Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman
My first experience with Shakespeare was as a freshman in high school watching Zeffirelli’s R&J while Mrs. Dauber covered up Juliet’s naughty bits with index cards. I made my Shakespeare acting debut as a senior 3 years later playing Ferdinand in The Tempest. Since then I count 21 different Shakespeare productions I’ve either acted in or directed.
Along the way I’ve developed a few opinions about how I like to experience Shakespeare as a director, actor, or audience member. I’m kind of a snob about it, actually.
So with that said here are, in no particular order, a few random thoughts on the subject.
Cutting and re-arranging.
I’m a big fan of cutting Shakespeare – I like it at 2:25 or less if possible – but I’ve always felt that tinkering with the order of scenes is somehow playing too closely with the magical fabric that binds the plays together. I won’t do it.
For that matter, I’m all for women playing male roles. But I hate it when pronouns and proper names are changed to make them feminine. Prospera? Please, Julie Taymor. Just leave it alone and trust that we’ll accept it.
We know how it ends.
***Hamlet spoiler alert***
You probably knew that.
It was one of the true delights of the movie Shakespeare in Love to see that audience watching Romeo and Juliet for the very first time and vicariously experiencing their shock and surprise at the unfolding story. They didn’t know what was going to happen.
The lifeblood of the theater is the unexpected result. Directing Shakespeare, it’s tempting to accept that there will be no surprise and instead devote your creative brain to wacky and clever ways to get TO the result that everyone obviously knows is coming.
I offer that it’s important as theater practitioners to approach Shakespeare as if our audiences don’t actually know how it’s all going to end up, like we would with any other play. Maybe Hamlet will find a way out of this mess. Maybe the Friar will reach the tomb in time. Of course he doesn’t, and he won’t. But it’s the struggle, the drama of the attempt, that engages us.
I want to give a nod to David Ball in Backwards and Forwards where he talks about a similar thing and cites Claudius as a prime example. Don’t start the play by playing him evil. Let the drama unfold.
By the way, Backwards and Forwards is the best book I know on reading and understanding plays. Read it now.
Be careful with the underscoring.
Putting too much busy underscoring beneath Shakespearean text is like trying to read two poems aloud at the same time. They compete, and the text loses. I’m not against it all together, but it needs a light touch.
I’ll get you Neal Freeman.
There’s a Shakespeare scholar in Canada also named Neal Freeman, spelled exactly like my name, whose existence I found out about after someone once told me how much they liked my folios. Huh?
Distinguishing myself professionally from this other Neal Freeman is the reason I added my middle initial to my name in professional credits, something I otherwise had no interest in doing.
Someday I’ll get the bastard for that.
Guns bad. Swords good.
A professor of mine at Cornell, Bruce Levitt, told us that the reason George Lucas invented the lightsaber is because swordfights are dramatic and gunfights are not. He was using this as an example of why we needed to be extra careful when modernizing a Shakespeare that contains sword-fighting. How are you going to keep the drama in a gunfight? Or else, how are you going to justify the swords if they’re wearing modern clothing?
I’ve seen quality contemporary-dress Shakespeare before (a crystal-clear contemporary setting of “Timon of Athens” at the Shakespeare Theater in DC chief among them), but more often I’ve seen productions ruined by a careless mix of swordplay and modern dress that thwarts whatever attempt at contemporizing the play the company may be exploring.
While I am fully in support of modern-dress Shakespeare if it helps to clarify the play, I also happen to think that if the only way you can think to make Shakespeare feel relevant to today’s audiences is to throw everyone in contemporary clothing, you probably shouldn’t be producing him at all.
That’s enough for today but I’ve got more to say so I’m going to continue this post later in the week. Stay tuned for more snobbery.