meister of mittel Europische Kinema, Max Reinhadt. And it had a cast of starlets: Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Cagney. And the more he talked, the more animated he became. Ken explained to me about Will Hays, the daffy self-appointed censor, whose application of the Hays Code to the sexiness and magical realism of Shakespeare’s dream play was an outrage – very funny, but an outrage nonetheless. And there it was, the embryo of a play which embraced the Shakespeare industry, Hollywood exploitation, US cultural imperialism, the clash of ideologies (liberal and philistine, European and American), of dreams versus nightmares with fascism in Germany a distant but significant rumble. I saw a serious play in the making. I guess Ken had the genius to see that its seriousness could be conveyed through an accumulation of farcical mayhem.

Key to that, and what I learnt from Ken as we developed it first with the RSC (who didn’t produce it, internal political changes getting in the way) and most recently in a try-out reading at Bristol Old Vic where I am now joint Artistic Director, is this brilliant genre which I believe is peculiar to the American psyche: high-jinx, screwball comedy. British people would never be that zany. We’re too knowingly cynical. Funny, yes. But don’t we just know it. It is a genre specific to the American stage and screen of the mid 20th century. And Ken is the modern master of it, his passion for its vaudevillian high-octane antics fuelling his messianic zeal to recapture its essence for contemporary audiences.

Ken’s passion for Shakespeare (his family, even his personal email address all seem to be named after one Shakespeare character or another) is also evident in his new play. Shakespeare in Hollywood is thus a deeply personal play as much as a popular play. And in the spirit with which I used to commission plays at the RSC it’s also poetic and political and, let’s not be afraid to say it, something of a mini-epic. Yet it’s also got a screw loose, the playwright’s having a ball. Screwball. Good comedy. Good drama. Good fun.

Simon Reade is Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic where he has adapted Jill Tomlinson’s The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, Alice in Wonderland and Phillip Pullman's Aladdin. He has worked extensively in film and television, for the BBC and Tiger Aspect in particular. He was Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the RSC 1997-2001 where his adaptations included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. He was Literary Manager at London’s Gate Theatre in the early 1990s.

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