Seeing and hearing is believing

It has to be done, and it has to be done now: the RSC chief Adrian Noble explains why he's dusting off Romeo and Juliet
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The Independent Culture
Productions mark the passage of a director's life as do the birth of children or the death of parents, and indeed sometimes the one measures the other. My father died on the night of the hurricane in 1987 while I was in Japan directing Twelfth Night; my daughter was born during the previews of Macbeth in the Barbican 15 months ago.

Productions are companions of the memory, they have characters that help define and illuminate the past. Collectively they form a body of work with which one has a subjective, private relationship, which has an inner, instinctive logic, although to the public eye it may look the result of a series of random choices. There is an inner development that relates only marginally to the journalistic critical view, although I'd be the first to admit that good criticism, though rare, is invaluable.

Most people working in the arts would prefer to see their creative output as the defining action of their selves rather than their public utterances. So when I was asked by the Independent to write about why I wanted to direct Romeo and Juliet at this point in my life, I found it an unusually difficult question to answer.

On rare occasions, I have done a piece of work in reaction to a particular public event. I directed Henry V with Kenneth Branagh as a direct response to witnessing my fellow countrymen collectively drop their moral knickers during the Falklands war. Shakespeare's play understands and embraces the contradictory emotions and political pressures that characterise a nation at war.I directed Nick Dear's The Art of Success because it articulated, better than any other play of the 1980s, outrage against the creed of individualism and greed that swept the country at the zenith of Thatcher's reign, and explored with wit and insight the invidious influences many artists found themselves subject to.

Sometimes I have directed plays for purely pragmatic, indeed, opportunistic reasons. I did King Lear with Robert Stephens because I wanted to see him play that role. I knew that he brought much more to the party than I ever could; I believed his genius and humanity would reveal the part in a way that I was unlikely to see again - and I think he did.

So why Romeo and Juliet in 1995? I can offer no simple answer. It orbited my life, it passed by regularly; only last year when I was directing A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose play within a play ends with a double suicide, did I seriously contemplate directing Romeo and Juliet. From there a hunch grew to an instinct and finally to a decision. For years and years, it was a play in which I had absolutely no interest.

I had managed to avoid seeing it in the theatre while at school, and think my first exposure was Zeffirelli's film, heavily cut, colourful, swashbuckling and romantic. But it didn't move me, it wasn't sexy or disturbing, it didn't engulf the adolescent mind as Olivier's films of Richard III or Hamlet did. It was lightweight, prankish, it passed me by. It celebrated style rather than love, and I left the cinema with my ears ringing to the sound of the costumes.

The sound of a Shakespeare play has always been crucial to me. My first memory of Shakespeare in performance - Olivier again -was the sound of Othello at Chichester in the early 1960s: seductive, heady, intoxicating stuff . On that occasion I left the theatre dizzy with excitement. I have virtually no recollection of what it looked like; and I have little recollection of what the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet sounded like.

When Hamlet tells the actors newly arrived in Elsinore "We'll hear a play tomorrow", a chasm yawns open between Shakespeare's audience and our modern sensibility that for me presents the principal challenge and the main attraction of working on the classics. "We'll hear a play tomorrow". We'll hear a play. In Stratford-upon-Avon, 1500 people will go to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet.

This is no quibble, no nice point of debate, no unimportant slip of meaning or intention. In that small shift of sensory perception lies the very raison d'tre of the classical theatre, the greatest gift it brings to contemporary audiences, and the single biggest hurdle facing modern actors and directors.

To take the last point first, all British actors, consciously or unconsciously, are steeped in a tradition of acting founded upon the principle of identification. It is the foundation of most drama school courses; proficiency in this method, or Method, is vital for commercial success. At its best it brings with it the humanity and insight into the human mind indicated by the 19th-century pioneers Freud and Stanislavsky; at its worst it substitutes behaviour for acting.

Most classical texts were written for actors who functioned in a totally different tradition. For the Ancient Greek actor the mask was the character, and often a role would have been shared by several actors. For example, in Oedipus at Colonus, it is likely that all three principal actors would at some point in the performance have worn the Theseus mask and would therefore have contributed to the "identity" of that character.

In Shakespeare's time, the very word "character" had a totally different meaning to the one we know, developed only after his death in relation to the novel. Shakespeare was called a poet rather than a dramatist, his actors rehearsed at speed a vast repertoire, without a director in the modern sense. They recognised as acting notes the myriad of signals given by the verse line, the rhyme, the alliteration and all the other practical devices developed by Shakespeare with that group of actors immortalised on the frontispiece of the First Folio - many of whom grew up in craft alongside Shakespeare and were part of that almost permanent revolution of dramaturgy that became known as the Complete Works.

Modern actors have to get on the bus while it is moving. They rarely have the opportunity to absorb the pounding pulse of the early chronicle plays before they have to tackle the complicated cross-rhythms of the later plays, or the near-naturalism of parts of the middle plays.

The only sensible way I know of tackling a Shakespeare play in 1995 is to seek a creative marriage of the two traditions, and if there is a methodology of work inside the RSC it is that. For me it is a sterile exercise to try to recreate an authentic Shakespearian performance; the circus left town long ago.

It is equally foolish to pretend Shakespeare wrote a rather fancy form of modern speech and that an uninflated, casual delivery will somehow make it meaningful to a present-day audience. The results are invariably catastrophic and lead audiences to perceive Shakespeare as long-winded and boring.

Of course we will try to make our production of Romeo and Juliet a feast for all the senses, we will burn incense at the altar of all the Aristotelian virues. But unless we have succeeded in making the language live vibrantly and immediately for an audience, a huge number of whom will never have seen the play before, then we will have failed because we will have compromised the very meaning of the play, which can never be fulfilled on the page, only on the stage.

The classical theatre, when we can rise to the challenge, offers audiences a quite unique experience. Yes it is sensuous, emotional, intellectually stimulating and tells stories that resonate and echo in people's hearts; but finally I must resort to oxymoron to define what can happen when not just the eyes, but the fearful hollow of the ear is penetrated; the possibility of thinking emotionally, laughing seriously, judging sensuously, of accepting the richness of complication, allowing mystery without embarrassment or the need to solve it.

I hope our Romeo and Juliet will be serious without being solemn, will be popular without being populist, witty without being trivial; that people will laugh at the bumpy course of true love, but grieve at the pain of youth and the loss of life.

n Previews from Thursday at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (01789 295623)