On different ways of doing Shakespeare

I had the privilege of seeing Derek Jacobi play King Lear on Saturday night. He deserved every plaudit heaped on him. Although I’ve enjoyed his work ever since I Claudius showed back in the 70s, I think the moment when I was awed by his greatness was the last few minutes of Utopia, the moment when he turned around after he’d opened the watch and it was as if a switch had been flicked from Good to Evil in an instant. Incredible.

His Lear is vulnerable, childish and frail. I found it very moving, more so than the RSC performance with Greg Hicks last year. I like Hicks a lot but I felt that whole production suffered from the common RSC fault of director overload. Medieval monks and gas masks appeared in rather an arbitrary way which detracted, for me, from the power and poetry of the original.

By comparison, the production starring Jacobi is extremely stark, set in an almost blank white box with virtually no music and only minimal sound effects. For me it worked brilliantly. After seeing around 20 Shakespeare productions since 2008 I’ve concluded that they tend to break down into three main types. FIrst, there is the actor-led production. Tennant’s Hamlet was an excellent example of this. Talented though he is, you are always watching Tennant playing someone else, rather than that someone else. He never becomes invisible and the force of his personality dominates the production. That doesn’t make it bad, but it is a reality that has to be taken into account.

Second, there is the director-led production, or possibly the more accurate term is concept-led. That is, an interpretation coming from someone other than the actors themselves is the predominant feature. Many RSC productions are like this. I mean the kind of thing where you see a Hamlet set in a modern police state, or a Merchant of Venice transposed to Las Vegas. You are being challenged to read the play through that particular lens. It comes close to adaptation, since relatively few Shakespeare plays are performed in an original, uncut text, for the very good reason that in most cases such a definitive version doesn’t exist.

When it works well, this kind of production is unforgettable. An example was the RSC/Baxter Theatre Tempest in February 2010, with Anothony Sher as Prospero. The Baxter Theatre is a South African company, one of the few to play to mixed audiences throughout apartheid. Their Tempest was seen through the lens of African spirituality, utterly vibrant, challenging and a completely new way of looking at the play which somehow felt as if it had been inside the text, waiting to be discovered, all the time.

Jacobi’s Lear was the third type – the Shakespeare-led production. Now, I’m not claiming that fidelity to the Bard is all-important. As I have already said, in many cases we don’t have a definitive text to be faithful to. And sometimes the adaptations that seem to get closest to the spirit of the original are the most free – I’m thinking of Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood, for instance, which went right to the heart of Macbeth without using a single Shakespearian word and transposed the whole thing to the samurai culture, where it fitted perfectly.

No, what I mean is a production that has the confidence to let Shakespeare speak directly, to make both actors and director transparent so that we are reminded all over again of the audacity, wonder, beauty and power of Shakespeare’s poetry. A production that doesn’t go out of its way to strive for relevance or realism (whatever that means), or transpose the whole story to a different time and place and point up parallels or contradictions. In the storm scene of this Lear, the stage went dark and Jacobi whispered with an echo. And it was enough. In fact, it was absolutely electrifying. We didn’t see Jacobi, we didn’t even see Lear. We touched the mind of Shakespeare itself, and it felt radioactive.

Coming back around to David Tennant, it seems to me that everything he does is actor-led. I don’t think people will ever talk about the Doctor’s tenth incarnation. They’ll refer to it as Ten, because it is so located in that particular performance. I’m not knocking Tennant. That’s the sort of performer he is. Matt Smith, however, is a more transparent performer. We look through him, we look through the concept of Eleven, and we see the totality of the Doctor in a way we didn’t with Ten. I can understand why some people like that better. I don’t, personally. But you pay your money and you make your choice.

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12 thoughts on “On different ways of doing Shakespeare

  1. Derek Jacobi’s King Lear is coming to this side of the pond, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, later in the spring. I am going to see it on May 19th. I was already very excited about seeing it; this post makes me even more excited!!!

