21 September 2009

Staging Shakespeare

Having looked at Shakespearean acting not long ago, I’d like to reinforce and clarify some points I made regarding classical directing. Like actors, many directors, it seems, are frightened by the prospect of mounting a classic play. Some are intimidated by the language and poetry, others by the weight and heft of a play that’s come down through the centuries. The great German director Peter Stein has even admitted, “It was not easy for me to approach Shakespeare . . . because I’m simply afraid. For me he’s just a giant . . . .” And Ariane Mnouchkine, whose work I’ve admired immensely, says quite frankly, “Shakespeare’s such a mystery . . . . For me both Aeschylus and Shakespeare are gods.” Other artists apparently feel that plays as old as Shakespeare’s are no longer relevant or accessible to modern audiences. Over the years, I’ve seen productions of Shakespeare that suggest all of these feelings.

Many famous and successful directors have faced Shakespeare and recognize his power and complexity. A number have recorded their thoughts on directing Shakespeare plays. Though some couch their ideas in prescriptive terms, telling directors what they “should” or “must” do, their remarks are still worth noting. (Many quotations and concepts mentioned here are drawn from Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, eds., “Staging Shakespeare: A Survey of Current Problems and Opinions,” Directors on Directing [Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953], 403-440. They’re a tad old, but some things just don’t go out of style. Other sources are also quoted.)

Margaret Webster, author of Shakespeare without Tears, points out first of all that “The principles on which a director must base his approach to a Shakespearean play are, after all, no different from those which govern his approach in any other play.” Peter Brook provides no-holds-barred counsel in this regard: “To communicate any one of Shakespeare’s plays to a present day audience, the producer must be prepared to set every resource of modern theatre at the disposal of his text.” (‘Producer’ used to be the British locution for what we Americans call the director. ‘To produce,’ as you’ll hear below, was to direct a play. The American usage has overtaken the British distinction.) As with any other script, the director must learn “the mood of the play, its material and spiritual atmosphere, its structural pattern, the wholeness of its effect,” adds Webster. Polish director and teacher Kazimierz Braun, a friend for over 20 years, writes for instance, that whether you’re directing Shakespeare or anyone else, the first problem is “to integrate speech with action.” While Braun acknowledges that this is harder for verse plays than those with contemporary dialogue, the key for the former is to infuse the speech with passion. Of an early encounter with directing Shakespeare, Braun says:

I had the feeling that I was faced with an impossibly difficult challenge, and, at the same time, that the author was taking me by the hand, like a little child, and leading me safely through the labyrinth of the play. Trusting him was the best way to go. Unmistakably, he permeates the dialogues with the energy of action.

One aspect of plays that seems too often missing in Shakespearean productions is humanity. Literary scholar Harold Bloom establishes in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that the Bard was the first dramatist to portray men and women as characters who could grow and change and drew psychologically-based portraits of his characters (even though Shakespeare didn’t know that was what he was accomplishing). Peter Brook points out that all of Shakespeare’s characters are “fully resolved human beings,” even the “shortest character in Shakespeare,” James Gurney (King John, I.1). Plays are written for people about people, and, as director Stuart Vaughn insists, “The real task we have, those of us who try to produce Shakespeare for modern audiences, is to reach those audiences with the essence of Shakespeare’s human meaning. . . . We must try to find what he intended his audience to receive and transmit the same effect and intention to our own.” This does not necessarily mean that the plays must be modernized “because the director lacks faith in Shakespeare’s longevity,” for, as John Gielgud points out, “Great plays do not date except through the occasional obscurity of archaic jokes and unfamiliar wording.” Margaret Webster reminds us that “The truth of the plays is a timeless truth, and similarity of external circumstances no more than a fortuitous, though sometimes poignant, reminder that the returning paths of history have been trodden by many feet.”

“The challenge for the director therefore,” asserts Joseph Papp, “is to achieve . . . modernity without sacrificing the form and poetry of Shakespeare . . . .” For Franco Zeffirelli, this means that “[w]hat matters is modernity of feeling, modernity inside.” This is what the late Jan Kott wrote in his Shakespeare Our Contemporary, in which the critic and teacher points out that Shakespeare anticipated not only the circumstances of our world, but the modern dramas of the likes of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genêt. In Kott’s view, Shakespeare doesn’t need to be modernized because he’s already dealing with modern problems and notions within his own plays. Harold Clurman, commenting on Kott’s analysis, writes that the greatness of Shakespeare and other classical playwrights “transcends the limits of time and many cultural differences.” The director and critic continues:

In the theatre they reveal their contemporaneity only when they are felt and projected in response to our innermost needs. This is not to be construed to mean that they must be made “topical,” e.g., Julius Caesar as Mussolini, Shylock as an East Side peddler or King Lear as an example of latter-day nihilism.

