The silly season is upon us.
Shakespeare is one of the key focal points of the celebrations surrounding the Olympic Summer Games in London, with a major exhibition at the British Museum (see my thoughts on that here), an international theatre festival stretching through most of the year, and a series of related productions on the BBC, including a biographical show by the ineluctable Simon Schama and an exciting new version of the second Henriad. Contributing its bit to the brouhaha, The Oberver published a collection of interviews with actors and directors last week, all holding forth on “Shakespeare and Me.”
I don’t think there’s anything unquestionably wrong with such interviews. They’ll all be inherently narcissistic up to a point, sure, but what (or who) isn’t. And there are some rather sweet anecdotal moments throughout the series. There’s Judy Dench reminiscing about how
The happiest times I’ve ever had were at the Old Vic and the RSC doing three or four plays, all in repertoire. I never went to my dressing room – I just used to stand on the side of the stage and watch. I don’t remember lines from any other play I’ve done, but I know reams and reams of Shakespeare.
If Shakespeare was around today I would ask him out to dinner. The only thing I don’t like about him is the way he did his hair.
So far, so harmless. But unfortunately many of the interviewees, far from speaking about their own experiences with Shakespeare’s texts (a subject on which they are indeed authorities), instead offer a smorgasbord of Bardolatrous inanities that are no less enlightening or interesting simply because they’re channelled through the mouths of people who happen to be talented performers.
There’s this, from Meera Syal:
I think there are some people who are touched by the finger of God, and Shakespeare was one of them. He had such foresight and prophecy.
Shakespeare definitely knew how to keep the groundlings happy – that’s something we all strive for as writers. Very few of us get to write something which is both well-reviewed and populist.
You have to be very clever to plant a subversive political message in a script and get away with it. Shakespeare knew how to toe the establishment line while undercutting it.
Shakespeare has a very pragmatic view of love. I think he believes in romantic love, despite what experience has told him. He knew giddy, mad love, definitely.
Or this, from Zoe Wanamaker:
Shakespeare’s taught me that there are more words in the English language than I have got in my head. There are more ways to express yourself than you know. Want to be angry? He’ll give you the language.
His understanding of woman and our psyche was and is extraordinary. And he had so many views that he was almost like a guru.
Shakespeare showed me that once I understand the rules, I can break them.
It’s all a mind-numbing blend of bland and banal. Shakespeare “knew giddy, mad love?” Really? Wow. How special. He “was almost like a guru?” How, exactly? Because he had “so many views,” whatever that may mean? Subversive political messages? Such as what, precisely?
People say such nonsense about Shakespeare all the time, of course. It’s how mythography works. And among all the people concerned with Shakespeare for a living, actors are probably most likely to indulge in this kind of superficial myth-making (for reasons I still fail to understand). So I’m neither surprised nor especially annoyed that these interviewees say those things. It’s more or less what you’d expect. But what I can’t understand is why a major national newspaper thinks it’s worth printing these mindless generalizations, statements so vapid that literally anyone could have delivered them — without reading a single line of Shakespeare.
It’s not like one can’t ask actors interesting questions and receive interesting answers. Questions about process, for instance; about things into which actors actually can be expected to have some insight — things such as, well, acting. I love having such conversations, and I almost always learn something new from them. Instead, these interviews turn performers into Shakespeare specialists. And that, sadly, they simply are not.
Take Simon Russell Beale, a brilliant actor and self-professed Shakespeare “anorak”:
I’d describe myself as a Shakespeare anorak, and there are people I share in this with. Recently my director Nick Hytner and I took an American visitor for lunch and bored the pants off her just talking about him.
Every time you do a Shakespeare play you have to make a lot of decisions about which words to speak. The original version of: “To be or not to be, that is the question” is: “To be or not to be, aye there’s the point.”
The play I’m doing now, Timon of Athens, almost didn’t exist. It didn’t make the original folio because it remained unfinished, and so it’s an interesting process, writing the rest of it.
The actor will always have a different understanding of Shakespeare’s words from everyone else, because they say every line repeatedly. Stephen Greenblatt, the academic, once inscribed a book: “To Simon, who knows the parts from the inside” and he’s right – there’s no escaping them.
I really believe Shakespeare has informed the way Britain speaks. It could have been another poet, but he’s the best poet, and that’s why our language is unique.
From beginning to end, this is a little painful. There’s the soft jingoism of the barely-there anecdote about the bored American, always necessarily disconnected from the English Bard. There’s the solid half-knowledge about the state of Shakespeare’s text (never mind that it’s highly debatable whether Q1 was “the original version” of anything; never mind that few productions of Hamlet can have begun with a discussion about which version of “To be or not to be” to use). There’s the weirdly ill-informed account of Timon (which was in “the original folio,” i.e., the first one, of 1623 — sigs. gg1v-hh6r –even if it’s commonly regarded as a late inclusion; and which is not really “unfinished” so much as unpolished. Surprisingly, Beale leaves unmentioned the most “interesting” point about the play — that it is now widely regarded as a text co-authored with Thomas Middleton). There’s the slightly odd claim about actors’ understanding coming from the repetition of lines (which may be true, but doesn’t seem special enough — plenty of other readers of Shakespeare memorize the texts, know them intimately, without attaining an actor’s understanding of them). And finally, returning to the national perspective of the opening anecdote, there’s the truly bizarre double whammy of a) Shakespeare’s the best and b) that’s why British English, whatever that may be, is unique (compared to what? Is British English more unique than, say, Austrian German? Why? How?).
