Writing about Gnomeo and Juliet (Rocket Productions) @ Showcase Cinema, Coventry from The Bardathon
A further thought after tonight's viewing of Gnomeo and Juliet. After fleeing the slings and arrows of the Reds, and being caught up by a hostile dog, our protagonist Gnomeo finds himself at the statue of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, who becomes animated as he explains to Gnomeo how his own version of the same story ended.
Bill Shakespeare, voiced with thespy gravitas by Patrick Stewart, is a self-absorbed and self-publicising author. In describing the beauty of his tragic ending, his tendency is immediately towards the elevating effect that the tragic conclusion of Romeo has on his own authorial identity and recognition. Following the death, it's "Curtain! Lights! Applause! Author! Author!" Fame and glory await the successful tragedian, a glory in which the statue nostalgically exults.
A Shakespeare Statue appeared onstage in various plays in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, described by Michael Dobson as part of the monumentalising of The Bard in British culture (it's late now, but if I find time to dig out the specific references, I'll insert them here). Usually, however, appearances of Shakespeare onstage were partially (or implicitly) self-deprecating, serving to authorise the "improvement" of the works by new dramatists. Paradoxically, the monument served as a figure for the new and transient.
Here, it functions similarly, if with less self-awareness. The statue is bound in his own past, his own fixity. In many ways, this is the statue as reimagined by Lukas Erne and those advocating the "return of the author", a Shakespeare who sees his own works as fixed and takes pleasure in his own authorial versions. He is directly opposed to the question of adaptation posed by Gnomeo, who refuses to accept Shakespeare's tragic ending, and the two enter into conflict over the problem. Shakespeare's tragedy is rooted in an artistic ideal; while Gnomeo appeals to the heart and to human (gnomic?) happiness. It is Shakespeare who comes off badly, particularly in his smug "Told him so" as a distant explosion roars over the Capulet/Montague houses towards the film's climax. Yet the statue's subsequent disappearance as the film's happy ending takes over speaks to the supplantation of authorial auctority over the performance text.
Shakespeare is inevitably introduced into his own plays in order to alert audiences to the process of adaptation. Implicitly or explicitly, his role is to offer an embodiment of the notion of textual fidelity, against which the performative reading - which is always and necessarily an adaptation, to a greater or lesser extent - is licenced, by flattering comparison or competitive contrast. His appearance within the performance text is itself an adaptation, forcing Shakespeare into a liminal state in which his fixity is itself an adaptive element; paradoxically, his centrality and monumentalisation can only exist within a wider discourse of (re)appropriation and (re)performance. What Gnomeo and Juliet, as an inherently parodic adaptation, is able to do is poke direct fun at Shakespeare, turning him into a fusty establishment figure within his own text, enacting a deliberate confrontation with and rejection of Bardic permanency. As such, the right of adaptors to remake Shakespeare to suit a modern purpose is explicitly articulated as a radical and subversive move that asserts the re-maker's ownership of "Shakespeare".
Good for them.