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The Folger Spotlight

Oswald and Armitage: Adapting Classics for the Modern Stage

Next Tuesday, February 3rd, British poet-playwrights Simon Armitage and Peter Oswald will be at the Folger to celebrate their work in an evening of readings entitled “Drama and Verse.”

Peter Oswald and Simon Armitage.

Peter Oswald and Simon Armitage.

Both poets are distinguished for their command of language and the chilling beauty of their story-telling. A love of heightened language and verse unites them.

Oswald’s recent translation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, now in previews, will open at Folger Theatre on Monday night, and is a perfect example of the powerful and dramatic poetry favored by its adapter.

Schiller’s play premiered in Germany in 1800, while Oswald’s version was first performed in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse in England. The events in the play take place in 1587, which means that we are now further away from Schiller than he was from Mary Stuart.

Oswald’s version of Mary Stuart was a great success and transferred to the West End before moving to Broadway and receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The New York Times called the production “terrifically exciting.” However, this was not Mary’s first experience on Broadway. There were at least three previous productions of the play in the past century, however it had not been seen for almost forty years.

Mary Stuart is a perfect play for the Folger not only because of the Library’s wealth of materials on the history of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, but also because it is an epic drama in verse like so many of the Shakespeare plays that the Folger protects in its vaults and presents on its stage.

Despite Mary Stuart’s similarities to Shakespeare in scope and syntax, Peter Oswald is firm in his belief that the language of the play is wholly modern. In an interview when the play was first onstage he said:

People often seem to think that what I am trying to do is re-create Shakespeare, which would be the worst thing imaginable. I am not. I am trying to write contemporary plays that use iambic pentameter because to me it seems like the most natural form to use.

Its beat is the beat of a heartbeat, and at its best it stimulates the listener’s heart. It is also free-flowing and in its metrical form it is very close to normal everyday speech. Actors just love it.

Both Oswald and Armitage share a fascination with adapting ancient stories for the modern world. Each has produced a version of The Odyssey Oswald in 1999 for the Gate Theatre and Armitage in 2004 for BBC Radio 4 with Janet McTeer and Benedict Cumberbatch – as well as work for Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Peter Oswald was the Playwright-in-Residence at the Globe for three years, premiering productions of The Storm, The Golden Ass, and Augustine’s Oak, while Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy performed in the open-air theater this past summer. All four works are adaptations of previous stories ranging from Plautus’ light comedy of pimps and pirates to the weightiness of Augustine’s conversion and the fall of Troy.

We do hope that you join us on Tuesday for Drama and Verse, as well as for Mary Stuart, running through March 8. To learn more about Peter Oswald and Simon Armitage and to read excerpts from their work, please visit the links above and at on the Folger website.