All Articles
September 20, 2022

Reimagining Shakespeare for the Modern Stage: Q&A with Author Andrew Shepherd

An image of The Shakespeare Conspiracy script with a crumpled brown paper background.

Author Andrew Shepherd has reimagined characters from the Bard’s classic plays in his epic, comic, romantic, tragic, sci-fi comedyThe Shakespeare Conspiracy (US/UK). We sat down and chatted with Shepherd to discuss his vision for his drama and his love of Shakespeare. Get ready to step from the ‘real’ world into the ‘theatre’ world!

How did you initially encounter Shakespeare’s work?

It all stemmed from my father. A quietly spoken accountant with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare, he gave me a copy of the complete works before taking me to Stratford to see Twelfth Night. I then fell in love with A Midsummer Night’s Dream studying it at school and two year’s later played Puck in my ‘breakthrough performance’ (same school). It was a defining moment and sparked the seeds of both my writing and eventual theatre career. I was at the opening night of the Globe, my second date with my wife was seeing a site-specific Henry V, I directed her as Ophelia in her visionary take on Hamlet (70 minutes in a disused WW2 bunker) our wedding reception was at the Globe and… I think you get the picture…

What was your initial creative inspiration for writing the play?

I had a very silly idea in the bath that made me laugh out loud. What would happen if Richard III gatecrashed into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and started wooing Helena, with both of them using the lines they used on Lady Anne and Demetrius respectively? That scene is still in the play.

I also loved the idea of mixing up genres and crossovers… basically like the MCU – I wrote the first draft in 2004, so could claim to predate the cinematic version. In fact for the 2012 staging I created the world’s first post-credits sequence in a theatre production – when The Shakespeare Conspiracy’s Iago broke into the curtain call of a version of A Midsummmer Night’s Dream I was directing, six months before the opening. Although Tom Stoppard probably started it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (US/UK), which was one of the influences, particularly around the meta-theatrical narrative and how characters want to behave in a certain way but they always follow a predestined narrative path.

I always wanted to write a cinematic blockbuster on stage, because… why not… but one which also serves as a love letter to the Bard and theatricality. I love meta theatre, popular culture and above all being very silly and deeply dramatic all at the same time – so I threw it all in there.

There are a lot of great lines from the Shakespeare canon in the play. How did you decide which lines made the cut?

Quite a lot was defined by the characters, either in reference to their own ‘origin’ story or what evolved organically. Given he invented so many words and phrases, you end up drawing on Shakespeare in a lot of ways without thinking. I did also want to get a few shameless knowing laughs from certain audience members who loved Shakespeare as much as me – but also making them recognisable to a wider audience.

What were the creative challenges when writing a play dealing with countless possible Shakespearean characters?

The biggest challenge was how to create an original story, which didn’t require you to have an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare – and in fact most people have more recognition than they think, not just through reading/watching his work, but his influence on other writers and wider culture. However, it had to be a story that you engaged with, regardless as to who the characters were.

The play is a classic superhero origin story – and so you choose who are the most likely heroes and villains who can come into Martin’s story. So your love interest has to be Juliet, Lady M and Iago are the coolest and most complex villains, Benedick and Beatrice had to come in and basically steal the show… Puck provides the supernatural element and though Garfield Oberon isn’t actually Oberon… his life has some pretty similar parallels… the characters end up writing themselves and the joy is seeing them spark off against each other and pick up on each other’s flaws and frailties.

There’s an entire world in The Shakespeare Conspiracy that exists beyond the play, which has a place for all of them. It’s something I’m really keen to explore if I ever get round to expanding the play into a TV series… with lots of cameos and silliness to add to the world. Benedick clearly likes to sneak into ‘real world’ auditions and try out for Hamlet every time it’s staged; Lady M has a lucrative sideline advertising Cillit Bang (‘Out Damned Spot!’); Henry V is a spokesperson for Cornwall (‘once more unto the Beach…’) – there’s a whole unexplored world out there that’s been around for 400 years, but that’s a story for another day.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare character? Why?

Ooh… it’s like being asked who your favourite child is… I’m going to have to pick more than one to be fairer… (I love you all!)

Iago – the original and best villain. In his own words he’s the only character who doesn’t regret or repent for his actions. He’s the first sociopath – the master manipulator who plays on human frailty. In the original play – when he persuades Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, he never once says it out loud – but with hints, insinuations and letting Othello fill in the gaps. It’s genius.

Benedick and Beatrice are the greatest couple in the history of romantic comedies – in fact they almost certainly created the rom-com – you feel their wit and love for each other will last an eternity… even after 400 years…

If you had the power to rewrite any Shakespearean works, would you make any changes? If so, which work(s), and what would you change?

I’d never advocate rewriting, but when I’m directing I have a ‘two hours traffic’ rule – so cut the script down to a more manageable running time. I treat him like a writer who just delivered me the play’s latest draft and once you’ve created the lens you want to explore the play, often the cut reflects that. You can tell there are a lot of scenes written to cover actors going off stage to change, which don’t seem to lend anything to the narrative. He often has a trope of a character saying what they are going to do in a scene and then doing it, which you can sometimes cut down. I know lots of people think you shouldn’t touch his work, but it comes from a place of making it relevant for a modern audience while at the same time not touching the astonishing poetry and language that makes his plays soar – so it’s more about trimming, show don’t tell (I’m a big fan of a dumbshow to speed things along) and definitely not touching the classic speeches.

What advice would you have for companies looking to stage the play in future?

The best superhero movies and the best comedies work when the stakes are ABSOLUTELY HUGE! The bigger and bolder you play the show, the better. But… you don’t need to spend a fortune on the play. Use the tools of theatre and be creative. We spent about £200 on the original set of the production but worked with an incredible designer to make it look like it cost a lot more. It’s the illusion of theatre – and your actors are the heart of the play, not how it looks. Although if you do have a big budget – go crazy!

Please cast as openly and inclusively as possible – mixing up gender, ethnicity, multi-roling – all actively encouraged. Shakespeare’s characters have been played and portrayed in so many different ways, you should absolutely feel free to play around with all of that. The play’s inspiration made people pretending to be other people a recurring theme in his works.

If you want to cut lines, then feel free – it is a 2-hour show but you might think Garfield goes on a bit (he does for a reason, but understand your impatience), and you want to try some new lines, then get in touch. The car park joke isn’t mine, but it’s one of my favourite gags in the play (courtesy of Jack, the original Benedick). For the fight scenes, get a really good stage combat choreographer.

Be bold and silly and remember it’s for the audience, and someone out there might end up on a journey to discovering Shakespeare and being inspired to start their own creative journey.

To license a production of The Shakespeare Conspiracy, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.