Stoopid Shakespeare


An exuberant conversation, hosted by Peter Marks and Howard Sherman, broke out on Twitter yesterday about Shakespeare; many good ideas were debated and discussed.  I am writing this post to delve more deeply into one of the fundamental questions about Shakespeare in performance, which is, after all, his native habitat.  Shakespeare in performance should be, at an absolute minimum, (gasp!) watchable.

These are nearly 40 of the best stories anyone ever bothered to write down, and we keep telling them to one another because they continue to speak to us so evocatively, so instructively about the nature of the human condition, about love, compassion, vulnerability, courage, frailty, greed, desire, duplicity, poverty of wit and the richness of the same.  Perhaps the original stories actually belong to Ovid and Holinshed, but we don’t perform Holinshed’s Chronicles; we perform the stories as Shakespeare crafted, altered, excised and embellished them.

I must trouble you again

Harley Granville-Barker, Shakespeare director, scholar and redhead, once wrote, “If we are to make Shakespeare our own again, we are all to be put to a little trouble about it.”  It does take work.

In the course of yesterday’s Twitterchat, Michael Kahn wrote, “I believe firmly that if audiences don’t understand a prod it’s usually director’s & actors’ fault.”  I enthusiastically agree.

I have been to an untold number of productions of Shakespeare where I had almost no idea what the actors were saying.  And neither did they.  They had an inkling, sure, of what a speech was about; there was a wash of emotion or intention surrounding the words as they spilled out, but there was no specificity, no clarity of language.  The language has rarely been familiar in the actor’s mouth as Henry V’s household words.  If the actors understand only the ‘gist’ of what they’re saying, the audience is unlikely to do much better.  Actors and directors have to decide that this is important, that this work of understanding the language —  the muscularity of the language as well as the dictionary definitions of the words, the way the scansion of a line informs us about the character’s essential nature –  is worth burning a significant chunk of their rehearsal time.  (Indeed, their pre-rehearsal preparation time, too!)

Tablework for A Midsummer Night's Dream at the American Shakespeare Center; photo by Michael Amendola

One thing that helps to make Shakespeare watchable is not condescending to your audience, not making your audience feel stupid.  Seriously.  We often assume that our audiences know these stories as well as we do.  Spoiler alert: they don’t!

Well, okay, some of our audiences know and love these stories, and bring their copies of the play with them to the performance so that they can track our cuts.  But in addition to those people, there are great swaths of smart, thoughtful people who come to see our work but for whom many of these stories are brand new.  For whom the stories may exist in only charcoal sketch detail.  They come to the theatre after a day designing web pages, writing legal briefs or teaching math; they come — open to a new experience and to discovery — only to be shut down by productions which sail glossily over their attentive but bewildered heads.

If a theatre company stages a production that is so busy being clever with major storytelling points that no one can follow it who is not already intimately acquainted with it, then they make these good people feel stupid.  And eventually, those good people will decide that Shakespeare is not for them.  They’ll stop participating.  They’ll stop buying tickets.  They’ll stop donating.

Congratulations on your o-so-ingenious staging that makes it completely impossible for a mere mortal to understand what just happened there.  You may now perform it in an empty theatre.

But this troubles me

Sometimes I suspect that the director doesn’t trust that the production will be exciting if he gets out of the way and just tells the story.  He may feel he has to do something flashy, make it shiny in order for us to sit still.  He may also want to ‘make it his own’ through some – erm, innovative theatrical device.  I know I am completely over being assaulted by ear-splitting drums or synthesized bangs to let me know that something important is about to happen in the play. I have completely exceeded my recommended lifetime allowance of actors shouting over said ear-splitting drums.

Sometimes I suspect that the director doesn’t know what he is doing.  This may be an unpopular notion, but not everyone should be directing Shakespeare.  There is an actual skill set required. A particular director may have great instincts, but that is insufficient to this task.  If the director doesn’t know what he’s doing, there is but so much an actor can do to salvage it.  One has to know some things to do this work well.  One can go learn it.  One can learn some of it on the fly, but to do this work, it must actually be learned.

You can do a traditional production; you can do a modern-dress production.  You can cut some lines; you can do the whole four-hour extravaganza.  You can be high concept (although I wish you wouldn’t); let your own discretion be your tutor.  But you need to know what you are saying, and you need to suit the action to the word, the word to the action.  As Hamlet goes on to say, the purpose of the playing is not to show how frightfully clever the director is, it is to hold the mirror, as ‘twere, up to nature.  You must be put to a little trouble about it.  Trust the text and invite your audience to join you on the journey.

  • January 20, 2012
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