Summer 1982 | On Acting Shakespeare

As first published in Shakespeare Quarterly

Adapted from Interviews conducted by Timothy Hallinan and John F. Andrews

Q: How did your programme "Acting Shakespeare" come about?

A: In 1976 I was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I got an invitation to go up to Edinburgh and do a one-man show-mainly because it would be cheap, I suppose, and because it was felt that on the fringes of the great big festival it might be nice to have the sort of thing that actors or musicians might want to do on their own. Of course, there have been one-man shows about Shakespeare before me. Some very distinguished, like Sir John Gielgud's Ages of Man, which he's toured throughout the world and done on television and so on, and put onto record. A very celebrated actor recapping some of his great successes, wearing a tuxedo, and talking, very briefly, about the speeches he was going to do. I didn't want to copy that format. I wanted my programme to reflect my own feelings about Shakespeare, and so I had to start examining what my feelings were about this amazing man who was born four hundred years ago and who was helping me to earn a living at the time. "What is it about this man that makes me respond to him personally, although, of course, I've never met him, don't know what he looked like, am not even sure exactly when he was born, or exactly where he was born?" 

So I thought about the plays of his that I had been in and how much I had enjoyed doing them, how my response to him had changed over the years as I had come to discover that I could never get to the bottom of Shakespeare. And I realized that, while putting on a show that would be serious about Shakespeare would take him at his face value and acknowledge that he was not always easy to understand, so that at times I might have to explain to the audience about certain things before I performed them - I also wanted to make a show that was going to be entertaining. And so I thought, "I'll just put on a jacket and a tie and an ordinary pair of trousers and walk out on the stage and start talking and see what happens." 

Well, the first time I ever did it at the Edinburgh festival, I scattered my little stage with copies of the plays and bits of paper, and I was forever picking them up and reading them. Compared to the show we've produced for television, it was a rather amateur affair. But over the years since I did it at Edinburgh, encouraged by that first audience's response to it, I've done it in England at other festivals, I've been to Ireland and Northern Ireland, I've taken it to Israel, I've taken it to Scandinavia, and in 1981 when I was appearing on Broadway in Amadeus I had the opportunity to do it for a couple of nights to raise money for charities. And there it was seen by someone who said he'd like to put it on videotape. 

Q: Now that it has been videotaped, and thereby frozen in time and content, do you feel satisfied with it?

I make the point during the show that it is with some regret that I have taped it and fixed it. Each time I do the show in a theatre I do like to do it for that specific audience. My timing changes, some things are omitted, maybe other things are adlibbed and put in so that the audience has the real sense that if they weren't there the performance couldn't be taking place. If I'm asked to do the show again in the theatre, I think I would like to. The show in its spirit will remain the same, but it is likely to alter according to circumstances as time passes by. When I do the show in a large theatre for a general audience, for instance, it is likely to be different in its presentation than when I do it, say, in the lecture room of a university or a school. 

Q: You said that over your years of working with Shakespeare your attitude toward him had changed. What did you mean? 

A: I remember when I was trying to get into the university, someone testing me for my fitness to study English at Cambridge asked me why I liked Shakespeare. Without really thinking, I said "It's because of the characters." The range of Shakespeare's characters is enormous. He could write about the employer and the employee, about the king and the subject, about men and women, about young people and old people, people in love, people who are ready to kill. There is no area of human life that Shakespeare didn't seem to be in total contact with. 

But now as an actor, I think that what I admire most is not the characters but the way the characters are presented on the page. I now appreciate Shakespeare more as a writer than as a humanitarian. I appreciate him as a craftsman rather than just a man of the world. It's the man of the theatre that I respond to - the person who puzzled at home and wrote his words down, and yet understood that words themselves are not enough and that you need actors to present them. Shakespeare's awareness of what acting is like, what it can tell us about our own lives, is remarkable. Very often he compares the dilemma that any character finds himself in with something to do with the difficulties of acting.

