Interpreting Shakespeare: An Interview with Gregory Doran

Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has recently been appointed Oxford’s Humanitas Professor in Drama, giving a series of lectures and masterclasses on Shakespeare throughout February 2013. In a joint interview, he spoke about the relationship between performance and academia, directing the RSC, and performing plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

JS: Since we’re in the academy it seems a good topic to start on. How do you see the relationship between academia and theatre at the moment?

GD: Certainly at Stratford for the RSC, for a while there’s been an opening up between the two after a period (in my perception at any rate) of mutual suspicion. We’ve always engaged with the academic community in terms of programme notes, but I think we’re now having a deeper relationship. I’ve just set up a programme looking at the rest of the repertoire during Shakespeare’s time; there are six hundred or so plays extant. You could say they haven’t been done for four hundred years therefore they’re no good, but I’ve tried to wave the flag for Jaco-bethan drama, saying that the reason they’re not done is because people aren’t brave enough to do them. There is a danger that Shakespeare, on his pedestal, is throwing everybody else too far into the shade for us to consider them viable. But there is also the question that some of the plays that ought to be done just haven’t been read, and aren’t widely available. I get quite a lot of academics writing to me asking why we haven’t done Hengist, King of Kent, for example. So I’ve invited four academics to pitch four plays to me, the idea being that they research the plays and they have to be not only good plays for a student seminar or PhD thesis, but they have to be viable in terms of saleability, playability, accessibility, relevance, etc. So I’m giving them each six actors and a director for a week. On each day they go through each of the four plays and then the whole group comes together at the end of the week and pitches their favourite to the rest of the group. By the end of it we should have at least sixteen plays, neglected plays that haven’t even had performances at The Swan or at the Globe’s ‘Read Not Dead’ series. That way the actors will challenge them [the academics] by saying: ‘This is a misogynist diatribe’, ‘Nobody would come to this play’, or ‘This character is thin.’ At the end of that we should have at least four plays that might be worth considering for the Swan repertoire.

That’s a direct engagement with academics, but I think there’s a whole other level of engagement in terms of just deepening our understanding of the plays. Obviously, we look at them from an absolutely practical point of view but it’s great to have the perspective of the play’s relevance at the time. With Julius Caesar for instance (which I’ve just done) I had a notion that maybe this intense political thriller gets a bit lost when it’s exoticised by togas and sandals, and that it might be more interesting to put it in a contemporary setting. Yet if you do it in a modern Western setting the danger is that Caesar just looks like a truculent company chairman who the board want to knock off his perch, and that loses the mythic resonance. We tested out the idea of putting it in an African setting with an all black company by getting a group of actors and academics together. Tom Holland, who is a great expert on ancient Rome, came to discuss Julius Caesar in his ancient Roman context; what Julius Caesar the real man was like. We also had the academic Richard Wilson talking about Shakespeare and Julius Caesar in the Renaissance; how the icon changed. And then we had an academic and a journalist who have worked in Africa for the past forty years as a commentator and analyst as it were, giving a perspective on whether Julius Caesar resonated on the African continent. Of course, there are endless possibilities of who you could cast as Caesar, from Mugabe to Idi Amin to Emperor Bokassa. And that was very interesting just to see how that reflected on the play, and as a result of that we went forward with the idea of doing the play in that setting.

OF: Do you find it a challenge making Shakespeare’s language relevant in contemporary performance as opposed to academia?

GD: It’s always a challenge, because I think if you take a play and you put it in a particular setting that narrows its range, if you like, it can deny the play’s application to the universal by making it too specific. For Julius Caesar we chose an east African accent, because we found that the west African accent, the Nigerian accent, seemed too particular, or invited too many easy comparisons with the situation in Nigeria rather than being more generally applicable. So we wanted to make it more of a pan-African metaphor; just replacing the ancient Roman metaphor with an African metaphor in a way. But the accent liberated a lot of the language in an interesting way. Sometimes the British accent or some of the English accents can seem rather flat and monotonous in comparison to the wonderful tonality of some of the African accents… Shakespeare didn’t speak like Prince Charles and presumably he had a much stronger accent. If you pronounce the word war as waarr that sounds much more guttural and earthy and in touch with something a bit more primal than our clipped vowels tend to allow. Engaging with the language is a really important part of it; by putting it in other worlds (I’ve done Shakespeare in Africa, America and in the Far East) you always gain. The trouble is actors in America or South Africa often put on an English accent when they’re auditioning for you because they think somehow Shakespeare is the preserve of a sort of white middle class Englishness which is, I think, a sad thing. This is why I enjoy presenting Shakespeare around the world and doing it in different communities. For example, the Much Ado About Nothing we just did set in the Punjab worked in that setting because of a number of things like the arranged marriages. There are a series of ways in which the woman’s role is defined which seem old fashioned in the UK setting but absolutely particular in a Punjabi setting.

