How do you make an old play new again? Moving the era of a Shakespeare play, especially closer to our own time, has become a strategy so common that it now seems reflexive, as predictable as the movement of a knee tapped with a hammer. Following the screen success of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of a few years ago featured teens in prep school uniforms carrying cell phones. But such elements depend on surprise and especially wit, as well as relevance, and their effects wear off quickly. Some work better on screen, but not always even there (Almereyda's postmodern Hamlet with Ethan Hawke was less successful.)
Sometimes, changing the period can be illuminating, but this depends on an original, relevant and brilliantly applied vision. However, there are a couple of other ways to revive older plays and make them more relevant to contemporary audiences.
One way--which is the essential way--is to play it honestly. The most difficult task for actors in Shakespeare and other well-known plays is to convince the audience that the characters are experiencing these events for the first time--that they don't know what happens next. Actors enact emotion, and this is the core of both the performance and the audience response. If the production, and particularly the actors, can make it real, the audience will experience it as new and relevant.
In general, a production that finds the vitality in the play can't help but to make it relevant to the times, because it will engage an audience living in these times. Playwright Terrence McNally spoke recently about the process of creating Ragtime, The Musical (he wrote the script), first produced on Broadway in 1998 and revived there last year, just nine years after the original production closed. He made this perceptive comment (published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of The Dramatist) about the revival: " Everything will be the same as before but everything will be different, too. That's because we have a different country than when Ragtime [the novel by E.L. Doctorow] was published and Ragtime, The Musical premiered. If Ragtime seems different to you this time around it's not because we've re-written it. It's because this is a society that has re-written itself."