But one can go on and on about Shakespeare. There never seems to be any end to the breadth of experience he puts into plays. He was utterly unique and utterly amazing - a great man whose imagination was so huge that he didn't have to be a courtier to understand what it was like to be with kings, who didn't have to work in a public house in London to understand what it was like to be a drunkard. He just sort of clicked his imagination and had total sympathy with all of us. And that is why he goes on being relevant, and why he goes on being modern: because his imagination seems to have stretched not just geographically, but right across the expanse of the centuries. 

We don't know what kind of man he was, really. We can't guess what his sexual tastes were because the characters in his plays stretch across the full range of sexual activity, of political activity. It's possible that he was a rather conventional, boring man. But his plays are not boring, and therefore I don't worry too much about what Shakespeare himself was like. 

Q: In "Acting Shakespeare," you do Hamlet's advice to the players and you take a stab at the idea that the Globe was an environment that might have been conducive to an actor's going over the top once in a while. 

A: We don't know what the Globe was like in detail, of course, but we do know that it was an open-air theatre, that the performances therefore had to take place in the afternoon, and that if there was no roof on the building the noise from the streets outside poured in. It's likely, therefore, that the actors would have had to project their voices louder than they would in normal speech. Performances are likely to have been "larger" than our current view of what is permissible on television, or even in the theatre. It's in this sense, then, that Shakespeare might have advised, as Hamlet does to his actors, not to make the performance too big, to try at all times to keep in touch with reality. He didn't want his performers shouting as the town crier might shout in the open air.

I think that the point about that speech is that actors, in whatever century they worked, have tried to make their performances appear to be, for the audiences watching them, real. All the great actors from Richard Burbage through David Garrick and Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino have tried to make their acting of Shakespeare real for their own generations. And the fact is that just as fashions in clothes change, so do fashions in the style of acting. Richard Burbage's sense of what was real was quite different from Henry Irving's, and both were quite different from my own. Reality - and I'm talking about the reality of human nature - is, for us today, a complicated business. We are post-Freud. We are living in an age in which nothing is as it seems to be. We are aware that a man's face is not necessarily connected to what's happening inside a man's heart or inside his mind. So that when I am being real on stage today I don't always present everything that I feel, because the audience, as in life, expects to have to guess, to have to look behind the words, behind the face, assuming that there is a whole mountain of material that the character himself doesn't fully understand. The amazing thing, I think, is that wherever you do Shakespeare, he can still be real. Whichever century he has been done in, whatever sort of theatre it happens in, whether it happens in front of a camera or a large audience, he still responds to changing notions, changing fashions of what is real. It is almost as if Shakespeare had written Freud before Freud was born. 

Q: Would it interest you as an actor to try to recapture the reality of some of the earlier approaches to Shakespeare? 

A: I don't think it's ever possible to recreate the past by putting on a production in the way it was first produced. To begin with, you would have to decide what each theatre was like, and we don't always know. Then you would have to suggest a style of acting that now seems woefully old-fashioned. And then the audience would have to make an imaginative leap that would be almost impossible, to understand what it was like to be living in sixteenth or seventeenth-century London. We would all have to be historians, both in the audience and on the stage. And then at the end, I think we might say of the performance, "Well, that was very interesting, but so what?" 

I think the challenge that is much more invigorating, much more rewarding, is for us to say, not "How can we imagine what these plays were like when they were first done," but "Can we imagine how they should be done today?" I don't think that theatre should ever be a museum piece. I like performances to belong to now, to be for this evening, this afternoon, today. And let the performance for tomorrow be something different, not just for the sake of being different, but because the actors must always be aware of the audience that they are speaking directly to, because once that audience has gone home the actors have gone home too. The strutting and fretting is finished. 

So no, I don't want to spend my time recreating what Shakespeare was like in the past. I always want to think that my duty, if I am going to serve him at all, is to bring Shakespeare into the present. I think that we should only look at the past to see how it can enlighten the present. And when an actor steps onto a stage to speak Shakespeare, it's not to take the audience back in time but to bring Shakespeare forward. 

