The Taming of the Bard

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

How did you come up with your system? It's borrowed from working with Peter Hall, John Barton, and Cecily Berry. It's based on a shared sense of rhythm, and learning how to inspect the verse line. There are three simple rules: Always mark the lines, never stop in the middle of a line, look out for the alliteration. It doesn't take long until everybody's in the same bap-bap-bap, one-two-three-four-five rhythm.

Does your approach to the language affect your staging? It's important that you don't have a huge mise-en-scène, because if you have large gaps between scenes, the rhythm will be affected.

Pericles is an odd play, not least for the fact that Shakespeare might not have written the first two acts. Though even more so, perhaps, for the pervasive father-daughter incest theme. It's clear that the hand of late Shakespeare takes over somewhere around the second or third act, but the most important scene of the play is the first. You have to convey the corruption of incest that Pericles is a witness to. This is what sends him on his journey, and without this background the play really doesn't make much sense.

Jonathan Miller
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Jonathan Miller

You had a success in New York with Cymbeline. Are you specializing in the late romances? One would never want to be categorized that way. I picked Pericles because I thought it was well suited to the Harvey space.

Not because of its shameless metaphoric power? I love the flowing notion of "sea change." The sea represents chaos—spiritual, personal, late-life chaos. It's a great expression, objective correlative as they would say in literature, of one's internal chaos. What's interesting about staging this in the Harvey is that there's so much archaeology and ancientness there that it's easy to capture the play's washed-ashore, wrecked, ruined atmosphere.

Would you consider your approach to Shakespeare "conceptual"? People have said that my Cymbeline was conceptual because it had cowboys and Kabuki, but in fact I didn't think so at all. I was just observing what I thought was the internal logic of each scene and trying to build a world that was true to itself.

Do the Brits do Shakespeare better than we do? I don't like this bullshit that the English are the ones who have cornered the market on this crap. I think Americans probably do more Shakespeare than anyone else in the world. We bring a great energy and aliveness to it, and we don't over-intellectualize. We're in touch with the rawness of the storytelling.

How do you understand the strange story of Pericles? Pericles is a good man; bad things happen to him. He falls into a despairing place after the loss of his wife and daughter. But Shakespeare does this miraculous thing by giving us the opportunity to experience being restored. I think we're in a place as a culture where we're seeking restoration of who we are. And being restored in an inner way means accepting the impact of loss.

Related Article:
Michael Feingold's review of King Lear

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