See modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays in London

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

This is a fascinating year for Shakespeare productions in London, with numerous innovations and reinventions of the Bard’s plays on offer for audiences. The recent trend of cross-casting (in particular, casting female performers in male roles) continues – although, of course, that in itself honours the spirit of Shakespeare’s work, which was originally performed by an all-male company and which features plenty of cross-dressing within the actual stories.

These rich, funny, heartbreaking, all-too-human plays continue to resonate with audiences, with little intervention from directors, but it’s also interesting to see theatre-makers experiment by moving the action to modern-day settings, or finding more symbolic approaches that help us view Shakespeare’s dramas in a new way.

And, of course, you can find fantastic musical versions of the plays in the West End – a great way in for audiences who are newer to Shakespeare, or who prefer their Bard with a boyband flavour. So, read on for our tips of where to find the most intriguing Shakespeare productions in town, and, if all’s well that ends well, you’ll be heading to plenty of these soon.

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Titus Andronicus - 750 - LT

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe

This blood-soaked tragedy is normally renowned for its horrifying violence, including rape, mutilation and beheading – with the grisliest stagings resulting in audiences fainting or fleeing the theatre. But Jude Christian’s new adaptation, which features an all-female/non-binary cast, and which shifts the literal violence to a symbolic approach of actors attacking candles, promises to change the focus significantly.

Instead of revelling in the gore, this Titus Andronicus will examine the psychological underpinnings of the characters (including enslaved Goth Tamora, who vows revenge against her captors, and the new Roman emperor Saturninus), the language they use, and in particular the gender politics and power dynamics. With a stripped-back design, it will be more of an intimate thriller than a spectacle, making the most of the confines of the Globe’s indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

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The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s Globe

This “problem play” poses a major challenge to directors, since part of its action is set in the gloomy kingdom of Sicilia and plays out as a tragedy (with a plot not dissimilar to Othello), and a contrasting part set 16 years later in the rural idyll of Bohemia, with more romantic and comic action. How to bridge that gap? Director Sean Holmes has a radical solution: leaning into the separation by staging the play in two spaces — a first for the Globe.

Audiences will begin the play in the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for the luxurious Sicilia scenes, then move to the Globe theatre for the pastoral freedom of (the similar outdoorsy) Bohemia, and finally return to the Sam Wanamaker for the grand climax. It should add an intriguing immersive element to this tale of destructive power and – through time and travel – gradual, hard-earned redemption.

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Henry V - 750 - LT

Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe

This great history play is a striking barometer of where we are now as a nation and how we view ourselves – whether it’s the patriotic rendering by Laurence Olivier during the Second World War or some of the more interrogatory stagings we’ve seen since. For example, some performances have felt particularly fraught since Brexit.

So, how does Holly Race Roughan’s modern-dress staging land now, and what parallels does it draw between those 15th-century battles and our current raging debates? London Theatre’s critic saw a “blueprint for Vladimir Putin’s actions of late” in Henry’s capricious annexing of France, and admired Race Roughan’s audacious, risk-taking approach to the play. You can still catch Henry V at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

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Much Ado About Nothing, Duke of York’s Theatre

The National Youth Theatre can always be relied upon to bring us fresh, exciting versions of classic plays. This spring, that includes the beloved romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing (which really set the template for centuries of romcoms to follow) – so be prepared to meet the warring paramours, Beatrice and Benedict, in a very different setting.

Poet and playwright Debris Stevenson adapts the play in what she’s called "Shakespeare meets reality TV", and it’s directed by Josie Daxter, an alumna of the National Youth Theatre who has worked with pioneering companies like Complicite. This Much Ado will take us behind the cameras, translating the play’s judgemental society into a very modern tale of gossip, media and manipulation.

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& Juliet - 750 - LT

& Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre

Of course, Shakespeare has also inspired numerous hit musicals, from West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to the pop-tastic & Juliet. The latter takes the conclusion of the tragic Romeo and Juliet and gives it a new spin: our heroine now goes off on her own adventure to Paris, thanks to Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway getting involved in the writing process.

The joy of & Juliet is not just its feminist and inclusive values, and comic riff on the Bard, but the incredible pop bangers from maestro Max Martin. If you’ve ever hummed along to a Backstreet Boys track – or Ariana, Katy Perry, Britney, the Weeknd, Jessie J, Justin Timberlake and more – you’ll love this one. Don’t wait too long: the West End run finishes at the end of March.

Romeo and Julie, National Theatre

Although the universal themes of Shakespeare’s plays tend to make them incredibly accessible for modern audiences, you can close that gap even more by adapting them into contemporary stories. That’s the approach taken by Gary Owen with his fresh version of the Bard’s iconic star-crossed lovers at the National, Romeo and Julie.

Instead of 16th-century Verona, we’re in 21st-century Wales, and though our teen heroes grew up just streets apart, they’re living very different lives. Romeo is a struggling single dad, while Julie dreams of studying at Cambridge University, but social inequality complicates their romance and their futures. Owen reunites with director Rachel O’Riordan (the pair impressed with Iphigenia in Splott), and the cast is led by Rosie Sheehy, Catrin Aaron, and It’s a Sin and Cabaret star Callum Scott Howells.

Othello, Lyric Hammersmith

The jealousy plot plays out in full in Frantic Assembly’s staging of Shakespeare’s heartrending tragedy Othello. This acclaimed production places the tale of sex, murder, manipulation and betrayal very much in the 21st century: the noble dukedom is swapped for a pub with a pool table, and the main characters become disaffected youths with hair-trigger tempers and latent racist hatred.

Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s popular production now comes to the Lyric Hammersmith after previous runs including a recent national tour. Expect some searing commentary on modern Britain (and the gendered double standards that still exist) along with propulsive drama, bruising action and an electrifying soundtrack. This is very much Shakespeare for 2023.

Photo credit: Henry V (Photo courtesy of production)

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