Shakespeare’s theater was itself based on a creative process of “interpretation.” The playwright borrowed his stories from Ovid, Plutarch and Holinshed and set them in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Sicily, France, and in the 12th to 16th centuries without an attempt at historicity: basic setting, Elizabethan clothes (Cleopatra in a farthingale, King John in “pumpkin pants”). Imagine the immediacy of audiences coming to the Globe or the Rose, without years of accumulated theatrical traditions or cultural baggage, encountering extraordinary characters, incidents and ideas. Kings, queens and peasants — dressed exactly as themselves, in modern dress, speaking in their accents. How very electric the connection between audience and player must have been!
I believe all theater artists who approach these plays envy that encounter and explore strategies to re-create that experience in their own time. Some do it by erecting a historical space; others through the investigation of new theater practices that help connect modern audiences, raised on film and TV, to the material or that encourage audiences that perhaps have seen a particular play many times to look and hear it afresh.
The aesthetics of today’s directors come from a variety of influences and information: film, visual arts, psychology, sociology and new theater techniques but also iconic and resonant historical periods — the Weimar Republic, Freud’s Vienna, Stalinist, Prohibition, Victorian, etc. Their overwhelming desire is to illuminate the play they have chosen and to see it live onstage.
I have been influenced by many things: Kabuki, Brecht, Strehler, Zeffirelli, Brook, Fassbinder, Orson Welles, Bergman’s late staging of “Hamlet” and by a continually growing understanding of how to close-read a play.
I am grateful that, years ago, Joseph Papp of the Public Theater asked me to direct “Measure for Measure” based on my production of an avant-garde play he’d seen off-off-off Broadway. It was important for me to create a decadent and specifically urban environment in which to explore the complex issues investigated in this often-ambitious text. I asked designer Ming Cho Lee to build a brick wall with something that looked like fire escapes to blot out the overwhelming sylvan beauty of Central Park. Papp hated it and wanted it changed, but it was too late. The production worked; the audience got it and so did the critics. It won a bunch of prizes, I began a career and Joe apologized. I felt passionately about the play and its resonance for New York at the time.
I am so grateful to be able to bring work like this to Washington and to work with inventive, intelligent and courageous directors who are equally passionate about plays that are more than four centuries old. I am also grateful to the audiences who go along with us . . . most of the time.
An artist’s or a theater’s approach to art is a continually evolving process. As Marks said in his review of our all-male (and admittedly not completely successful) production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the “gender-restricted gambit is an estimable reminder of how many routes can be traveled with Shakespeare — and how many more this company needs to explore.”