JS: You’ve said that where Michael Boyd’s [Doran’s predecessor as RSC Artistic Director] emphasis was on C for company you want yours to be S for Shakespeare. What do you think the value of Shakespeare is outside the context of the RSC for “people”, whoever they are?

GD: I guess I would have to predicate that by saying that I think there is nothing better than Shakespeare done well and nothing worse than Shakespeare done badly. Therefore the difficulty is being able to maintain the skills and the craftsmanship required to really deliver it, just the muscles which you need to deliver a Shakespeare play and deliver it in a thousand-seater house. I think Shakespeare is still relevant, if that’s even useful as a word, because he manages to articulate the human condition from 360 degrees. He always has quotes. He’s got a quotation for every occasion in ways that surprise you, and in ways that creep up on you. I did a production of King John about twelve years ago and we had realised that the whole of the first half of the play in particular is a really wonderful satirical take on politics, rhetoric … and how people change according to their political mood. But the second half of the play seemed to radically change and we didn’t really understand that until one Tuesday matinee in September… The show started at half past one and at about ten to two, unbeknownst to the audience but known backstage because there was a little television, a plane flew into a building in New York. The company were all glued to this television set when offstage. About halfway through the first half a second plane flew into a second building, and just after the interval the first tower came down and the second tower came down shortly after that. The audience knew nothing of this but backstage we knew all about it. There were huge discussions going on as to whether we should stop the production, whether we should go and talk to the audience. And then the play itself started to articulate the situation. In the second half of King John, the Prince, the little boy, falls from the tower; as he fell from the tower, people in New York were jumping from the World Trade Center. And Jo Stone-Fewings who was playing the Bastard had to go out and say ‘I lose my way among the thorns and dangers of this world … now vast confusion waits, As doth a raven on a sick-fall’n beast.’ I’ve never known a moment when Shakespeare actually at that point gave words to a situation where nobody could find the words to explain or articulate what was happening, but what we knew was that vast confusion now waited upon the world like a raven on a sick-fallen beast. And it was an astonishing coincidence that just heightened my sense that Shakespeare somehow just provides; whether it’s being in love, being jealous, being ambitious, being angry, wanting to find the best insult possible. So I guess that’s what keeps us doing him.

OF: You said back in 2002, all those years ago, that theatre should try to accentuate its differences from other forms of media. What do you mean by those differences and do you think it’s managed to do that?

GD: Well I think there was a point when theatre was becoming very literal. Television film tends to be that for the most part, whereas I think Shakespeare uses the language of theatre to engage the audience’s brains and imaginations, to be complicit in what’s happening. So when in Henry V the Prologue says ‘Think when we talk of horses that you see them’, you don’t have to see them, you make that effort of imagination and together you become complicit in sharing the experience of the play. I think film is much more literal than that. If there’s a horse you expect to see a horse, as it were. I think theatre really began [around 2002] to celebrate and appropriate all sorts of different ways of theatre-making that had emerged over the last fifteen years: site-specific theatre, more physical theatre, puppetry. Puppets had a huge explosion of interest over the last decade or so. You have to believe that that piece of wood is whatever it is, and somehow Shakespeare knew that you would either alienate yourself from it and refuse to believe it, or the effort of making that leap of faith would engage you in a much deeper way. I think theatre such as War Horse celebrated that. I think there are lots of ways in which Simon McBurney’s work celebrates it. In the play Mnemonic, he creates one of the people frozen in the ice centuries ago by using a broken chair. And they are some of the most vivid and extraordinary moments of theatre where film just can’t do that. Theatre doesn’t have to be literal, it can sketch something in and you fill out the rest.

JS: You’ve worked with your partner Sir Anthony Sher on many occasions now. Do you pretend that you’re not partners in the rehearsal room? Is conversation about rehearsal banned when you get home? What’s the day to day character of the relationship?

GD: We learnt by making mistakes and the first Shakespeare we did together was Titus Andronicus in South Africa. We were living in a suburb of Johannesburg in a sort of fortress, as is the way… It was quite tense and I guess what happened was that we didn’t realise that you needed time out… I wanted to get home of an evening and sit in the garden with a gin and tonic and he wanted to talk about Act III Scene iii and he wouldn’t stop … and eventually I just had to throw plates at him to make him stop. We realised that we needed to give each other permission to have that time out. The problem with rehearsing with your partner is that you lose your best friend because I will go home of an evening and go “My God that leading actor” and he’ll come home and say “God that director” and you can’t do that if your partner is that person. We decided to make those parameters and to keep them clear. If we travel in together in the car or on the tube we can allow ourselves a question or two, but sometimes it means we don’t speak at home. But it’s an important thing to do because you need to separate these things out. There are advantages of course because you know each other’s shorthand and you can see when they’re phoning in a performance and he can tell when I’m bluffing and haven’t really prepared. They can tell you out rather easily.

