Austin theater darlings Rude Mechanicals are at it again with Fixing King John, a modern retelling of King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Resident Rude Mech playwright Kirk Lynn discusses his touchstones, from Robert Johnson via the White Stripes to the Bard’s love of smut.
What inspired you to start “fixing” some of Shakespeare’s plays?
I was running and I was listening to a White Stripes live album, and they were covering ‘Stop Breaking Down,’ by Robert Johnson, and I started thinking, ‘Would Robert Johnson even recognize this as his music?’ Especially on the live version, not on the album version, the solo is just so aggressive and noisy. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’
The poet Charles Simic said this thing I really feel connected to. He said that writers want to honor the masters of their craft, but they also want to overthrow them and make room for themselves and sort of destroy them.
I thought, ‘I just want to cover something and make it sound like the White Stripes make ‘Stop Breaking Down’ sound: respectful, and clearly in the tradition of blues—and loving the blues—but just annihilating it, too.’
So how did you go about fixing King John?
I went online, downloaded the full text as a text file, and every morning before I would start whatever my bigger project was, I would just do a page or so, turning it into contemporary English and adding curse words. I feel like a reason Shakespeare can sort of smuggle himself into high schools and colleges is because we don’t recognize how foul he is. Shakespeare loves smut.
So, that was the first pass. Then, I abandoned any loyalty to the Shakespearean text and just tried to edit it like I would one of my plays: Cut it down to 10 characters so you could do it. King John goes from 22 down to 10 characters. Then, just smooth out the plot. And then there were some other things. I really wanted to push toward more gender parity, so I gave the female characters more lines.
Is a retelling more difficult to write than an original play?
I don’t think so. In some ways it was easier. Like anything, once you get under the hood, you find these beautiful sections where you’re like ‘Oh my God, this is a goldmine here.’
Is there any contemporary political commentary at work in the play?
Yeah. There’s a lot of talk about these guys just going to war at the drop of a hat; they don’t seem to care about it. There’s a French king, Philip, in our play, who keeps saying, ‘Man, I just don’t fight anymore.’ He lets his son do all the fighting. And he has this fairly beautiful speech on why he doesn’t fight anymore. It has to do with the slaughter of innocent kids. In Shakespeare, they talk about, ‘Man, we lost this duke,’ and they list out the nobles, and in our play they mention the fact that they lost countless people that nobody knows their names. So there’s a lot of talk about the cost of war.
I originally was drafting a few years ago as we were feeling like we were going to get to move out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ways, especially in Iraq, in which we took civilian life, still ongoing with the drone work… how do we want to count these people? For the most part, it seems like we don’t even want to count them or think about them. There’s no character named Obama or George Bush, but there is meditation on ‘What do wars actually cost?’
Is your method of “fixing” Shakespeare any different from updating Shakespeare for a modern audience, which is a fairly common undertaking?
I think it’s different in that, at a certain point, I just abandon any loyalty to the text. I got to work on it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some real Shakespearean actors, which was a real kick, and I think the percentage came out about right. There were probably, out of 15, three or four people who thought it was offensive and not a great idea, and I think that’s kind of the sweet spot that I want to hit: 10-12 people think this is beautiful and three people think it’s kind of… If it’s not offensive to anybody, I would have failed. It takes Shakespeare as the starting place, but abandons it eventually. The farther you get into the play, the less it has to do with Shakespeare.
What’s the future hold for Rude Mechs’ “Fixing Shakespeare” series?
Every two years, the Rude Mechs are going to fix a new one, so we’re asking people what they think is the worst Shakespeare so we can fix that one next. We’re messing around with Timon of Athens, which is a fun play.
Another little feature is that once we produce these plays, they’re going to be given away for free. My greatest desire is that high school kids will find them and love them. It’s fun to do them professionally, but it seems like the people who might really appreciate them are the student that I was when I was 17 or 18. I loved Shakespeare, even at that age, but being forced to talk about it as though it’s purely high culture can take all the fun out of it. I guess even undergrads in college could produce it on their own. There are no rights or royalties attached, so they can do whatever they want with it.