I owe everything I know about Shakespeare to Baz Lurhmann

I’m only seventeen. The continued popularity of Shakespearean adaptations is a great thing for young people.

When people ask me to name a single individual who has become the bedrock of our culture, Shakespeare always springs to mind. His plays have been around for over four centuries, and despite the copious number of productions and films based on his plays, nobody seems to be sick of them yet.

I am not a Shakespeare obsessive. However, it is difficult to grow up in the UK without knowing his name, why he’s famous and the names of several of his plays. Almost every British school pupil has studied at least one of them and I am no exception, having read The Tempest when I was 13 and studied Romeo and Juliet to ridiculous lengths for my English Literature GCSE.  This is no bad thing. Being able to quote Shakespeare and understanding how he has shaped out literary culture is an advantage many people are glad to have.

But it’s not only from studying the plays that so many young people know the stories so well. For instance, I’ve never read Twelfth Night, but I can quote from it: 

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”

Why is this? Because I’ve grown up in a generation where we appear to have learnt most of what we know about Shakespeare from modern adaptations of his works. For example, Walt Disney’s film The Lion King (1994) was very popular when I was growing up; it didn’t cross my mind until I read the child-friendly version of Hamlet that there were parallels between the two. Fundamentally, the only difference is the “Disneyfied” ending of The Lion King, compared to the heartrending tragedy of Hamlet. The fact that Shakespeare was able to inspire a Disney film nearly four-hundred years after his death shows the impact that his stories have had on generations ever since.

I can quote from Twelfth Night thanks to the 2006 film She’s the Man. This is more obviously inspired by Shakespeare; the characters have the same names as in the original play; Viola is the lead character who falls in love with Duke Orsino while pretending to be her twin brother Sebastian. The setting of Illyria is transferred to an American high school, rather than a kingdom, but the basics are still there. It’s similar to the way that The Taming of the Shrew was modernised in the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Adapting the Bard’s work in such a way is a good thing; it helps young people engage with Shakespeare; makes the task of understanding his stories far less daunting, and therefore far more enjoyable.

When studying Romeo and Juliet, I was terrified at the prospect of having to analyse some of its complicated language. I found Baz Luhrmann’s take on Romeo and Juliet (1996) an absolute godsend as it made use of the original Shakespearean language, but it was placed in a modern setting (California) which helped me to better understand the story. Joss Whedon appears to have approached his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which is due to be released this Friday (14 June), in a similar way. Having seen the trailer, I am fascinated by the fact that it is in black and white, as this is yet another way of making the film stand out from other adaptations of the same play.

This seems to me to be the beauty of Shakespeare: his plays are timeless. People are still finding ways to make them appeal to audiences; the subjects of his plays that are still relevant in this century most likely will be in the future as well. As time goes on, more modernisation will occur and inevitably new ways of adapting his work will become apparent. There are already theatre productions that approach his plays from a historical perspective, i.e. with an all-male cast, as was the case in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Applying that idea to a film adaptation would be another of many ways that a director could make a Shakespeare plot their own. Shakespeare's plays are proof that the slightest variation of an existing idea can make the world of difference. 

Baz Lurhmann is just one of many directors to take on the challenge of modernising Shakespeare. Photograph: Getty Images
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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.