The Taming of the Bard

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

People tend to rank these plays. Lear is supposedly the final Himalayan peak, which you need to approach with great reverence and care because it's the most cloud-packed and remote. Actually, it's the most interesting foothills, and it's the foothills where most people live. No human being lives on Everest. We all live on the foothills. That's where the civilization occurs, where the villages are, where social existence takes place. Human beings are not up against the cosmos. We live amongst ourselves, and what interests me are the relationships that human beings have with one another and the institutions through which they achieve order and cooperation and friction. Lear is arguably one of the greatest achievements of the mind of man. But once this entity called "the mind of man" gets invoked, you know you're in deep shit.

Edward Hall

Jonathan Miller
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Jonathan Miller

What's the thinking behind your all-male staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream? I have a Shakespeare company called Propeller. We began five years ago with an experimental production of Henry V. I wanted to mix certain traditional aspects of Shakespeare with a more contemporary aesthetic. I've always felt that the history plays—or any of Shakespeare's plays, for that matter—were modern when they were performed. The whole notion of the doublet and hose comes more from the 19th century than the 16th. I've done one or two Shakespeares where I've tried to produce what I thought was the classical look, and it was strangely unsatisfying. As you know, the plays were written for an all-male cast, so I thought, let's try doing it that way, simply and poetically, without making the gender an issue.

You obviously liked the result. It's a curious thing when you explore the plays with a same-sex cast. In Shakespeare, when characters feel something very intensely, they become extraordinarily articulate in describing their feelings. Actors on the Elizabethan stage couldn't overtly express their physical relationship to each other, so they talked about it, beautifully, erotically, sexually. When you have a same-sex cast, the audience knows that the bald man with the white face isn't really going to marry that tall, good-looking man in a dinner jacket. So you start listening in a completely different way. Love begins to transcend any prescriptions that gender or sexual orientation could put on it. I don't think the Elizabethans were as hung up on labels as we are. In some ways we've regressed hugely. Shakespeare writes about love in all its forms. When you extract the gender from the plays, you sometimes get closer to the feeling of what he was indeed writing about.

Were you influenced by Cheek by Jowl's celebrated all-male version of As You Like It? The ridiculous thing is I never saw it. It's one of my greatest regrets.

Perhaps you were spared some anxiety of influence. No, because every time you do a Shakespeare play you take on huge baggage. You really have to banish all that from your mind and get on with doing the play and hope that the people who see it come for a night at the theater, not as academic dramatic critics.

Speaking of the anxiety of influence, your father, Peter Hall, is one of the most famous directors of Shakespeare in the world. Did he teach you much? A little. He's a great exponent of what I call following the handbook, which is the text. Make sure you serve the writer; anything you do has to do that; understand what the writer's intentions are before you come up with wacky and wild ways to express his meaning.

What attracted you to A Midsummer Night's Dream? We'd just done an adaptation of Henry VI which we called Rose Rage. It was full of war, and we wanted to do a piece which wasn't so violent, to get back in touch with our feminine side, if you like. Little did I know that Midsummer is pretty much the most violent play I've ever directed. It's one of the few that Shakespeare wrote not based on a source text. It's stunningly beautiful, an absolute masterpiece. I was very scared of it and I always like doing work I'm scared of.

Bartlett Sher

Does acting in Shakespeare require special expertise? I would say it's a bit like opera or ballet, in that you can't do it without some level of skill. I approach Shakespeare with a very specific approach to the verse. Because it's a heightened expression, it requires technical ability.

Bartlett Sher
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Why do Shakespeare productions in America so often seem uneven? One of the ways of pulling everyone into the same world is to establish an approach to the language. You're going to have many different approaches to acting technique, but these plays are written in a certain verse form. There has to be a shared rhythm that everybody knows and respects. If this doesn't exist, everything comes apart at the seams. The rhythm will change dramatically when one person approaches it with a great deal of skill only to be followed by a film actor who slows everything down and takes pauses where no one else would take them and where the verse doesn't suggest them. The audience needs a more consistent experience. It's like having a ballet company with everybody employing a different technique.
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