Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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An Interview with Judith Thompson

Judith Thompson

The CASP interview with Judith Thompson took place in February, 2004.

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Your work as a playwright is socially active, sensitive to issues of social justice, the rights of the oppressed, and so forth. To what extent to you see adaptation as a way of responding to issues of social justice?

I believe that an adaptation of a classic or canonized work gives a writer the opportunity to guide the audience in their interaction with the play, to shake the piece until it is a living text again and to magnify areas of the play that have contemporary social relevance (i.e. Taming of the Shrew,
Othello, The Merchant of Venice).

As a playwright whose work has far exceeded notions of national boundary and whose work has been performed in all sorts of international venues, what do you make of writing/theatrical issues in which Canadian identity figures as a cental preoccupation? How do you think your work reflects on issues of national identity?

Although I don't approach a character with national identity in mind, because I create unique and specific characters, they are grounded in place. They are who they are because of where they are-Theresa is a First Nations woman in small town Ontario, Isobel, a Portugese immigrant to Toronto, Dodge a Europeon Canadian of several generations, and Aziz a refugee from a war torn country.

Much has been made critically about the relation of your 1992 play Lion in the Streets to Hamlet (and by extension to Shakespeare). Given that it's been almost 12 years since the play debuted, is there anything you'd like to say (with the benefit of hindsight) about that play's relation to the Shakespeare effect? Would your use of Shakespeare in the play fit in with how you think of theatrical adaptation?

I didn't know about the relation of "Lion" to Hamlet! But I guess it makes sense in a way, although she wants revenge from the beginning, and is set on it, but when she gets the chance, she says "I love you" not " you are praying now, and might go to heaven." The reference to Ophelia's drowning is particular to Joanne––as a working class girl it is a "step up" to even know about the Victorian painting and the play the image was taken from––and to have made the imaginative leap into Ophelia's world, to see the horror of her suicide as something romantic, beautiful speaks the way audiences have been trained to see Shakespeare-admiring the beauty of the poetry without really hearing the thoughts,––the massacre at the end of Hamlet is quite plausible today in Chechnya or Iraq or Uganda––not in the least melodramatic or "classic." That is how I feel about my own plays––they have been accused of being excessive––one critic wrote that it is typical of me to have gang rape when it could just be a rape, or a tonic clonic seizure when it could be a petit mal ... The situations I dramatize are utterly real and in fact I often play them down ...


Could you reflect on the extent to which Shakespearean influences figure in your work as a playwright generally?

I value dramatic WRITING, the poetry of the language, the music of the language, and I agonize
over every phrase–and I like to use blatant coincidence, to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of narrative, and of "real life"-and the power of the narrator to make a plot happen-and I give my characters monologues quite frequently, and often they address the audience; I would describe my work as magic realism–I think of Macbeth and The Tempest and others ...

To what extent is theatrical culture in Canada (in your reading of it) a function of Shakespearean theatre?

Theatrical culture in Canada––a function of Shakespeare theatre? Some, I suppose. Much is a reaction against-the Passe Muraille collectives, etc. Sadly, I think adaptation is often a sort of over reverence rather than over-writing.

What are the problems facing a playwright who undertakes a Shakespearean adaptation?

The problems?––I adapted Hamlet and Macbeth for school productions––Macbeth hardly changed, as it is so short and easy, but Hamlet I abridged to an hour and ten minutes, and it worked very, very well–just took out the Fortinbras complications, and most of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern story, although not all, and the myriad digressions. Ileft in all the strongest bits.

Adaptation of Shakespeare in Canada is a flourishing genre. The CASP research team has found close to 500 plays that are clear adaptations dating back to pre-Confederation. To what extent does this tradition of adapting define specifically Canadian theatrical practices (if one can even speak of such practices with any validity)?

I think the original adaptations stemmed from colonial insecurity––as in––we rough settlers would never presume to write a play ourselves, so the next best thing is to adapt a text we revere, so that our rough audience will understand what is beyond them.