OF: You’ve worked with some incredible actors. Who are the most interesting? You recently announced David Tennant will be returning [to the RSC].

GD: Well David’s great because he, like all great actors, is a very hard worker. I know from working with Tony that very few actors will have got up at six o’clock, done two hours of lines before they come into rehearsal. Some actors think they just turn up and that rehearsal is the time that you work. Great actors know that rehearsal is the time that you try out what you’ve been working on outside that. There’s a lack of discipline sometimes – or a laziness – that I don’t like, whereas people like Harriet Walter, David Tennant or Patrick Stewart all have a real appetite but also a curiosity; they want to challenge what the part is, particularly in Shakespeare where there are a whole series of received ideas about what the part is. Tony in particular is famous for exploding that idea or radically reinterpreting, for example at the beginning of his career with Richard III… I think that great actors do have an appetite for work and they have an appetite to reinterpret and to look at it freshly, which doesn’t mean being radically different for the sake of being different. It means going to the text and deeply exploring what that is. One of the extraordinary things about David’s performance as Hamlet, particularly on-stage but not so much evident on film because of the lack of an audience, was how funny he was. He had recognised the line ‘I have of late lost all my mirth’ and recognised that that must mean he once had mirth, and that he enjoyed a joke. He was perhaps an easy-going, fun-loving joker, and the situation of his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage plunges him into a gloom. But it doesn’t mean that underneath that humour doesn’t come back out. Great actors have a laser-beam intelligence that can cut through perceived notions of what the plays are about and that makes them exciting to work with. In a way then you as a director are really creating the environment in which they can flourish best. Tyrone Guthrie said that eighty percent of good directing is good casting; I believe that.

OF: When you work with actors who have equally strong ideas about interpretation as you, are there ever big disagreements or is it useful to work with actors [who disagree]?

GD: I’m not a director who imposes a series of ideas. I get the best casting that I can, and that is a fairly major part of interpretation of the play … There’s no definitive production of Shakespeare. What I like to do is make the production a sort of collaboration in which we are all contributing ideas and I am editing those ideas. I think it’s likely that any clash of ideas of character would have been ironed out by the time I’ve cast them. I obviously meet people beforehand and … if there’s a fundamental difference it’s liable to have emerged before the rehearsals start. Patrick Stewart brought all his experience of having travelled around the universe on the Starship Enterprise and knowing what glamour was in Hollywood to Mark Antony. In Antony and Cleopatra [Mark Antony] is aware of just how his glamour is fading and how he can’t live up to his PR anymore. That was something where I couldn’t identify how he was going to play that part, but I just knew he was right for the part of Antony. When Judi Dench played the countess in All’s Well That Ends Well she had recently been widowed. I knew that she brought an element of that loss to the part and how she [the Countess] regrets that she’s losing her son. It was nothing I needed to prod and poke, it was just something that she, because she uses life to plug into, brought to that part. But we both knew that that’s what it was about. And so it’s really just facilitating. I don’t have any great claims for what directors are and whether we’re the experts. Theatre can do without us; it did for centuries and centuries. We’re a very late twentieth century invention really – the leading actor used to be the director and shoved everybody downstage of him and out of his light. I think directors are a good thing but I don’t think we should overstate what it is that we do.

JS: You’re a big promoter of Not-Shakespeare, as it were. Do you see value in those plays in and of their own right or are they valuable only as a context for Shakespeare?

GD: No. I think if they were valuable just [as a context for Shakespeare] that really would be just an academic exercise. I think they are hugely exciting theatrical pieces of entertainment. And sometimes they’re so different from Shakespeare. Anybody who says Marlowe wrote Shakespeare has never been an actor because you can taste the difference in your mouth when you speak the lines. Ben Jonson was also a great writer. In 2016 we’re about to celebrate four hundred years since Shakespeare died. Well, I’m not so sure celebrating the fact that he got drunk one night with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton and fell over in a ditch and got pneumonia is something to celebrate, frankly. He died at 52. We should be mourning it rather than celebrating it. But 1616 was the year that Ben Jonson produced his first folio. That’s a much more important thing that happened in that year, and four hundred years later we should be celebrating that. Had Ben Jonson not produced his first folio (he invented the word playwright; he was the first playwright, the first poet to put all his poems and nine plays into one single volume)… it wouldn’t even have occurred to Heminges and Condell to put together the First Folio [of Shakespeare’s works] seven years later. So in a way we are grateful to Ben Jonson for giving us half of Shakespeare’s plays as well as his own [since half of Shakespeare’s plays only appear in this Folio]. So I do think the plays from the stable of writers from which Shakespeare came are wonderful and exciting to do in their own right.

J. Sheldrake (The Oxford Culture Review) & O. Forrest (The Oxford Student)

For more information about Gregory Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company, please visit their website; more information about the Humanitas Professorships is available here

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