Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Much Does The Source Material Count?

I was going to put this in the "what makes it funny" thread, but thought it might stand better on its own.

Once upon a time, after I'd seen one of my first productions of Les Miserables, a friend asked for a review.  I remember responding, "Well you have to figure, the source material that the show is working with is just so good, that any review is going to start at about a 7 out of 10, and is going to have to work pretty hard to get below that."  The same is true for something like a Jesus Christ Superstar.  In my own little world, when you're working from great literature, you're starting with a leg up on the competition.  Alan may already tell me I'm an idiot, who knows.

Anyway, just now a coworker asked me for a review of the Boston As You Like It, which as my readers will know I gave a "meh" review.  When it came to the question of whether I would recommend somebody else see it, I found myself giving a similar answer:  "You have to realize that you're talking to someone who already loves this stuff so much that I'm going, either way.  I don't think I've ever seen a Shakespeare show that was so bad that I regretted it."

Which gets me back to the "funny" thing, which is basically the same general idea - where does the quality lie, in the printed word, or the performance?  We all know that you can have a line that is funny on the page that just dies in performance, or vice versa - something that looks stale on the page that comes to life when delivered.  Is it possible to explain the balancing act that goes on between the two?  Can you ever really have a "bad" Shakespeare show, or is it a completely different review if you say "The acting and directing were bad, but the source material is good."


Alan K.Farrar said...

Great literature is 'great' for a reason - working from it, you have a great chance of getting something reasonable, whatever you do to it.
It takes a lot of hard work to totally neutralise Shakespeare - I have seen it done, and by professional companies ... rarely by schools or amateurs (who just play it straight and so are frequently more revealing than the pro.s).
For me, the bottom line is ... did I enjoy it?
What does Theseus say about the play on his wedding night?

Gedaly said...

Bad productions of great plays happen all the time. That doesn't mean that the play is bad, it also doesn't mean that the writing will save a production.

I believe the quality lies in performance (That was a loaded question because Shakespeare is regarded as literature by many but in this case I will assume that the writing is a script, just like those of modern playwrights, which is meant to be performed). A line delivered badly, no matter how well written the line is, is delivered badly. Can you really enjoy a whole performance that's done badly even if you know the script is good? What if you don't know the play and the production is bad, maybe you'll assume that it's a poorly written play.

I'm not really giving a whole lot of answers here, but I'm all for texts getting off the page and onto the stage. That's where the words are meant to exist, the script - in my opinion - no matter how excellent, important, iconic, or 'classic, will ever really be able to 'stand on its own.'