Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” begins with a couple of tribunes — Roman politicos — heckling the rabble. That opening thrusts the audience headlong into a debate it doesn’t know anything about.
So here’s how “Julius Caesar” will begin in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production that starts this week with the Scene 2 soothsayer warning that Caesar is in danger (“Beware the Ides”), and with a processional demonstrating that Caesar is a hit with the public. Only then will the tribunes utter the tragedy’s opening lines.
When the show ran for two months in 2008, did director David Muse receive many comments from audiences about his rearrangements?
“They have no idea,” Muse says. “They just think that’s the play.”
In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are seldom seen without directorial shaping that goes beyond staging, beyond what director Aaron Posner calls “where and when . . . Vienna 1848 or whatever,” and into the realm of editing. The result — even in traditional productions, not just radical adaptations — is referred to as a director’s “cut.”
In a Bard-happy town like Washington, the subtle art of cutting Shakespeare is on near-constant display. The craft requires nerve, stage savvy and scholarship. And time.
“Dozens and dozens of hours,” says Muse, a former STC associate artistic director who now runs the Studio Theatre. The job can involve rearranging scenes, prioritizing story lines, combining multiple minor figures into a single character, changing line assignments and wrangling with the magnificent but sometimes elusive language.
“I find it to be a major act of interpretation and authorship,” Muse says. “And it often goes almost completely unnoticed, except by people who are completely familiar with the text.”
Because the plays are long and the language is old, time and narrative sense are two routine starting points. For Cam Magee, a dramaturge who has cut 24 of the 37 plays, a running time of 21 / 2 hours has been a typical goal at the Washington Shakespeare Company.
“You’re losing an hour to an hour and a half of material,” says Magee, whose cuts also have been seen at the Folger Theatre.
STC audiences have built up a greater endurance, so longtime artistic director Michael Kahn is comfortable with productions that sometimes run past three hours. But Kahn and Magee groan at the memory of Kenneth Branagh’s plodding four-hour movie “Hamlet.”
Some elements are easy pickin’s for the dustbin. Few directors bother with the induction scene in “The Taming of the Shrew,” which elaborately introduces characters who almost immediately vanish. When the nurse discovers the apparently dead Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” the rash of “O lamentable day” goes on and on.
“It’s very bad writing,” Kahn says. “And it’s impossible to act, even with Meryl Streep.”
Then there are punch lines that slayed ’em 400 years ago but can be impenetrable now. “It can take half an hour to figure out one joke,” Muse says. Kahn mentions a long comic exchange in “All’s Well That Ends Well” between the Countess of Rousillon and the clown Lavatch that frequently sounds alien to modern ears. The gags are bogged down by topical references and ancient words.
“If you can’t follow at all why something’s funny, then I’m going to cut it,” Posner says, “because I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”
The bigger issues involve problem-solving and storytelling — making the plays work, or making them fresh. (In olden times, moralizing or sentimental cuts sometimes made sad endings happy — letting Lear and Cordelia live — and so on. History is thick with fiddling.) Posner’s approaches at the Folger can be so conspicuous that he thinks of them less as cuts than as adaptations; his “Comedy of Errors” last spring involved a long video opening about modern amateur players. Posner wrote it in the key of “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman,” setting a loopy tone for the slapstick to come.
The “Macbeth” that Posner co-conceived and co-directed with Teller (of Penn and Teller) turned the play into a “supernatural horror show.” For “Taming of the Shrew,” he is already feeling a “Deadwood” influence because of the HBO western series’s gender dynamics, its themes of ambition and ruthlessness, and language that Posner characterizes as “incredibly profane but Shakespearean in its scope.” He adds that any “Deadwood” fingerprints may have vanished by the time “Shrew” hits the boards next May. But he is working with a composer, and his “Shrew” will have songs.
Ethan McSweeny was aiming for what he calls “transparent cutting, cutting really for sense of story” with his recent “The Merchant of Venice” at STC. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is one of the most contested figures in the canon, and star casting can tilt the whole show his way, at the expense of equally robust story lines involving the contrasting social worlds of Antonio (the merchant) and Portia (the wealthy young woman who poses as a lawyer in the famous trial scene).
“I wanted to work hard to balance the stories a little bit,” McSweeny says. So for balance and narrative momentum, he condensed and rearranged. He limited the Prince of Morocco — one of Portia’s comic suitors — to a single appearance. And to maintain focus as the plot steamed toward Antonio’s trial (which becomes Shylock’s), McSweeny postponed a scene between Shylock’s daughter Jessica and Lorenzo, the Christian she has eloped with.
McSweeny, like the rest of these directors (and Magee the dramaturge-performer), laughs when asked where he learned to do this. It’s on-the-job-training. Even Kahn, who could write a book on the topic, says most cuts are intuitive and idiosyncratic. Muse offers a few guidelines: Don’t cut lines before figuring out what they mean and why they’re in the play. Also, try to maintain the integrity of the verse. “You never want to throw the audience’s ear out,” Magee says.
And all, in their various ways, pledge ultimate fidelity to the Bard. They refer to folios and quartos, and sometimes have half a dozen published editions open during rehearsals to consult.
That’s part of the problem: The available records of the plays aren’t utterly authoritative. “He’s the greatest dramatist ever,” McSweeny says, “but we’re dealing with corrupt files. So you can’t be too precious about it.”
The directors seem to guard this job a little jealously. “I always do my own,” Muse says. “I don’t know who else to trust to do it.” Posner echoes that: “It’s too important to me,” he says of handing off the task.
Magee once asked Kahn about working on a text for him. She says this was his elegant, gently territorial demur: “You know some of the most fun in Shakespeare is cutting.”
Pressley is a freelance writer.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by David Paul. Original direction by David Muse. Aug. 18-Sept. 4 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org.