Friday, 13 September 2013

Thoughts on rewriting Shakespeare

Literary obsessives among you may be aware of the recent news that Penguin Random House are commissioning a series that will adapt the plays of Shakespeare into the novel form. Award winning authors Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson have been added to the list of authors attempting this task (so far only four have been announced, see the story for more). As you might expect, some have been up in arms: surely the authors have better things to do? Why should we meddle with Shakespeare? What will this achieve? Is this going to ruin Shakespeare?

To be fair, I am generalising massively here and the reputation of the authors so far announced is making people very excited. Even better, some people are very open to reinterpretation of Shakespeare and correctly say that it is not a brand new idea. Indeed, there are a series of children's books which I got one Christmas that tell the plays of Shakespeare in modern prose and charming illustrations. Now, this project is going to be more ambitious than that series. Here, they are going to use the novel from to retell the stories rather than just summarise them. Again, not without precedence: A Thousand Acres (one of the many books on my 'must read' list) retells the story of King Lear, and there are numerous plays and films that use Shakespeare's plays as a starting point.

Personally, I'm going to read them and quite excited about future announcements. This is an exciting chance to see another interpretation of Shakespeare's work which we see every month it seems. I see no reason that this news should not be as exciting as the news this week of the Royal Shakespeare Company announcing its summer season. Both projects are going to give us versions of Shakespeare that will not be to everyone's taste. But everyone has their version of Shakespeare. That is why his work lasts, because it can be endlessly reassessed, looked at in a different way.

In fact, the novels will probably be more faithful to the plays than most modern theatre productions will be. Shakespeare's plays are long and a lot of the material simply doesn't work nowadays. This, as well as creative decisions, means that rarely do you see a Shakespeare play in its entirety (as Kenneth Branagh's film proved Hamlet would be about four hours long). Beyond page length, novels don't have this problem with length and just as modern productions do now, can rework the unworkable material into something that does.

I'm definitely going to check these out although as has been pointed out by others, so far no-one has been announced for the tragedies. While the commissioned author of Hamlet or Macbeth (my all time favourite Shakespeare play) will be naturally daunted, they should be thrilled to have such a unique opportunity that would be hard to refuse. As terrifying as it would be, I would definitely love to have a shot at producing my version of these timeless works. Best of luck to the authors, I can't wait to read them.

Friday, 6 September 2013

How should we treat YouTube? (Response to Culture Show: YouTube - The Future of TV?)

I don't purport to be an expert or deeply knowledgeable about YouTube. I am subscribed to many channels and love them all, but I wouldn't call myself an obsessive like I would about books. However I am fascinated with its inner workings. I've already discussed Becoming YouTube on this blog (it explains what Becoming YouTube is and saves me repeating myself here) and it is that has sparked my curiosity. I've finally decided to commit my incoherent thoughts into sort-or-coherent words as a response to the latest Culture Show programme which focused on YouTube and asked the question: "YouTube - The Future of TV?" (Not quite a question I know, but we'll get to that).

This has been a long time coming as the episode of Becoming YouTube presenter Jacques Peretti's cameo was in, of which we see the behind the scenes of in the programme, was put up at the end of May. Nevertheless, it was an interesting programme although despite his evident enthusiasm Peretti couldn't avoid the occasional patronising comment ("This is actually really funny"). It was very evident that the programme was from the perspective of a older generation of which YouTube is still perceived as a new thing that all the kids are into. I'm ready to admit my complete bias in my opinions about the site as I am clearly of the YouTube generation and at the age in which it was established early on in my life as an everyday thing. Nevertheless I genuinely think that YouTube is reaching the point, if it is not already, in which it can now be considered a medium in its own right.

That's right - alongside theatre, radio, television, literature and cinema, Youtube, I believe, can be considered just as much as an art form. Now before I explain how innovative YouTube is (as everyone constantly does) I want to mention how it arguably has roots in 'traditional media'. Communicating with your audience is the basis of phone in radio shows like 606 and is increasingly a key part to live television shows. Of course, reality shows literally leave the decisions up to audience, which was copied by some comedy and drama shows: a selection of endings were offered to the audience (usually with spoiler free titles such as Happy or Sad) who were then asked to pick one of them to be broadcast. Examples from my memory include CBBC show Jeopardy (a creepy Australian show) and BBC 3's Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Immediate response is also present in theatre - you literally know if the audience is enjoying it; the same applies to stand-up, musical performances or any other live performance. So those are just a handful of examples how YouTube actually fits in quite nicely with media and culture, so why such a fuss? What is so special about it?

Well, I'm not totally sure. As I say I'm not an expert or possess the journalistic skill of Benjamin Cook. but I'll have a go anyway. To be fair, it is not too far away to what Peretti was suggesting in The Culture Show special: there is something really inspiring about having such a blurred line between viewer and creator. Of course, all creators are viewers of some kind; there aren't many film directors or television stars, I imagine, that don't actually watch other films or television shows. However, that YouTube is on the Internet, where responses can be almost immediate (this very post being a prime example), means that it can be constantly on the ball, addressing the latest topic, covering recent events as they happen. The same can't be applied to other medium which generally require a longer creative process. With YouTube, a person can turn on their webcam, talk into it and then put it on YouTube within minutes. Just stop and appreciate how wonderful that is. The opportunities are endless and the sheer number of videos on YouTube prove that.

And this is why Becoming YouTube is so special. Because I genuinely consider it a work of art that will be long held up in the same regard as Shakespeare, Chaplin and the like. This sounds like hyperbole or exaggeration but that's because in comparison to other art forms, YouTube is in its infancy. And yet look how far it has come. I have laughed to tears, been incredibly moved, got shivers of excitement and reconsidered my views abut the world because of numerous YouTube videos. I have had similar reactions to theatrical productions, music concerts, books and films. It is clear to see that YouTube creators are constantly producing quality that is in the same league as those who work in those other mediums. Such that they now have it as a full-time job. And not all of them necessarily want to transfer their skills to television or film. YouTube is where they want to be and why the hell not? If it produces as good quality products, even better quality products, than shows on television or films in cinemas, why should they just abandon ship? Because right now its still not considered 'proper art'? Pretty much every art form has faced this scrutiny and overcome it. Why? Because it was popular and also bloody good. Theatre, cinema, television, radio, they've all been labelled as 'inferior' or 'the death of culture' at some point in history and are now part of the cultural bedrock. And, I believe, this is where YouTube will be soon.

Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if in years to come it will join literature, theatre, film, music etc. as a worthy subject for a university degree. What on earth that would be like I have no idea, but the idea is not unfeasible in my mind. So basically, to answer my own question and at the same time the one posed by The Culture Show, YouTube isn't the future of TV or any other media. It is perfectly comfortable being a media in its own right. It's on a trajectory now where people aren't just watching television and film on it. They're actually watching original content and realising that it might actually be better than what else is out there. I'm not suggesting that this means other mediums have to step up their game; from what I can tell they're doing alright for themselves. But they're facing serious competition for viewers with YouTube. They're bringing something new to the party and the audience are loving it. It is not the future of entertainment. YouTube is just the newest form its taken.