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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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