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Modernizing Shakespeare

Amara Webb (left) as Diana and Philip Orazio as Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, 2022.

By Liz Armstrong

Shakespeare’s first plays were performed in the 1590s. This means that his plays have been seen for over 400 years, inspiring and impacting audiences around the world for centuries. Because his plays have been performed for so long, it’s understandable that updates and changes are often implemented. This year, The Tempest is utilizing projections to aid in the storytelling and has set the play in the 1990s, while Director Melinda Pfundstein decided to set All’s Well That Ends Well against the backdrop of 1940s France and Italy. 

Pfundstein explained that “Shakespeare’s plays were written through his particular lens in the world, and were relevant in his time, meant to stir conversation, provoke thought and inquiry, entertain the senses, serve as a mirror to society, and so much more.”

Even though the plays were written so long ago, the core themes remain relevant in today’s society, which is why Shakespeare is still so beloved. But modernizing the plays a bit can make them even more relatable.

“We have an opportunity with his plays to present All’s Well That Ends Well through a contemporary lens—without making any contemporary language additions, in a way that may inspire the same outcomes as Shakespeare’s time: conversation, inquiry, thought, etc., and make his themes relevant to our current world and audience,” Pfundstein said.

“His plays are repeated over and over at the Festival, and I am excited by the opportunity to breathe fresh perspective into these beloved and sometimes lesser-known stories, in a way that allows my own children to see themselves and the world around them represented within,” Pfundstein said. 

Cameron Knight, who is directing The Tempest this year, agrees, adding that modernizing any Shakespeare play allows for the audience to wrestle with the story of the plays in a more immediate way. 

“It allows for Shakespeare to truly transcend and become the representative and inclusive author that we believe him to be,” Knight said. “The impact is profound when an audience and the artists can see themselves in the work.”

Although modernizing Shakespeare is sometimes controversial, it ultimately gives audience members the opportunity to connect to the plays on an even deeper level while enjoying the fresh take directors choose to implement. 

Enjoy the productions of All’s Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, and morethis 2022 season. The changes and creative decisions that directors have made will ensure that they are productions you have never seen before, and that is the beauty of modernizing Shakespeare.

© Utah Shakespeare Festival 2022 www.bard.org