Let me be clear. I love Beale as an actor. He’s clearly an intelligent person. I would very much like to hear more about his idea that line repetition lies at the heart of the actor’s particular access to Shakespeare’s text and his characters. Instead, what The Observer delivers is an assortment of trivialities and half-truths, and the briefest glance of a specific insight. That’s not just an opportunity missed, that’s time and space wasted.
Beale at least is only misinformed and makes a few strange claims. Ben Kingsley, on the other hand, presents himself as a study in pomposity:
What I take away from Will is a blessing. It’s an extraordinary grasp of patterns of human behaviour, because he had an almost cosmic vision. I look for scripts that show the bigger picture, just like he did.
The curse is that Will is my yardstick. I cannot tell you the number of times I have read a script and thrown it across the floor in frustration. He leaves you with a sharp eye for the phony.
He’s a generous writer: “No, no, no, it’s here. Look, it’s on the line ending.” And it’s like: “Oh yeah! Thanks, Will.” He’s very proactive, bless him.
Academics are trying to kill him. Shakespeare was guided by his appetite and feelings. We shouldn’t teach Shakespeare – we should perform Shakespeare.
Everyone has their number. Mine is 17 out of 27 plays.
Performing Shakespeare is a lot like galloping on a horse you love at full speed. If the horse feels insecure with you on its back it will throw you and break your neck. You will lose your voice, your lines, and you won’t know how to breathe. But in the end it will be absolutely thrilling.
Again: where to begin? Kingsley measures every script he reads against Shakespeare? Really? Scripts that “show the bigger picture” — because that’s what Shakespeare does, though what that means, exactly, cautiously hides behind the clichéd phrasing. What are those 27 plays? Why only 27? It might help talking to an academic to find out how many plays Shakespeare actually wrote. Or, you know, look in a standard edition. Edited by academics. In a determined effort to finally kill those bastard plays.
Yet again, we get the strange impulse to reduce the power of the work to the intensity of the author’s own emotions — his appetite, his feelings — but here coupled with the notion that academics are somehow profoundly disinterested in such things, never mind psychoanalysis, never mind the groundswell of Shakespeare biographies written by major critics in the past ten years. And we get boorish anti-intellectualism in the notion that there’s some sort of contradiction between teaching and performing Shakespeare, that the two can’t be mutually supportive — that there is nothing in the critical analysis of the plays that can inform a performance, but that somehow acting the plays grants a special access that teaching them not only lacks, but actively destroys. Terrific stuff.
But as dispiriting as it is, most of this tripe doesn’t rise above the hackneyed and predictable. The extraordinary final metaphor, though, is something else. I’ve never galloped at full speed, nor do I have a horse I love (I’m neither Hotspur nor the Dauphin). So perhaps I just don’t understand. But I think I can grasp the idea of an insecure horse throwing off its rider. What I don’t get is how a play can feel insecure about the actor. And how the play would then go about breaking that actor’s neck. And what’s the deal with losing your voice and breath? Is that also something that happens when riding a horse you love at high speed? (Is it the wind? The impact of the hoofs?) Or does that happen when the horse throws you? After or before you break your neck? And is it always thrilling in the end? With or without the broken neck? And does this only happen with Shakespeare? Does Ben Kingsley never lose voice, lines, or breath when performing other author’s works? (I’m assuming that some of those performances also are thrilling, though? But for other reasons? Less dangerously?)
Kingsley is saying absolutely nothing in a remarkably elaborate way. Better just do the performing. Best not talk about it. At least not like this.
He also, presumably under the influence of Peter Hall, recycles one of the standard myths about how Shakespeare works — the idea that line endings are staggeringly meaningful, the place to turn when you’re lost, the author’s means of communicating something essential to the actor. It’s a strange, quasi-religious conviction among some directors, acting-coaches, and actors, though it has little basis in either textual analysis or theatrical practice (as Abigail Rokison has recently shown in great detail). The description of Shakespeare as “proactive,” though, is all Kingsley’s own.
Judy Dench offers another one of those articles of faith. In her case, it’s about punctuation — probably the feature of Shakespeare’s printed texts that has the weakest connection to either authorial or theatrical origins (but that, as Kingsley might point out, is exactly the Shakespeare-killing objection an academic would dream up, isn’t it):
If you look at the punctuation of Shakespeare and obey it then you’ll never run out of breath. He writes where the pause should be. If you understand that, you unlock the play.
