The Taming of the Bard

What's the Trick of Staging Shakespeare? Directors Spill Their Trade Secrets.

Winter may not be through with us yet, but the Bard is already in full bloom. To get the skinny on the Shakespeare explosion, Charles McNulty spoke with the directors of three New York productions: Jonathan Miller, whose King Lear opens Thursday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont; Edward Hall, whose all-male staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream runs March 16 through 28 at the BAM Harvey Theater; and Bartlett Sher, whose Pericles closed last weekend at BAM.


Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Jonathan Miller

Harold Bloom says that King Lear defies contemporary staging. That's nonsense. There are two things which are slightly disturbing or awkward about Lear—the blinding of Gloucester, which people sometimes think they can't bear to see, and the storm. Storms are not easy to do, especially on a thrust stage like the Beaumont's. But Bloom is not the first to say it's difficult to stage.

Charles Lamb famously held this view. Something else the play acquired in Lamb's period is the notion that Lear is a cosmic play. This is a deep misunderstanding. It's an extremely domestic play. Simply because there are five minutes of thunder, people think it's cosmic. The characters are not up against the cosmos; they're up against each other. It's about social disorder, which follows from the disappearance of authority, an authority we may no longer have time for—the absolute power of monarchy. The play isn't cosmic. It's social and political, and intensely domestic.

Would you say it has a spiritual dimension? No. That's modern, New Age drivel. Every play has a spiritual dimension by simply having human beings in it. Humans are filled with all sorts of compunctions and ideas and tendencies, which one might loosely call spiritual. Lear's about man's place in the social order.

Yet there's the exchange in Act IV between Gloucester and Lear, where Lear preaches to Gloucester, "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." I remember being startled in Harold Bloom's Shakespeare seminar by something he said in response to this line. He put his face in his hands and gasped, "What a terrible thing consciousness is." Not the kind of remark you ordinarily hear from one of your professors. The play is filled with biblical echoes, in spite of the fact that it makes endless references to pre-Christian deities, which again just confuses people. It's a Jacobean play saturated with Christian ideas, including, perhaps more significantly, the parallel trajectory of Edgar and Edmund as Christ and Lucifer.

Your staging highlights the Christ-like aspects of Edgar, especially when he transforms himself into Poor Tom on the rain-lashed heath. I make an intimation of this, not that I wish to identify Edgar as Christ. But in a Christian world, when you are filled with paranoid delusions and you strip yourself bare and blanket your loins, who else would you be but Christ? We have a heath today, of course. It's called the street, and you only have to walk up Broadway to see the homeless Toms with their little Starbucks cups rattling two quarters. It's the most timely play.

How so? My wife, Rachel, and I walked 40 blocks up Sixth Avenue, and there was this countercurrent of people, most of whom are at risk of unemployment, underinsured, not cared for—in a world where at the upper level people are indifferent to the suffering. It isn't until these people tumble that they discover the truth. They have to lose first. Lear is about the learning that is acquired through loss. We hear Lear say, "Nothing will come from nothing." Yet everything, in fact, comes from nothing. "I stumbled when I saw," says Gloucester. It's only when these extraordinary endowments are lost that we begin to understand their value.

Lear begins almost in the manner of fable. It's "Cinderella" with the two ugly sisters and so forth. Actually that's an oversimplification. Cordelia is always represented as this virtuous creature, but she's obstinate.

Almost pert in your production. She's not all that different from Isabella in Measure for Measure, who does not wish to sacrifice her chastity, even if it purchases the life of her dearly beloved brother. And you'd like to simply say, "Well, dear, you can always close your eyes and think of England." When Cordelia says, "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth," one wants to say, "Have a go, try."

The Fool enters in the opening scene. This is unusual. It's never done. But I wanted to bring the Fool on during Lear's entrance. There's an extraordinary companionship that exists between these two old men. Portraying the Fool as old is itself an innovation. The wisdom he discloses is quite inconceivable in a young person. It's only someone who had been with Lear all along who could rib him that way he does—who can say to the king, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."

There's a geriatric quality to Christopher Plummer's Lear that's both realistic and darkly comic. Lots of old people actually make a joke of the fact that young people are waiting for them to die. I wanted to make his age as real as possible.

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