The opera's the thing

Matthew Warchus is directing Shakespeare from two different angles this year - `Hamlet' for the RSC and Verdi's `Falstaff' for Opera North. And he knows which form can best bring the Bard to life.
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In the perennial debate about "authentic" practice in early music it's often been said that real authenticity is a will-o'-the-wisp, because we lack authentic ears to hear. Even if we knew for certain that a performance of, say, a Bach chorale conformed exactly to the composer's intentions in terms of pitch, tempos, instrumentation and vocal styles, we could never understand the piece in the same way as a Lutheran congregation in 18th-century Leipzig. And much the same is true of theatre, even when - or especially when - it's something as familiar and eternally resonant as Shakespeare's plays,

"The difficulty with Shakespeare," Matthew Warchus says, "is that the more you research it, [the more] you discover ... how different its meaning would have been. And although it's a kind of privilege to make those discoveries, it's terribly frustrating - because the next stage is realising that you probably can't convey that original meaning now."

This hasn't stopped Warchus directing Shakespeare - he brought him back to the West End with an acclaimed Much Ado About Nothing and turned Iain Glen into a plausibly monkish Henry V for the RSC; and this spring he will be returning to Stratford to direct Alex Jennings in Hamlet, in what promises to be one of the more interesting theatrical events of the year. But his sense of the inevitability of failure with Shakespeare in the theatre has played its part in his recently burgeoning career in opera: his first opera production was Walton's Troilus and Cressida for Opera North two years ago, which had critics pronouncing it a neglected masterpiece; and his production of Verdi's Falstaff, also for Opera North, opens in Leeds on Thursday.

Given his reservations, does Warchus believe that opera can offer a more authentic Shakespearean experience than straight theatre? "Depending on the composer, obviously," he says, "but potentially, yes." For one thing, he views the theatre of Shakespeare's time as a far more full-blooded experience than it is today, in which actors would be expected not only to act, but to dance, sing, juggle, tumble and fight - "So they have a range of skills which amplifies the theatre experience in the way opera amplifies it as well. I'm sure that we would find the performances not very good in lots of ways, but I don't think there's any denying that they would have to be high-energy in order to keep people interested."

He characterises The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi's source, as a "bear- baiting" play: the original audience would have been able to hear the sounds of a bear being baited in the theatre next door; while the play (and the opera) ends with Falstaff, all his amorous plotting come to nothing, disguised under a stag's head and being tormented by people disguised as fairies as a punishment for his presumption.

Warchus cites an article he read during preparations for rehearsal which suggested that Verdi's Falstaff is a better realisation than Shakespeare's ever could be - "because being able to sing manifested everything that he stood for, his whole energy as a life force came out in his voice so much better." Clearly, that isn't the whole story, or Vaughan Williams's Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love, would be something more than a curio chiefly listened to by fans of 20th-century English pastoral.

Part of the explanation may be simply that Verdi is Italian. Shakespeare nabbed at least some of his plot from an Italian source, and Warchus points to Falstaff's vast appetites - for food, drink, sex, money - as being more archetypally Italian than English. And while The Merry Wives of Windsor is famously a comedy of the English bourgeoisie - the only one of Shakespeares plays to deal with the rising mercantile classes, "It's not," Warchus points out, "middle-class in the way that we understand middle-class now; this is a middle class with people urinating in the corners of rooms and not wearing any underwear under their skirts and going to the forest for a quick one. So it's... more peasant, more Italian, more primal."

Sitting in an office in the dingy labyrinth that lies backstage at the Leeds Grand Theatre, nibbling on British institutional cuisine - ham sandwiches and tortilla snacks - you get some inkling of what the 30-year-old has in mind here. Hence Laura Hopkins' design for this Falstaff sets it in period, but eschews what Warchus calls "English Heritage Elizabethanisms" (which fill him, he says, with dread), instead drawing heavily on Italian 17th-century theatre design.

A more convincing, though necessarily vaguer, explanation for the success of Verdi's Falstaff rather than Vaughan William's, is that Verdi is a much better composer or at any rate (I'm too fond of Vaughan Williams to let this one go by unqualified), a more Shakespearean one. "The thing that I find in Shakespeare," Warchus says, "is this really startling throwing together of opposite emotions in one situation, so that in one scene you can have someone experiencing great agony while the other is joking, laughing. And Verdi all the way through has that kind of very, very mercurial style... that involves ultimately quite a cruel view of human nature, but mixed in with a love and a warmth."

It would be nice to have Warchus's view on Verdi's Otello, but he cheerfully admits to knowing nothing about it. In fact, he says that he knows very little of the opera repertoire at all - he's never been a keen operagoer, something that's surprising given his background. At Bristol University, he took a joint honours degree in music and drama, and opera seemed like the obvious path for him; as things turned out, it was some years before he got round to it. Now, he's approaching opera with the zeal of the convert. Directing The Rake's Progress for Welsh National Opera last year was, he says, one of the highlights of his life: "I realised there's a whole set of things that can be achieved if you work very, very hard, and that actually turned opera for me into something of a crusade."

Apart from anything else, "There's no doubt that it's an easier job directing an opera than a play, much easier." The idea is counter-intuitive; after all, you would think that co-ordinating music and acting was both more demanding and more constraining. As far as complexity goes, Warchus is undaunted: "Technically, it might be on occasions more demanding, just in terms of marshalling a larger company of people, but that's not a difficult thing to do" - an answer that shouldn't come as a surprise, given Warchus's reputation as a director who enjoys spectacle (though he can do chamber pieces as well: one of his biggest hits is the current West End production of Yasmina Reza's three-hander Art).

As for constraints, "You do find music places limits - you have good ideas sometimes as a director and you think `Oh, it would be so lovely to take another bar, two bars, over that because there's a really good thing we could do', but it's impossible to do in the time that you've been given... But I find that acting is tougher in certain ways because you are having to find what the music provides - which is a sense of an underlying meaning and feeling to a situation. Simply by choice of orchestration and harmony and key, the composer makes it very prominent exactly where we are psychologically at any given point." The straight theatre, by contrast is cursed by vagueness. "The problem is often trying to work out what the problem is that you need to solve... you need to find what the question is then look for the answer. With opera you're halfway there, all you need to do is find the solution."

Opera has other attractions - such as the fact of having a collaborator, the conductor (in this case, Paul Daniel). And Warchus has a strong sense, too, of being in the right place at the right time: "Because although ultimately a talent for singing combined with a talent for acting is just a coincidence, and obviously not a commonplace coincidence, there are more and more people interested in acting through singing, and more and more conductors interested - this is a very important thing, I think - in getting their orchestra to act while their playing, so that they inform the music with the emotions. And that means you have an acting force, if you like, of 40 people in the orchestra and 40 people on stage."

His next target is Mozart: The Magic Flute at WNO in two years' time. "I think probably in Mozart that I'll find something I find in Shakespeare. And that's going to be exciting." For us, I'd guess, as well as for him

`Falstaff' opens at Grand Theatre, Leeds on Thurs 16 Jan. Booking: 0113 245 9351