The Taming of the Bard

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

What is the psychological mistake Lear makes at the play's outset? Something idiotic, foolish, rash starts him off—a vain decision to negotiate property as a way of securing announcements of affection. I imply that Lear's daughters have had to deal throughout their lives with this demanding man who's ever but slenderly known himself.

Does this insecurity come with the encroaching idea of death? It comes from not being sufficiently at ease with yourself and feeling that your children owe you love. And that what your children give you in the way of affection and loyalty and love is possibly at a price. And, of course, they either love you or they don't.

Lear seems to offer a paradigm for these universal family patterns. Every one of these important plays is really about families. Yet Lear also has a social dimension with respect to the nature of authority. And at the heart of that lies a question about the discrepancy between the office of monarchy and the officer. Shakespeare is very interested in what qualities one would expect of a king. The divinity of kings was beginning to be questioned. Forty years later it will result in the death of a king.

Jonathan Miller
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Jonathan Miller

Is it because these issues were so urgent and dangerous that Shakespeare set the play as far back as he did? It conceals what otherwise would be dangerously subversive questions.

What's the exact period of your production. It's 1610. In the four productions of Lear I've directed, I've only ever thought of it as a Jacobean play.

Is that why the set is so spare? I first did this production at the Stratford Festival in Canada. I wanted the set to be bare, clean, and empty. And because it's simply about the geometrical shift of interpersonal relationships, anything scenic is distracting and vulgar.

It's perhaps the most hushed staging of a Shakespeare play that I've encountered. A great deal of shouting on stage stems from the belief that this makes it more dramatic. There are moments when Lear shouts. There are moments when one or two characters shout, but in order to make their vehemence more noticeable, you have to have a rapid flow of normal talk. I've always tried to preserve the normal-sounding utterance of Shakespearean verse. The people in the cast, almost without exception, are accomplished Shakespeareans, and they know how to do it without making it sound like verse. I always point out that if you're ever aware of the actual prosody, then you've missed the point. If you look at a mattress, a beautiful styled mattress, the springs are placed at regular metrical intervals. When you sleep, however, you are absolutely unaware of their distribution. And that's exactly how it should be. The skillful speaking of verse should honor the metrical structure without the audience ever being aware of it.

Is Lear the apex for any director? Is it the greatest challenge? It's the easiest, really, as long as you get away from the cosmic and the primeval. Critics are often tremendously eager to see this play as unmanageably large. It's not. I have to say I had the same problem when I did Long Day's Journey Into Night, which is always seen as a modern Greek tragedy. It's just a lot of drunk Irish Broadway bums whiling away a hot night in New London. When I was doing it with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, I said, "Look, this is not Aeschylus. It's Neil Simon's Broadway Bound." And I was able to take an hour and 20 minutes off the running time by having them talk normally instead of having these recitations.

If Lear is the easiest, which is the hardest. Macbeth? No. As You Like It. Which everybody always wants to do. Painfully awkward. So self-consciously comic. The best comedy in Shakespeare is King Lear. It contains the best jokes he ever made. Brilliant comic inventions, too. This is one of the ways I was able to persuade Christopher Plummer to do it. He wanted to do Volpone. I looked at the play and thought, This is a lot of rotten Jacobean hogswallop. There are certain plays that are just not revivable. I said, "If you want to do a comedy, let's do King Lear." There's something enchantingly comic about it, and this is what makes the tragedy so unbearable. The imperceptible slide into wickedness, which is the other thing I find so interesting. It's what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil—the dismal suburban commonplaces of those sisters and their husbands.

Your take is fascinating, though far from traditional. In some strange way I don't think of myself as being in the theater. It's how I earn my living. I think of myself as a sort of well-practiced outsider. I don't go to the theater. I'm only interested in what I'm working on. I don't know, except by hearsay, the accepted views of what the plays are about. Because I was reared as a doctor, and surrounded very early by anthropologists in both my family and my wife's, social structures are the essence of the whole business for me. I find it so painfully obvious that I can't understand why it hasn't occurred to people before.

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