This week Fiona Lindsay discusses how directors interpret Shakespeare and make creative decisions when staging a production...

Blank Canvas

The blank canvas of an artist is only empty of shape, form, and colour in reality. Even though it may look blank and remain so for some time, there is no doubt that a virtual palette of ideas is being mixed long before a brush is picked up or a tube of oil squeezed.

It’s this moment, this very private moment before committing to sharing thoughts with the wider world, that is often the most fulfilling of the creative process. Although different, writers, painters, dancers, musicians, and theatre directors all participate in the process of making interpretive choices as they make ready their piece of work for a public. Collectively these choices inform the so-called world of the art in question.

'The world of the play' is a phrase that theatre directors use early on in rehearsal, and frequently too. In conjunction with their designer they will have a clear sense of the environment they want the play and those in it to inhabit. In most cases this shared imagination will be extended to the production team and acting company on the first day of rehearsal.

There is no limit to the sort of world that can be created but directorial decisions are usually anchored by considering the time the play was written in, the time it observes and the time it’s being presented, the latter being vital to ensure the sensibility of the time (our time) is considered. In making plays, directors want to serve both the play and the audience and successful productions manage to do this brilliantly.

This week on Digital Theatre Plus we publish three new transcripts under the title Interpretative Choices. Each is a written account of the spoken interviews given to us by three leading UK theatre directors about their work on three particular Shakespeare productions: The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and As You Like It. They all illustrate perfectly the layers of thinking and range of choice that a play contains.

The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s first foray into slapstick, is a muddle of plot and themes with the young playwright experimenting with structure, language and character. It’s very easy to be confused by it all and director Paul Hunter made the decision to use this chaos to the production's advantage. Touring to schools, he did away with the notion of a set and used the physicality of the actors to transform the location, mood, and moment as required by the play. This lack of the literal tapped into the energetic imaginations of the 10 year-olds the show played to and encouraged them to interpret what they were watching freely and without the anxiety of feeling they had to 'get it'.

Getting it and feeling there is only one way of getting it puts unnecessary pressure on students and it’s the responsibility of theatre practitioners to demonstrate that there is far more than one way of looking at the same play.

Take Macbeth for example. It’s one of the most popular plays in the canon and comes with its own particular set of interpretive challenges. How do you do the witches, for example, and what will the take on the central character be? Is he born evil and a true tyrant or the victim of the harshness of a soldier’s life and an overly pushy wife?

In Gemma Bodinetz’s Liverpool Everyman production, how the relationship between Macbeth and his wife played out took centre stage. Working closely with the actors, the director's established interpretive choices focused on the fact that they were a mature and experienced couple, albeit childless. This childlessness rendered them both emotionally impotent and feeling the need to impress, surprise, and indulge their partner's every whim. They were in love and this fuelled the destructive upon which they embarked. It was one way of looking at the play. There are many many more of course.

Holding a mirror up to nature - although a line from Hamlet – was RSC director Michael Boyd’s particular prism when working through As You Like It. The play offers two very separate environments to consider – court and forest – and in many ways one is the flip side of the other. Many productions give their main focus to the creation of the world of the forest and all that is played out in it, however, one of Michael's principle interpretive choices was to ramp up the focus on the darkness of Duke Frederic’s corrupt court and the fear that lay within. The cold, wintery environment kept conversations quick and quiet and exchanges took on an intense charge. As You Like It has depths to be mined and Michael admits that if he were to do it again he would interpret it very differently.

There is so much we don’t know about Shakespeare, but one thing we do know is that in writing his plays he was enjoying an interpretation game of his own.