The theatre is not a museum, a treasure house to commemorate ancient wonders; it is a vehicle for the manifestation of the joys and travail of our existence. The greater the scope and profundity of its revelations, the more universal it becomes. But it always begins with the now.

Though Papp’s and Zeffirelli’s exhortations may sound as if they’re calling for psychological Realism, there is a difference between Realism, the imitation of life on stage, and reality, putting truth on stage. “Shakespeare,” as Tyrone Guthrie cautions, “is only intermittently concerned with realism. In the main, he is not writing realistic dialogue or dealing with realistic characters or situations. Most of his characters have great reality but this effect is not, as a rule, achieved by literal imitation of life.” In director Michael Langham’s terms, the director must not be “so preoccupied with this truth in his small domestic terms that he overlooks and belittles his author’s vaster intentions” and have the courage to recognize that “important theater, almost invariably, can only hope to convey its widest implications by eschewing naturalness . . . .”

Ignoring this admonition, Langham thinks, leads to productions in which “[i]nsignificant, domestic themes are . . . made to take the place of the play’s major timeless issues.” Langham faults directors “inhibited by an overabundance of naturalism” who avoid the vastness of Shakespeare’s works “through shapeless underplaying” or “with a loud, empty rhetorical flourish.” Both cheat the audience of the full impact of a classic. Often-controversial director Peter Sellars insists, in fact, that we do Shakespeare specifically because we don’t “want to be so literal about the world, and the reason we apply poetry to these questions is because in the end it’s more interesting than journalism.”

Brook, who has no objection, he says, to “rewriting Shakespeare,” admonishes directors to look for “Shakespeare’s meaning” in the plays by going beyond the words to find “the essential living heart of the play--the poetic inner dream” and translating that into theatrical vocabulary. Now, I don’t go along with Brook’s advocacy of changing Shakespeare’s words unless you’re doing a true adaptation (though I do agree with Brook when he points out that “the texts do not get burned,” so it’s not like you’ve drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa), but going beyond the words, not cleaving to a slavish literalism, should be part of the director’s prep: not just ‘What did Shakespeare mean?’ but ‘What is Shakespeare saying to us now?’ (This is akin to the dramaturg’s basic inquiry: Why this play, why here, why now?) The director (and, of course, the actors) must figure out what the play is saying to the current audience, then put that into Shakespeare’s words by all the arts of acting and playmaking. That’s what Brook means, I think, by using “every resource” at the contemporary director’s command. Not long ago I saw a brilliant Merchant of Venice that made use of computers, cell phones (and cell phone cams), and PDA’s on a generally high-tech set to make the point the director wanted. Not a word of Shakespeare was altered and it worked like gangbusters for me.

What Brook expects, I think (and since he’s done this himself, I’m probably right), is, if setting Merchant on Wall Street, or Midsummer in a circus, or Richard III or Julius Caesar in a 1930s fascist state makes the point you think Shakespeare’s making, then do it. That’s not the same as putting Hamlet on rollerskates just because you think no one else has done it. But if it says something about the play to your audience to paint a nearly-naked Achilles in black and gold psychedelic swirls--go for it. As a teacher of mine, Aaron Frankel, would say, paraphrasing Harold Clurman: “We don’t have Shakespeare’s phone number.” (He might have added, too, that the Bard doesn’t have ours, either.)

What seems to be operating in so many contemporary productions is a distrust of the audience. Director William Ball deplored that “very little has been done in drama to utilize the willingness of the audience to extend its vision beyond what it is looking at, and to help it to see with a larger vision--that is, to see with its imagination.” “The audience’s imagined spectacle can be counted on as more vital and real,” he insists, “because it arises from the creative participation of each individual.” Psychologists know this to be true from tests with children who overwhelmingly prefer toys that do nothing themselves--dolls that don’t talk, instruments that don’t make their own music--and so force the child to do the playing. Hiding safely in tradition for its own sake or exploiting the current faddish concepts disserve your audience. As a current promo for the Syfy channel says: “Imagine greater.”

This is no argument for producing “museum classics.” Gielgud says, “The classics, it seems to me, have to be rediscovered every ten years or so.” I disagree only with his time lapse; I think they should be rediscovered continuously. Change may occasionally be necessary, but it helps to remember that, as writer and critic Alphonse Karr said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” But, as the great actor-director remarks, this does require “approaching the play with real spontaneity and joy so that it has an absolutely topical effect.” More lessons from Peter Brook’s work include finding inspiration from any quarter, even the unexpected and unlikely, and eschewing old ideas and traditionalist approaches. He revived the playability of a reviled play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, by finding visual stimulation in the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau. And when his prepared staging ideas didn’t work, he began to experiment, becoming famous for saying, “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid, he’d say, to try and fail. “No matter,” says Samuel Beckett, one of the great dramatists of all time. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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