Like all art, theater has a process. There are numerous facets that go into a performance that the audience may not see when seeing a performance of a play, especially when the piece is of heightened language and drama, such as Shakespeare.
When approaching a Shakespearian piece and other pieces of heightened dramatic language like Greek Tragedies, significant table work is done before even approaching staging the actors. The actors and directors approach the context of the play, where it is set, what was happening during that time, the way people behaved then, the common cultures and traditions, etc. This is done to ensure the actors may immerse themselves fully in the environment and characters of the play. The actors and directors discuss how the environment affects the characters and how the characters affect each other.
During this process, an actor must consider all these things, make a specific decision on what they want to do and then take it with them during the staging and performing of the play. Think of it as a layer cake process, where you have to establish a foundation and then gradually build on it. Each piece being more compact and specific than the last. The performance itself that the audience sees is the tiny figurine at the top of the cake, it’s not the biggest part of the cake but it’s where the viewer’s eyes are drawn. It’s where you see the faces behind the layers of cake below. This demands much retaining of information for the actors and many hours doing research.
However, Shakespearean work is not unique to this process, when performing a late 17th-early-18th century piece from a playwright like George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill or even a modern piece like those of Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, all the same questions are considered as those of Shakespeare.
In the midst of all the background and table work there is need have a discussion of the modern context and interpretation. In the process of creating a performance, the broad interpretation is already decided by the director before the play starts rehearsal. This is later made more specific by the actors themselves throughout the process. The idea of interpretation is in itself a long debated issue that affects both the actors and the audience.
It is okay to put Shakespeare in different time periods than the initial period Shakespeare wrote? When does changing the time period/context become too far? These questions are often discussed when performing a piece, especially considering the fact that you can hardly see a Shakespeare play nowadays without it being placed in a different specific point in time. Stagings can range from World War II, to the Roaring 20’s or even outer space.
When considering all the different elements of background of a play whether it’s of a made up city of Illyria in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or New York City during the AIDS crisis in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”, interpretation is approached in different ways. For example, the ideals and culture of “Twelfth Night” can be interpreted in a different time period because the roots of the play are not on a specific place but more rooted in a feeling or an ideal. “Twelfth Night’s” main ideals are love and music, which can be put in any timeline in which music and love are essential parts of the culture, like the jazz age of the 1960s.
With plays like “Angels in America”, there isn’t as much interpretational flexibility. The root of the play is grounded in the specific time period and culture and ideals of New York City during the AIDS crisis. You cannot interpret the AIDS crisis in the 1940s or in outer space because the ideals and culture of the play would not make sense in those time periods.
Since the roots of a play vary from play to play the question of altered interpretation versus conserving the origin of the play does depend on the play and playwright. As an audience you are seeing the finished product of many weeks and maybe months of work done by the actors and directors to make their own unique and hopefully convincing interpretation as clear and as specific and as authentic as possible.