Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart dramatises the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. It is a history play in the Shakespearean mold. The production I saw last night put the actors into what might loosely be called "modern dress". There were certainly no courtiers in stockings and doublets and the two queens were not dressed in corsets and hooped dresses. This annoyed some friends of mine. For them, stage depictions of historical figures should appear in period dress. In this view, the two leading women in Maria Stuart should appear like recognizably sixteenth-century figures, Richard III should eschew pin-stripe suits, Macbeth should have plenty of fur and a garter or two about home, Julius Caesar is best in togas, and so on. But that would be the death of theatre, both artistically and commercially.
At least half of any season mounted by a large professional theatre company consists of established repertoire. This generally starts around the time of Shakespeare and runs - with national variations - to the modern classics of Ibsen and, say, Arthur Miller. This is the bread and butter of the repertoire, the "classics". The essential feature of these plays is that they are familiar to the core audience of professional repertory theatre companies. The regular theatre-goer is an interesting beast. Well might we ask why we still flock to see a new production of a well-known Shakespeare play. We know the plot. We know the memorable quotes and probably even memorised a monologue or two at school. Yet we keep coming back. Would we keep coming back if the productions were embalmed in a museum ethos of "period costume", predictable, safe, familiar and dull. I doubt it.
Film is instructive in this connection. By its nature, film embalms a performance. Some films classics have been the subject of remakes, but normally a film does not experience the constant reinterpretation that a classic piece of theatre does. So, films date quite quickly. Even in the age of the "long tail" provided by television, DVD and online releases, two to three years is a very long shelf-life for most films. Even the top cinema hits from as recently as the 1990s now seem dated, if not embarrassing. They have practically no audience appeal. Contrast that with, say, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. Four hundred years old and still going strong. Their longevity is not just a question of Shakespeare's theatrical mastery. It also arises from the fact that each generation shapes them to reflect its own tastes and interests. Re-interpretation keeps theatre alive and saves it from the fate of film's past glories.
Putting history plays into the glass case of a theatrical museum would kill the demand for them. For the vast majority of people, seeing a film once is enough. Few things are as tedious as watching a film when we know what is going to happen next. Seeing Julius Caeser, Maria Stuart, Richard III or Romeo and Juliet embalmed as period costume dramas would produce the same feeling. Why would we then want to keep going back to see the same style of production? "Want to go to Hamlet on Saturday night?", would then be followed by "No, thanks. I have already seen it." The result would be the death of repertory theatre, at least as we know it.
Instead, we need to keep rebirthing the theatrical classics. Shakespearen bad guys need to really revolt and scare us today. The damsels must be alluring and desirable in our eyes. We need to see ourselves in the tragic characters as well as in the heroes. They, and we, cannot do that if those on stage look like figures from a waxworks museum.