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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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The modern conceit where you have the concept people who are going to do a different concept for each play, one of their ideas is “I have the same actors, the same theater, the same audience, I have to do a different treatment for each of these plays.” That presupposes something that I think is deeply flawed. It presupposes that of the three Shakespeare titles you have, they’re somehow all the same. Shakespeare had the same actors, the same costumes, the same set, the same audience, and his job was to get those people to come back day after day after day. If you commit to his solutions, you’re in good hands.

Hell, that was good. I’ve said that before but I’ve never said it quite that way.

Having done all the plays, have you found more interrelationships among the plays, like this reminds you of that?

Oh, yeah. In Edward III, Drew Reeves played Edward III and he also played Richard III two years ago. So he’s up there and he’s honking on Lady Constance and he’s saying, “I’ve got to have you, I’ve got to have your body, you’ve got to sleep with me, I can’t stand it, I love everything about you,” I swear you could see his left shoulder come up. [Laughs] It was a prototype for Lady Anne and [Richard].

Another one I noticed in The Two Noble Kinsmen. It was an a-ha! moment for me. You have the jailor’s daughter gone nuts and she’s running around, she’s singing her songs left, right, and center, and she comes up and says to her keeper, “I can sing a hundred songs.” And he goes, “I know lady.” It’s a motif that when I saw it in Two Noble Kinsmen I realized, “Oh! When someone’s insane, you should always agree with everything they say.” You see that in Hamlet with Polonius agreeing that it’s a camel back, this, that, and the other, and everybody agreeing with whatever Ophelia said, but it’s also in Two Noble Kinsmen and I think it’s in a couple of other places.
It’s in Lear and it’s in, to a lesser degree, McB. So that was an a-ha! moment because I’d actually never put that together until I saw it in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

And certainly there had to be that moment for me, I guess it was in Henry IV, Part Two, that’s when I really became aware of the fact that the history plays—now, intellectually I knew this, I’d read that the queen had funded tours of these plays so that the English people could learn of their history and learn what was expected of them as citizens. Henry IV, Part Two, structurally that kind of wanders a bit before he finds out what he wants to do, but what he wants to do finally is he goes to the countryside and you’re starting to deal with these justices and people like that, and that’s when I realized that these plays were instructional, and that was a major motivation of the actors performing them. That became the key to a lot of the histories for me. It really made the Henry Sixes make a whole lot more sense when I realized there was a purposeful intent to show for the audience "we had a terrible time in our history and this is why." It’s because the lords quibbled behind the king’s back. What a good king he is, you can see he’s a good king, and then not only the lords did it, but their servants did it because their lords did it. And it cascaded throughout society and then what we got was Richard the Third, running around in the world where all the men are dead and nobody can stop him. So they showed the horrors of what would happen if, along the line, anybody didn’t do their duty.

I’ve heard people say that Henry VI can’t be played because there’s no central hero in it. I had Daniel Parvis, who’d come out of my apprentice program, play him as a teen-age boy who was earnest and, oh God! he just broke your heart. Every time he’d get these terrible things thrown at him and he’s making exactly the right decision and then he leaves the stage and some smart-ass lord undercuts it by being petty and cheap. Or he’ll get right to the brink and not see, doesn’t know something that the audience knows, it drove us nuts. He did a phenomenal job as Henry VI going through those plays, demonstrated for us what a great king we had, but we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain, and that’s why we got Richard III. That was a revelation for me.

The plot devices, over and over we see that a lot.

There are times when it really is better to make a big hairy man play the woman’s part. So few directors are willing to do it. I’ve done it from time to time. Audrey in As You Like It is my favorite. I’ve had some good Audreys, some great Audreys, but my favorite was a 310-pound man with hair coming out all over the place in a wig and a giant dress. God, it was funny! It just made all the sense in the world. Every time I see the Taming of the Shrew and some poor lady has to spend 2 1/2 hours waiting for her five lines as the widow in the last act, I go, “The Pedant! Put the Pedant in a dress! Trust me.” But even here, we always wind up putting an apprentice in it because we never have enough roles for the women. Put a middle-age man in a dress and he doesn’t even have to shave; it will be funny.

Most people want to talk about Shakespeare productions in terms of traditional versus conceptual but it’s a lot more complicated than that, though I do like to keep the conversation real. I remember once my mother called me up on the phone and said she’d just seen a production of The Tempest and she wanted to know who the naked men were. I said, “What?” “The naked men, who are the naked men?” “You mean Caliban?” “No, I know who Caliban is, who are the naked men? I saw The Tempest and they had all these naked men on this giant rope pulling on something off stage.” [Laughs] I said, “Well, you need to go talk to the director and say your son runs a Shakespeare company and you know there are no naked men in this play and what were they thinking?”

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