Q: You mention in "Acting Shakespeare" that it is difficult to do Richard III in the shadow of Olivier's interpretation, which has been preserved on film. To what extent can an actor avoid the impact of a very recent and very resonant interpretation of a part when he is given the same role to play in front of the same critics and audiences? 

A: When I'm doing Shakespeare or any play I assume that the audience watching it has never seen the play before. I try to play Hamlet or Richard II or Macbeth with the same commitment and freshness as if those plays had been written only months before and the audience has no idea of what is going to happen. Even at Stratford-upon-Avon, where some members of the audience come and see the plays every year, know them backwards - know them, at times, better than the actors themselves - there will still be a larger percentage of people in the theatre who don't know the story of the play, and it is to them that I primarily play. I don't play to the critics who are coming to see their tenth Hamlet this season and who are likely to be interested in what I do that's different, something that may illuminate a corner of the play they haven't noticed before. No, my commitment is to the audience who don't know anything about Hamlet at all. 

If we know too much about the play because we have seen it before, we are not likely to respond to the telling of the story in the way that Shakespeare wants us to. So at times in our productions of Shakespeare, even for an audience that hasn't seen the play before, we are likely to want to stress certain things so that everyone's eyes will be directed toward it. So in case people expect Lady Macbeth to come onto the stage as the dyed-in-the-wool villain, which I don't think she is at the beginning of the play, then the actress playing that part may slightly overstress the character's charm, her voice and costume implying that she is an ordinary, gentle person until she calls up the spirits of evil to change her. 

I try to wipe from my own mind the strong impressions that great performances of the parts have given me in the past, whether on film or on television or in the theatre, and I try to go back to the words on the page. And with the encouragement of the director and the other actors and the designer, who may all have enormous experience with other productions of the play, I prefer that we say to ourselves, "This production of this play belongs to us and to the audience we are going to give it to. We are going to assume that they know nothing about the play and that anything that we want to tell them we must make them see through our words and . our actions on stage. There must be no sly references, there must be no hidden assumptions, so that the story can come through clearly and strongly. Once the story has been told well, it's then that we can talk about the complications, the subtleties, and the difficulties we want to illuminate as well. 

Q: Ever since John Russell Brown's call to "free Shakespeare," there has been debate about the role of the director. How do you feel about the relationship between the director and the rest of the company? 

A: A play is very difficult to organize, and it's just as well that there's someone there in a position of authority, whether it's an actor-manager or a director. But if you can get a director who understands that everyone can contribute - and I firmly believe in that - that can be a good thing, and the result is a genuinely collective enterprise. In England, as distinguished from America, where the producer is god, the actors sometimes get together, if a play is going badly in rehearsal, and mutiny. A few years ago that actually happened to a young director who was doing his first production at Stratford; fortunately, he refused to leave until he had another production to direct, and he went on to become one of the most important directors the RSC has ever had. It is also not unusual in England for actors to form a company and themselves hire a director to work with them; that can often be a very satisfactory arrangement. 

My main point is that normally an actor doesn't work on his own. He is almost always part of a team, and that team, these days, is likely to be led by a director. I am very happy to work within a group - and, of course, very happy to play the leading part. But I am aware that you cannot lead unless there are other people supporting you. When those two men climbed Everest, they were just at the tip of the iceberg. There was a huge production team behind them, and many supporters to raise money and provide techniques and materials for those two men who eventually stood on the top of the mountain. In a good Shakespeare production, we collectively influence each other. So that the Macbeth that we presented, first on the stage at The Other Place in 1976 and then eventually on television, belonged not just to me and Judi Dench, but to a group of people who allowed us to do it that way. 

Q: Do you prefer working in small theatres such as The Other Place or the Warehouse? 