This is the sort of thing that sounds great. And it comes from a wonderful actor with many notable performances to her name, so it must surely be true. It may even be true for Judy Dench. This may be how she “unlocks the play.” But that’s all it is: it’s a way of working that works for this actor, and some others — but it has next to nothing to do with Shakespeare. If punctuation is said to write “where the pause should be,” then it’s not Shakespeare doing the writing. It’s an Elizabethan compositor. It’s a Jacobean scribe. It’s a modern editor. It’s any number of mediating agents whose labour is almost entirely focused on creating a printed text, not a theatrical performance. But yeah. How academic of me to point such a thing out. Right, Sir Ben?
And then there’s Alan Cumming, who either did the interview in character or actually is twelve years old and says things like “Romeo … is hardcore to play.” And gives us a 21st-century update on Ben Kingsley’s anti-academic rant:
I can sometimes sit there for ages going: “What does this mean?” I find lines and look them up on the internet and feel quite satisfied that I have gotten to the bottom of it.
Academics may want to kill Shakespeare, but they won’t get to, because Sparknotes will kill them first. Fuck those Arden footnotes. Shakespeare’s text hath no bottom that Alan Cumming’s brain and a few Google searches cannot sound.
I’ll stop the counter-ranting. But there is a serious point to be made here, and it’s not that actors shouldn’t talk about Shakespeare. Personally, I have learned much about the plays from performers. Sometimes, those insights have come in the form of post-show conversations. But mostly, they have come from watching actors do something on stage that I hadn’t anticipated — discovering something striking in the text, making an unforeseen connection between words, or words and actions, or between their character and another, emphasizing one word, or line, or beat in a way that would never have occurred to me. Actors have much to teach academics (not that those are mutually exclusive categories). But they may not often know what those insights are. I’m massively overgeneralizing, but surely most actors are better at turning their analyses into action than into conceptual thought and discourse; otherwise, they’d better become professors. So in general, I’d rather watch an actor act than listen to an actor analyze the text; and I’d really rather see an actor interviewed about acting, in as concrete terms as possible, than hear him or her expostulate about very large, ultimately very abstract questions, such as “What makes Shakespeare great?” or “What does Hamlet mean?” (Let alone about historical or bibliographic issues.)
On the other hand, I would expect directors to have a very solid grasp of such larger issues. Actors can get away with banalities because thinking interesting thoughts about Shakespeare isn’t their job. They have to do interesting things with Shakespeare. So it’s especially depressing to me that the one director included in the Observer’s line-up, Thea Sharrock, also has nothing but trivialities to offer:
Shakespeare is simply the best playwright we have ever produced – the most wonderful storyteller, the most exquisite poet. When Dominic Dromgoole asked me to come to the Globe to direct As You Like It I hesitated, because I thought you had to be part of a special club to direct Shakespeare. I soon realised that’s simply not true: you don’t have to be an English scholar or an expert of any kind. Shakespeare tells such universal stories that all you have to be is a mother, or a father, or a lover, or a child, or a politician (or a monarch) to understand the worlds he creates. He speaks for us all. He understands the beating of the human heart so well that it’s there not only in his language but in the very rhythm of his poetry.
For some actors, performing Shakespeare comes naturally: I’ve just directed Tom Hiddleston in the upcoming BBC adaptation of Henry V, and his deft delivery of the poetry makes it perfectly accessible to the listener. But whether it’s on screen, on stage or on the page, Shakespeare’s words stick in the mind forever. They can move us to tears, teach us to be bigger than we thought we could be, sum up that feeling of catching your breath when you fall in love, and help us to find our place in that universal world which is Shakespeare’s and ours: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
The bloody beating of the human heart? Really? That old chestnut? Shakespeare, the universal poet, writing universal stories, in universal iambic pentameter, which throbs just like our universal heart. Except it doesn’t, but that’s for another post.
And then there’s that final line: what exactly is it meant to illustrate? Universality? Of what kind? Of bloodshed? It’s not exactly a universal embrace, that line, is it? It excluded all the gentlemen in England now abed; it excludes all the women and children; most importantly, it excludes all the French soldiers about to be slaughtered, a slaughter the line is designed to fuel. “Making us bigger than we thought we could be” just about nails it, though Sharrock doesn’t seem to have battlefield propaganda in mind.
With directors so utterly free of thought, apparently unaffected by any critical engagement with the text, the author, or the mythography of Bardolatry, how can we expect actors to say anything other than bland things about Shakespeare? If the people whose job it is to be analytical, to come to a well-founded, detailed, specific as well as general understanding of the text, operate on this level of ignorance, it’s hardly fair to blame the people responsible for translating all of that into action for not thinking critically or interestingly enough.
Trouble is, none of this does Shakespeare any favours. It destroys what’s most remarkable about his plays — their complexity — and replaces it with a relentless insistence on simple, straightforward, banal sound bites: the poetic genius touched by the finger of God, the always significant line endings, the metre of the human heart, the play as galloping race horse. In place of Shakespeare’s excess of meaning, what we get here is a stunning absence of meaning. And that is unspeakably sad.
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- The Plough and the Stars (O’Casey; dir. Sean Holmes) Abbey Theatre Dublin, at Canadian Stage, Toronto, Sept 2016
- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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