THEATRE; Shakespeare and company

Why do directors feel compelled to `interpret' Shakespeare? Robert Butler reports
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The Independent Culture
THINK OF the last six months. In Steven Pimlott's production of Richard III, which moves to the Barbican in June, Richard is a court jester with cap and bells. In Silviu Purcarete's touring production of The Tempest, Ariel is a voice-over, played by the same actor who plays Prospero. In Mark Rylance's recent production of Macbeth, Macbeth is the leader of a Hare Krishna-style cult and his wife urinates during the sleepwalking scene. The surprise in going to Shakespeare, as a critic over this period, has not been in discovering the number of different ways that Shakespeare can be done. The surprise has been in discovering how many of them are different in exactly the same way. You leave the theatre having tried your hardest to have an emotional experience with a concept. Ours is the first age in which you have to read the programme just to understand what's happening on stage.

An explanation for the extraordinary situation that we are in, how we came to be in it, and how dramatically it differs from the theatre-going experience enjoyed by audiences in the Gielgud/ Olivier era, is offered in a new book, Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History, published last week. It's a collection of essays written in honour of the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. Working through the chapters - "The Age of Garrick", "The Romantic Stage", "Actor-Managers and the Spectacular" - we are reminded that every age did something pretty odd with Shakespeare.

In the 17th century an actor playing Macbeth didn't call his servant a "cream-faced loon" because a proper sense of decorum meant that masters weren't rude to servants. In the 18th century Garrick would perform King Lear with Lear happily restored to the throne at the end. In the 19th century the taste for pictorial realism led to the inclusion of extra tableaux, so that in Henry V, Charles Kean could stage the storming of Harfleur. But while we may smile in a superior fashion at what earlier generations did, when - after 170 pages - we get to Robert Smallwood's chapter on "Directors' Theatre" the smile freezes on the lips. There are notable exceptions, but prevailing orthodoxy now is as barmy as anything that preceded it.

Smallwood describes the kind of production that has "dominated" the professional Shakespearian stage in this country for 30 or 40 years. This kind of production aims not simply to present the play. It offers "something of an interpretative essay on it". Why? It's easy to see why. Subsidised theatre dominates post-war Shakespeare productions. The director dominates subsidised theatre. He or she - usually he - is the employer. Not just the creative boss, but the economic one too. Graduates of Oxford and Cambridge - usually Cambridge - dominate the ranks of British directors. Many of them read English Literature at university. Writing interpretative essays is what they did each week. A text is something you learn to comment on. The result is that the actual text runs parallel to - or, in Smallwood's phrase, "some little way below the surface" of - the production.

The words have to fight for attention. When Robert Lepage brought his mud-based version of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the National in 1992 he held a public conversation with Richard Eyre. Lepage said: "The reason why a lot of people, and I include myself in this, are very caught by the image, is that we've lost faith in words." It's perfect that. A Shakespeare director. Lost faith in words.

It's very odd, then, that so many visually expressive and imaginative directors choose to direct Shakespeare. The critic John Bayley was reviewing a biography of Terence Rattigan in the London Review of Books recently when he mentioned, in a bracket, that: "Shakespeare was a playwright from the accident of his time: his true talents are only marginally theatrical." The guy was a poet.

But if going to Shakespeare is, essentially, an aural experience, it's amazing how often you strain to hear exactly what the actors are saying, or to hear the words spoken with a sense of metre, or to hear the words as if they were actually passing through the minds of the characters at the moment at which they spoke them.

The actors have to compete for our attention with the "creative team": director, designer, lighting designer, sound designer, composer and choreographer. Each of them has a mark to make. If only actors refused to speak until everything else was either silent or still, or both.

There is another way. In Henry V, the Chorus makes a deal with the audience. There is only so much the actors will be able to describe, so: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." We give you the words, you fill in as much as you can. "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hooves i'th' receiving earth." It's a simple and intoxicating partnership, this, between skilled actors and an attentive audience. This is the central imaginative experience of going to Shakespeare. How often do we get that?

When I was at drama school we did an exercise where everyone sat in a circle and each person described a recent incident that had made a strong impression. The more articulate and self-aware members of the group kept saying: "It seemed to me", "what was ironic was", "it made me think." They were the dullest. The only memorable story was told by a small, sullen blonde who offered no comment whatsoever. It was a sad account about not getting into a Prince concert that she had travelled across Europe to see. Boo-hoo, you might think: but sitting in that circle, listening, we were standing outside the stadium with her. Gutted.

It would be a good exercise for Shakespeare directors. They could sit in a circle and tell each other the plots. Some would do it very well. Others would insist on explaining what it was they considered personally relevant, ironic or contemporary about the narrative that they were describing. With any luck, these ones would look up after a while and catch the rest of the group staring out the window.

! `Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History' (OUP, pounds 20) is out now. The RSC's Stratford season starts with `The Taming of the Shrew' on Thurs (booking: 01789 295623).

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