  2. I adore Derek Jacobi, and am ashamed to confess I’ve never managed to see him in the theatre. I remember when I first heard that he was going to be in DW that I was utterly gobsmacked – I mean it’s Derek effing Jacobi! for Gawd’s sake!! And that scene you mention still gives me chills, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
    Your comment He never becomes invisible and the force of his personality dominates the production about David Tennant is very interesting. I’d never really thought of it like that, but now you’ve said it, yes, I can see what you mean. And it’s odd, isn’t it – he can do anything (it seems), can take on any characteristic, can act the hell out of something… and yet he’s still “him”. But even then, you don’t “see the join” as it were.
    I can’t help but wonder if it’s always been that way, or if it’s just evident now because he’s the most famous actor in the country. I was watching ToTA the other night, and that force of nature element that he has going on was very much in evidence, even back then.

  3. Perhaps it takes someone who came upon Doctor Who just as Tom Baker was leaving, to be introduced to the franchise just as it lost its first achingly charismatic icon, but I “talk about the Doctor’s tenth incarnation” all the time.
    And I was actually thinking just the other day that I don’t see the same person when I’m watching Tennant’s Hamlet as when I’m watching Tennant’s Doctor. Not that there’s any denying that that was an actor-led production, but there you are.
    You’re definitely right about Smith, though, he is transparent in the part. Just like someone I knew complained of Christopher Lloyd in The Search for Spock that all she heard was Reverend Jim, yet I came away feeling I’d seen something I’d never seen before, perhaps for having gone in with the preconceived notion of not knowing what to expect.

  4. And I was actually thinking just the other day that I don’t see the same person when I’m watching Tennant’s Hamlet as when I’m watching Tennant’s Doctor. Not that there’s any denying that that was an actor-led production, but there you are.

    Interesting! You’re the first person I’ve ever come across to say that.

  5. Great analysis! I find these categories really helpful and I suspect I might use them to talk with my students about various adaptations and film versions of plays in my drama class. I find myself wondering to what degree the dynamics of the actor-led type of production (and the way you describe it makes good sense to me) depends on a prior knowledge of that actor’s work. Most of my American students have never heard of David Tennant and when they watch the Tennant -Doran Hamlet (having already watched the Branagh Hamlet the previous week) they tend mostly to see it as a concept production (the mirrors, the ab shirt and no shoes, the cameras). I wonder: does that pattern suggest that an audience’s perception/recognition of an actor-led production depends on their familiarity with the actor …or might it simply reveal that that my students are relative novices enrolled in an Intro to Drama course?
    Thanks for giving me so much to think about here!

  6. I don’t see Ten and Hamlet as the same person. I see them as two different people who have some traits in common and some issues in common. The themes are very similar, but the characters are different.
    And…I don’t see all DT’s other roles as the same. Certainly, you can often see similar character traits in different characters – but that doesn’t mean they’re the same person!
    If anything, I’m often surprised by how often, when I see something new that DT is in, I think: This is David Tennant??? He really buries himself in roles, doesn’t he?

  7. I recently showed Hamlet to my dad, who had never heard of David Tennant (or any of the actors) before, has never heard of Doctor Who, didn’t know anything about it other than that it was an RSC Hamlet production – and he loved it. He was fascinated by the concept stuff, the cameras and surveillance. He did say that “the guy who played Hamlet” was “good” – but other than that I don’t think he noticed DT at all.

  8. What a nice comment. Thanks so much!
    I think familiarity with the actor is probably significant here, but having said that I think that as celebrity-led productions increase there’s interesting academic work to be done on the cross-talk between well-known characters in cinema or TV and their stage performances. How does this affect not only audience perceptions but the producer’s casting choices? There’s no doubt that DT’s Hamlet was a massive boost to the Stratford upon Avon economy. Another example is Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway – how many people go to the show just to see him not being Harry Potter?

  9. A lot of National Theatre productions are being filmed ad shown in cinemas nationwide and as Jacobi’s Lear has been managed on tour by the NT it will probably turn up some time.

  10. Coming back around to David Tennant, it seems to me that everything he does is actor-led. I don’t think people will ever talk about the Doctor’s tenth incarnation. They’ll refer to it as Ten, because it is so located in that particular performance.
    I’m struggling to understand exactly what you mean here. Could you expand a little?

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