However, when I see a production of a more recent play, specific period seems far more significant. For instance, I recently saw the highly-acclaimed production of View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. It was a well-acted production, presented to us in a style and setting reminiscent of Greek tragedy; the clothes were modern however, and for me, ignoring the play’s setting seemed to be going against what Miller was saying. The play is set in a tenement house in Brooklyn in the 1950s where Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice and her daughter Catherine live. Eddie is a longshoreman and a great deal has been written about the corrupt unions and use of cheap illegal immigrant labour. For me (and for everyone currently living), this is a modern period, everyone must know someone alive at that time which immediately connects them to that time-frame. I must say I begin to wonder where I am when Sicilian peasants come on stage in modern dress, talk in perfect American accents (although they have just arrived illegally) and speak of the terrible poverty they have escaped from back home. This is not a context that helps me understand the play or makes it more accessible; as far as I’m concerned it’s just pointless and confusing. Likewise when Eddie Carbone tells his adopted daughter that her dress is too short, I guess Miller had in mind something just above the knee, but in this production the line had a whole different connotation because Catherine appeared on stage wearing something resembling a ra-ra skirt.
Similarly, I also recently saw a modern dress production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. This play is set in the late 1940s in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and without its sense of time and place the characters lose their significance. Stanley Kowalski becomes nothing more than a mindless thug unless we understand his thin skin about being the son of dirt-poor Polish immigrants to America. When Stella, a sympathetic character, tells Stanley that Blanche’s late husband was ‘a deviant’ - meaning he was simply ‘gay’ - it seems totally implausible coming from the mouth of a young woman in modern clothing. Likewise, the personality of Blanche DuBois seems totally anachronistic within a modern setting - and it begins to feel like the DuBois family home in Laurel, Mississippi must be a planet in a galaxy, far-far-away.
I could go on! Why was Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw, a play written in the Edwardian era, recently staged at the National Theatre in modern dress? I’m sorry, but I find it hard to believe the characters’ shock and horror at a young woman’s pregnancy when their maid (maid?) is walking around in a pair of jeans!
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed all these productions, but I honestly believe I would have enjoyed them even more had they done the ‘boring’ thing and simply been true to the play’s period. The two most affecting pieces of live theatre I’ve seen in recent years were Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen and The Crucible by Arthur Miller - both these productions were presented within their correct time-frame and I came away from the auditorium after seeing them emotionally wrung-out. I’ve heard a couple of directors recently comment that younger audiences wouldn’t find older plays relevant unless they had been reinvented in a contemporary setting. I honestly believe that they are in danger of underestimating the intelligence of young theatre-goers.