As societies change, classics change with them --- sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Theatergoers in the Romantic Age saw a "King Lear" with a happy ending. Millennial audiences have enjoyed a stellar Queen Lear and a Prospero rechristened Prospera.
The updates, upgrades or what have you will now reach home screens courtesy of such companies as Opus Arte and Kultur. Year by year Shakespeare's Globe in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford have released a number of complete plays on DVD and Blu-ray, shot in live performance.
Beyond the Bard's greatest hits, their expanding libraries include rarities previously available only on the "complete" 37-part BBC series from the 1980s. In the process they document the newest approaches to Shakespearean stagecraft.
Last night I watched the 2016 RSC "Cymbeline," all 188 minutes of it (plus extras). It is a play I have never seen in live performance and the language is so densely packed that I made use of the subtitle option to better understand the convoluted text and some of Melly Still's arbitrary directorial choices.
"Cymbeline" is late Shakespeare, after he turned away from perfectly structured romantic comedies and heroic tragedies toward more experimental, dreamlike formats. Even so, the overlapping plots contain many of his familiar themes: destructive jealousy, families fragmented but, at length, reunited---plus the relationship between overbearing fathers and helpless daughters.
Although this subject obsessed him from "Romeo and Juliet" to "The Tempest," the RSC substitutes a mother/daughter relationship, never a Shakespearean priority.
In design (sets and costumes) this is a defiantly grungy production. What's more, it resexes four of the major roles and rewrites the play to accommodate those gender switches.
Along with the bi-racial casting, these changes reflect contemporary social agendas but don't make the play any more accessible or exciting. But some of them do introduce new power-structures, allowing Gillian Bevan, for instance, to provide a disarmingly natural, uneasy-lies-the-head take on the title role.
As her daughter Innogen (spelled Imogen in the First Folio) Bethan Cullinane brings a welcome resentment to the abuses heaped upon her. But the two finest performances come from the men who betray her in the name of love: Oliver Johnstone's irresistibly seductive, deeply treacherous Iachimo and Hiran Abeysekera's initially sweet but dangerously unhinged Posthumus.
Their unstinting anguish in the final scene may not earn them forgiveness, but connects us to the heart of this play as nothing else can. In their intensity Shakespeare is still alive in Stratford.