If “About” was concerned with playwriting and criticism, “Properly” is about direction and criticism.
It started out with the title:
““Properly”: Deadly word. Necessary word?”
and started life as an essay against the idea of there being a “proper” way of directing *anything* (there are also elements of it which feed back into “About” - the “proper” way to write a play “about” something was mentioned. And it might have, at some point, gone on to discuss the “proper” way to review...). It was most recently spurred by a comment made under my Othello blog or on another recent Guardian theatre blog, where some commenter would have said: “This is all well and good, but I wonder if [such-and-such a director] would be able to do it properly.” Or, even more simply, “I don't understand why people can't just do Shakespeare properly any more.” Or maybe it was a review. I forget.
I'm not sure what worries me more: the fact that there are people out there who obviously care about theatre enough to read blogs and comment with their opinions who can still believe that there's a way of doing Shakespeare “properly”, (or of doing a new play “properly”, for that matter); or the fact that when I read those comments, I do still immediately get a mental image of the production they mean when I read the word “properly”.
I think it's the latter.
After all, I'm not immune to having grown up somewhere. And that somewhere was Britain, and Britain has got its culture/s, and that culture has its, I dunno, cultural markers? Elements of commonalty? What I mean is: If you grew up in Britain when I grew up in Britain, unless you had a particularly exceptional life then there are probably certain cultural items that you'll recognise and maybe certain cultural expectations that you'll have unconsciously absorbed.
I reckon a big one of these is “properly”. It's got a Shakespearean context and, perhaps more interestingly, I think it's got a contemporary theatre context too.
I wonder if I asked you all (or at least the Britons among you) to close your eyes and think of Shakespeare “done properly” right now, whether you'd all come up with roughly the same sorts of images. I'm not asking about Shakespeare done “well”, or “imaginatively”, or “the best you've ever seen”, I'm talking about “properly”.
Does it involve ruffs? Does it involve meticulously researched historical costumes? Big hats? Big dresses? Swords in belts? Possibly the Globe Theatre itself? (full marks if it also involved Felicity Kendall as Viola on the front cover of the BBC Shakespeare text of Twelfth Night).
That's Shakespeare done properly, right? I'm not imagining this, am I? Whether we like it or not, if someone says “done properly” then we know what they mean, and what they mean is that, right? Whether we like it or not, we all understand/associate a particular school of doing Shakespeare with the word “properly”.
Perhaps it's an accident of language that anyone chooses to introduce notions of propriety into what should be a question of artistic interpretation. Or perhaps it's the absolute opposite of a linguistic accident; subconscious or otherwise. After all, “properly” is quite an old-fashioned word now, isn't it? Quite an odd word for one grown-up to use about another grown-up's work. One washes one's hands properly, one shouldn't have to direct Shakespeare as if deviation from Elizabethan costume and bellowing the lines in a plummy voice is somehow just a failure of effort. Or, even more stupidly, as a misunderstanding of some unseen “rules”, rather than an entirely valid difference of opinion.
I should point out at this juncture that I don't have any personal or political animus against productions which do opt for historical costumes. I've heard the arguments against, and I'm not convinced they really add up to the need for an immediate cessation. Nothing worn by an actor on a stage is an accident. As such, claims made for the comparative neutrality of modern casual dress or even the actors' own clothes don't wash either. They do, however, forcefully highlight what level of decision historical costumes are. How much, rather than being some kind of default “proper” version, they are in fact the massive imposition/importing of any number of external value systems. Directors should obviously have a very clear idea of why they're using them.
No. What I have a problem with is the very notion of “properly”. And this goes beyond productions of Shakespeare...
The fact that one very particular way of doing things can be widely imagined to be the “proper” or “right” way of doing things has two main pitfalls. The first is that it will legitimise an awful lot of lazy thinking/no thinking at all. Second, and worse, though, is that the existence of a “proper way of doing things” automatically de-legitimises any other choices. That creates the possibility of the criticism that something “hasn't been done properly”; hasn't been “done right”.
A director, by not producing a play in a certain way, is can be suggested to have somehow misunderstood the play. Or else, even more gallingly, a hugely intelligent staging of a play can be reviewed as something of a novelty, a kind of licensed court jester, a nice little break from “properly” before everyone gets back to doing everything “properly”.
If there was one thing I could change about British theatre, it would quite possibly be the idea in people's minds (mine included) that something can be done “properly”.
To give a non-Shakespearean example: a good few years ago now, I saw a production of The Crucible at LAMDA. It was an excellent production, I thought. At the time I don't suppose I'd seen more than a handful of plays from anywhere other than Britain, whereas the director Gadi Roll had started his work as a director in Israel and Europe. I was mostly staggered by how fast the play was done. By British standards it was an incredibly stylised way of doing Miller's Crucible. The last time I'd seen it before that was for my A-Levels in Birmingham's Old Rep, in what was – well – exactly the production you'd expect of The Crucible in a theatre called the Old Rep in Britain. Historical costumes, psychological acting, nice loud voices and a bit of shouting in the fraught bits. Totally "properly", in fact.
When the LAMDA finished, despite being utterly exhilarated just from watching the play – and how often does that ever happen really? – one of my first thoughts was that I'd like now to see it done “properly”. Why? Hadn't seeing it done improperly just made my night? Hadn't seeing it done properly all those years ago left me entirely indifferent (ditto Birmingham Rep's “proper” A View From the Bridge w. Bernard Hill (circa '95))? So where did this impulse to see it done "properly" come from?
I don't have an answer to this.
But it seems/suggests that the idea of “properly” is very deeply ingrained and will, I think, take a lot of de-conditioning to get rid of. If I were to make modest proposals, I imagine I'd start with the critics – I have no idea how much reach they or their opinions really have, but if we imagine there's some sort of tickle-down effect, I wonder what would happen if notions of “proper” and “traditional” were somehow disallowed. Or, even if they were treated with the same suspicion currently reserved for “innovation” or “novelty” for a while. Yes, I know some innovation is already praised, and some over-reliance on “traditionalism” is reprimanded, but I wonder what it'd be like if the reverse were briefly the cultural norm, and rather than the exception.
I'm not arguing for a new orthodoxy. That wouldn't benefit anyone. I've been at pains to point out in this piece and in “About” that I'm not arguing for one thing replacing another. Rather that “alternatives” to “properly” should stop being treated like missteps or novelties. I'm interested in a greater plurality of approaches, and for that to happen, I believe the idea of one particular way of doing things being right has to be abolished.
The above reverse-position is just a thought experiment, of course. But it does make me wonder what our theatre culture would look like if there wasn't this incredible, monolithic deference to the past, to tradition, and to “properly”.
[Illustrations all paintings of the performance of The Mousetrap in Hamlet by: (top to bottom) Daniel Maclise, Edwin Austin Abbey and Keeley Halswell]