A: Well, yes and no. I like playing before a large audience. But you can do so much more, and more effectively, in a small house. I suppose that the optimum size is a theatre seating about 400 people-assuming that you're not in a commercial house where you need to earn enough money to pay for the thing. There's a sense of occasion, a social gathering, yet not so large a volume that the effects are dissipated. I think that Shakespeare should, on the whole, be aural primarily rather than visual. If you don't get the language, then you've lost the heart of the matter. Doing Shakespeare in a setting like The Other Place is difficult. It's purist. It can be wonderful. But I certainly wouldn't want to see Shakespeare done only under those sorts of studio conditions. It would get very tiring. 

Q: Most directors and actors are opposed to "museum Shakespeare"-and justifiably so. And yet, many of us have attended a production and found ourselves distressed by errors of a sort that might have been prevented if the director or his cast had done a bit more homework. We've left the theatre feeling that something that was good might have been even better if it had been better informed. Is it possible-indeed, is it desirable, in your opinion-to have more frequent interchange between theatre professionals and scholars? 

A: It's probably just an attitude, isn't it, which could perhaps be encouraged by someone who straddles both disciplines, like John Barton. I don't think it's much use trying to put on a play and have a token academic in the corner during rehearsals. It might work; it would depend on people's willingness for it to work, I suppose. Some actors are just not interested in going beyond what they see in a play, and that's a pity. But it seems to me that in the last few decades, at least in England, there has been a concern to understand Shakespeare from his own point of view. I think that Shakespeare is getting a better deal at present than at many times in the past. 

Q: People who saw your performances as Romeo and Macbeth in 1976 came away feeling that both productions were vibrant in twentieth-century terms, and yet that what you accomplished was a way of reading out of the lines what was in them, rather than imposing something from above. Is that a distinction that makes sense to you? 

A: Yes, I think that Trevor Nunn, who directed both productions, is absolutely remarkable, and his method is always to make the imagery come alive, saying to his actors that they must know exactly what the words mean in order to inform their emotions. Otherwise the play gets lost in a wash of language that doesn't mean anything. I remember Trevor saying to Francesca Annis, about the lines "It was the nightingale and not the lark / That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear," that that piece of beautiful poetry is actually concrete information for the actor and the actress. How do you know that an ear is hollow? How close do you need to be to tell that? Very close indeed. Your eye has to be right against the ear. In other words, at the moment he hears the lark, Romeo has to be right next to or on top of Juliet. They are in the middle of making love. 

I'm persuaded that in order to act Shakespeare well, you have to understand the words, absorb the meaning in all your being, and then rattle the lines out the way John Gielgud does. 

Q: Do you think that Shakespeare will last? 

A: It depends on the actors, doesn't it? If they give boring performances, then he won't. He'll just go on living in the Folger Library and in a few museums. Generations have been put off, first by being taught Shakespeare, then by seeing terrible performances. So when we go out there, we have a responsibility to make the plays as available and as exciting as possible. The trend in many places these days is to do full versions of the plays, as if the uncut script were sacrosanct. That's ridiculous. The plays were always cut. One should always be at the service of keeping the audience's attention - which is what Trevor Nunn did with Macbeth, a production that was severely cut, particularly in the second half. You need people - actors and directors - who are really dedicated to doing Shakespeare and are expert at it. Hence the importance of a company such as the RSC, which is continually doing the plays. There are lots of people in that organization who are real showbiz people, which is very good. John Barton, for example, is often thought of as the great academic director. He's not like that at all. If a play is having a bit of a problem, he shoves some music in. I'm all for that. 

But back to your question, I think that it is as likely that Shakespeare will stop interesting people as that flowers will stop interesting people. And even if all other plays become old-fashioned, even if the theatres are burnt down, there will still be people who are talking about, writing about, wanting to do Shakespeare. There are actors all over the world who earn a living out of doing Shakespeare, and there are still audiences who are willing to pay good money to see him. We can't all be wasting our time. We can't, over the four centuries since Shakespeare was born, have all been fooling ourselves.

From the PBS show Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare, Photo: Stone Associates

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