When my career was starting the theatre in Canada was dominated by British expats who were condescending and Canada hating. . I remember being told by Derek Goldby ( he had made a noise with his U.K. production of, I think The Knack? Or Rosen. And Guildenstern Are Dead) that all Canadian theatre was mediocre, and my play was only a true success if it was on at the West End. This was after he smacked me on the head with my script. Many teachers and directors told us
there were no Canadian plays, and I remember as a young playwright, when my first play was in NYC, many Canadians saying "It must be great to work with REAL actors" when the original actors I worked with here were without a doubt the best in the world. So even though I draw on Shakespeare a fair amount, especially in my movie, "Lost and Delerious"––where Paulie quotes Viola "I will make me a willow cabin at thy gates, and call upon my soul within the house.." As well as Cleopatra,
( quite extensively near the end–one of the last lines being "and so I rush into the secret house of death.")––the idea of all these timid, self effacing Canadians adapting Shakespeare instead of writing their own plays irritates me, politically! It actually reminds me of very early playwrighting which, of course, was mostly presentations or re-workings of the Bible stories––Othello is referred to in my latest play "Capture Me"–"I will tear her all to pieces" because it is with that line that I was intimidated here at Guelph, with a student actor in rehearsal …

Does adaptation necessarily place the playwright in a compromised position (in terms of reinforcing theatrical tradition) or does it afford opportunities to remake that tradition? Are there examples in your own work you would point to as part of your response?


Yes, I think it does compromise a playwright, to adapt Shakespeare because it is another voice– and a voice which has come to be absolutely sacred––one is tampering, and as a playwright, I do not approve of anyone messing with or adapting my work …

What theatrical techniques do you see as most useful in the adaptation of Shakespeare genre?

Theatrical techniques? When Sarah Stanley did Shrew––she switched the genders, with great success at the start, anyway– I have seen Hip Hop Romeo and Juliets where very little of the text was used, instead it was movement- and tech-based––many adaptations reduce Shakespeare to the plot and I don't understand that, because the plots could have been created by any Elizabethan hack, whilst
drinking ale.

I suppose there is adaptation in setting––setting Merchant in Nazi Germany, etc. but that only goes so far. One can't really change the text effectively, only edit.

What ideological / political implications do you see to adapting Shakespeare in a Canadian context?

Implications in adapting to a Canadian context––good––lending the grandeur of a Shakespeare text and the mythology to seemingly ordinary Canadian contexts, like a mall in Whitby, a fly-in reserve, Sudbury community hall, etc. bad—royalty is such a large part of some of the plays, it is kind of a forced fit, although I suppose community leaders could stand in for royalty.

WOMEN. The roles for females are just not great, with a couple of notable exceptions. Can a woman play Hamlet? I guess so. Richard the Third? Hmm. I don't know about these last questions.

The plot? The speeches? The characters? The basic plot and characters have to be present, and, I believe, a good deal of the langauge. Because it is the very poetry, word choices, Alice Munro-esque insights, the music of the language makes it Shakesperare.

Could you reflect on your own cultural background in relation to your writing and in relation to being "Canadian"?

Here's a reflection on my own cultural background in relation to my writing and to being Canadian: my background is one hundred percent Gaelic Irish. Jane O'Hara and Robinson Thompson travelled on a ship to Canada, and were given land outside of London, Ont, in Belmont, the road is still called‘Thompson Road' and the farm, "Cavanalach" after the county in Ireland they grew up in.

Naturally, being of Irish descent, I am in a constant state of rage towards the English Monarchy––to the point were seeing the image of the crown on our highway signs puts me in a bad mood, and seeing HER face on our currency––worse––to me, the fact that we remain a "constitutional monarchy" is an embarrassment, proof of our weakness and lack of identity. India came up with an excellent solution to the whole president problem––we don't seem to have the will, or the belief in the strength of our identity––a reason constantly offered for hanging onto the ties with the Windsors is that we don't want to be taken over by the U.S.A.––why does becoming a Republic mean we will be taken over? So to link this rant to Shakespeare adaptations––it can be empowering to take a canonized work and shape it like Playdoh into the creation we envision, on the other hand, it can be seen as a genuflection to a "real" playwright, who continues to teach us, the rude and rough, uncultured 30 million in the cold woods.

In so many cases being Canadian becomes a way of talking about elsewhere spaces that get mapped onto Canada. What role do you think theatre plays in that mapping of local and international identities that seems to be  so crucial to discussions of Canadian identity?

I think theatre has a crucial role to play in the mapping of local and international identities––the playwright must reflect the world around her/him––and that world is constantly shifting. I recently directed a group of children in a presentation of Hamlet's speech "to be or not to be" (for a 6-week enrichment cluster). Instead of a straight up presentation, I asked each child to say "to be or not to be that is the question" in their ancestral language. This began the show. Then, after "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" each child named an illness they had suffered. After "to sleep, perchance to dream" each child told the audience a nightmare they had had" and after the speech was finished, they repeated the ancestral languages. It was a huge success––the immigrant parents were happy to see their place of origin recognized.


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