I went to a production of Measure for Measure at a regional theatre on the East Coast a few years ago. It was a visual banquet: cages descended from above and figures clad in leather were gyrating and dancing and cracking whips as the lights came up. House music banged out it’s relentless beat, and a smorgasbord of sin was displayed before our eyes. Simulated fellatio, snorted cocaine lines, BDSM – it was all on breathtaking display. If ever a director wished to present a picture of a grunged-up, sexed-up, drugged-up society, this was the way to do it. Beautifully designed too, with black spandex/rubber suits and plenty of naked flesh, set against a metallic-blue scenic design, and lit like a (fabulous) rock concert.
The first act continued that way, with requisite pauses for some Shakespearean scenes, through to intermission. When the lights came up, the subscribers sitting in front of me looked at each other, and the husband asked his wife, “Do you like it?” “Oh, I love it,” she said, and then without a grain of irony she said, “Can you tell what’s happening? Who’s the nun?”
Major US theaters and countless directors over the last 15 years have relied more and more upon this kind of production: visually interesting, an unmistakable “point of view,” a certain “this-isn’t-your-father’s-Shakespeare” kind of attitude – but usually suffering from either general murkiness, or else complete unintelligibility when it comes to Shakespeare’s language and story. I think there are three reasons for the trend.
1. Telling a clear and compelling story in Shakespearean verse is hard. It requires more than actors learning their lines and hitting their marks – it requires a deep and time-consuming investigation into the language, the relationships, the politics, and the mores of the play. Many directors today aren’t interested in (or equipped to lead) such an exploration, and opt instead for high-concept productions that showcase cleverness and eye-popping design. But these same directors are lax in their approaches to conceptualizing the world of the play. A post-apocalyptic Macbeth is fine, but would the Scottish king really fight Macduff with a sword rather than use the pistol at his hip (which he loaded portentously during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech a few scenes earlier)? If the director wanted to showcase Macbeth’s severed head so much, he should have taken the time to flesh out his concept (or his storytelling) to make room for the image. So much in contemporary Shakespearean production gets done in the name of “relevance,” that the plays sometimes turn into parodies of themselves. When The Winter’s Tale character Time, dressed as Albert Einstein, descended in a space capsule to deliver his speech, as he did in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2002 production, “Now take upon me, in the name of Time / To use my wings” becomes winking joke about how silly the play is. Funny? Yes. Defiant of an audience’s expectation? Check. Engaging? Sure, but what’s going on in the story again? Productions like these presuppose familiarity with the play, and thus become commentary on the play. That’s certainly interesting to those of us in the know, but it leaves the average theatergoer saying to himself, “I’m just not one of those people who gets Shakespeare.”
More often than not, these approaches to high-concept production obscure what’s really wonderful about Shakespeare’s plays: they’re good. Really good. The kind of made-me-laugh-made-me-cry stories that audiences want to experience. But, an unwillingness to really think through an overlaid concept, and a distrust of an audience’s appetite for narrative, keeps directors from doing the hard work of staging a play clearly and compellingly.
2. Fewer and fewer American actors bring good language skills to the table, and any American production that seeks to unleash a play’s true potential must invest in some on-the-job training: dramaturges, text coaches, and other specialists can help. Our finest training programs, in an effort to give their students a sprinkling of everything from Aeschylus to Susan Lori Parks, spend a very small section of time exploring Shakespeare or heightened language, so actors leave school knowing how to use a lexicon, scan the metre, and not much else. An actor knowing what his character is saying isn’t enough; language, cadence, syntax, and rhetoric have to be alive in the voice, poetry alive in the body, in order to carry an audience along on the power of a story. One only need look at the extraordinary Mark Rylance production of Twelfth Night, recently on Broadway, to understand the monumental power that a command of language can wield over an audience: every actor or Shakespearean I know who’s seen the production speaks of its beauty, power, simplicity, and clarity. Most say something like, “I thought I knew the play, but I really didn’t until I saw that production.”
Several who’ve seen the Rylance Twelfth Night have also said, “I want to do theatre like that.” Which brings me to my last point.
3. The American Theatre model. Many fine theatre practitioners before me have argued for lengthier rehearsal periods, and I’m firmly in their camp. The way we rehearse plays today (3-1/2 weeks of rehearsal, 5 days of tech, 1 preview) makes producing a fully-realized theatre piece nearly impossible. I know that reasons for the model as it exists are plentiful – arts funding is at an all-time low, repertory companies are financially and practically difficult, audiences have short attention spans, etc. But if we want to create something as compelling as the Rylance production (or other seminal stage productions) we need to change the way we do things. Producers must find a way to lengthen rehearsal/exploration periods, and include the stage designers in the process. The “Shake ’n’ Bake” method of production we use now won’t result in the kind of theatre we all say we want to do.
Shakespeare production in the United States can and should experience a resurgence. And it’s OK to set productions on spaceships, put Julius Caesar in spandex, and have post-apocalyptic bombs sounding in the distance. As long as we get back to the basics of telling a fascinating, compelling, can’t-stop-thinking-about-it story.