Do We Know Shakespeare?

Most of us think we know what 'Shakespeare' is, but when we try to examine it, it turns out not only were we wrong, the examination itself was wrong. A discussion panel at the Cameri Theater this week examined producing Shakespeare

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A scene from “Richard III.” “Shakespeare cracked the human DNA, with all its minor layers.”
A scene from “Richard III.” “Shakespeare cracked the human DNA, with all its minor layers.”Credit: Daniel Kaminsky

The English actor Michael Pennington opened his solo show of “Sweet William” with a disclosure. According to his accounting, he has played during his professional career over 20,000 hours of Shakespeare (he is 71 years old), not including rehearsals, watching, thinking, researching, reading and writing about the Bard. That is why he subtitled his show: Twenty Thousand Hours With Shakespeare

The text for the evening show – his personal journey with the playwright, his history and the history of his theater – he devised in a modular fashion. As appropriate for the spirit of the times and the audience, he can make it longer or shorter, add or delete, to make it fit accordingly.

For example, Pennington tells of his first meeting with Shakespeare when he was in his teens, an English speaking fan of the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team whose parents took him to the Old Vic Theater to see Macbeth, quite against his will. He saw and was converted, and he tells the audience what won him over: mostly the charm of the language, high and low at the same time, poetic and down-to-earth, lofty and comprehensible.

All these parts of the text were included in his book of the same name as the one-man play. He tells how when he went on the road with the play in the United States, he knew that out of all English soccer Americans knew only one team, Manchester United, the team of David Beckham, who was then playing for Los Angeles Galaxy. And that is how the boy who was dragged to see Shakespeare turned into a Manchester United fan.

It does not touch on Shakespeare, but it casts light on two important points concerning “Shakespeare and us.” One, and I will return to this, is that the playwright and the play can change in one way or another so as to communicate with the audience, and the “truth” or “original” does not always require blind faith.

But the more interesting question, at least for me at the moment, is that of the first encounter with Shakespeare, and the first impression carved into the mind and soul of the viewer, or the reader. Pennington’s personal story caused me to try to remember how I first made the acquaintance with the playwright, who for over 400 years has been considered as the peak of theatrical writing and the standard for quality.

To my own great amazement, it turned out that I first became familiar with Shakespeare not from the plays, or performances, but from reading the book by the Polish theater critic Jan Kott “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary,” at the beginning of the 1960s. In the book I read about the political Shakespeare (the historical plays, “Macbeth” and “Hamlet”), about the ambiguous sexuality and the desires and erotica in the plays (“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”) and the absurd (“King Lear” as a herald of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”).

My theater-loving friends and I became acquainted with Kott’s revolutionary interpretations before Peter Brook read him and created his amazing “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in 1971 with the Royal Shakespeare Company production.

It made me wonder what the average theatergoer – if there is such an animal – knows about Shakespeare, and maybe more important: What does he connect in his mind to that word, “Shakespeare.” I conducted a quick survey among the theater students I meet with. Some made the acquaintance with the name as a symbol of high-quality culture, at home. Others met him on television, and actually on children’s shows. Others learned about him or saw him in high school: Mostly “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”

But when I asked them what they thought about when they hear “Shakespeare,” I heard the words “heavy,” “classic,” “rhyme,” “meter,” “poetry,” “large” and “excessive gestures.”

None of this explains how the Bard won such a reputation. And that is part of the problem. For most of us, it seems we know what Shakespeare is, but when we try to examine it it turns out that it is both too much and too little, and mostly it is not the real truth. Since what is important is not “Shakespeare” or the “style,” but the specific play, in which everything is written, the performance and the experience that both of these have succeeded – or not succeeded – in causing, to the makers and viewers together.

All these things came up even more forcefully during a panel discussion on directing Shakespeare held in the Cameri’s Cafe Theater on Sunday afternoon during the International Shakespeare Festival at the Cameri. Only some 30 people (an optimistic estimate) attended. Shakespeareologist Prof. Avraham Oz moderated the session with the directors of the plays. Oz told of when he was a member of the repertory committee of the Cameri Theater, and when the plays were performed there with a modern viewpoint, many theatergoers and critics came to him (I will confess and be ashamed, I was one of them) and asked: Why are you not doing Shakespeare “properly?” He explained how he would answer with a question: What is “proper” Shakespeare?

And the truth is that we don’t know, and that does not really matter. What we have today is the text of a play, in a certain language, with certain characteristics (meter, sometimes rhyme). But the mission is to create a continuous connection between what is being told on the stage, through these words, and the audience – and to arouse the experience for them, whose core is in the play. Sometimes they create a connection between the play and the reality in which it is presented using familiar characteristics (Pennington told how in the English Stage Company they presented Shakespeare in suits and military uniforms, which created problems in customs when they transported the submachine guns used as props).

There is no set and correct Shakespeare: There are many studies that a director can draw upon for inspiration. But the correct Shakespeare is his text, and that is what lasts forever, in the books. Every performance is a specific Shakespeare for its time: Not just the historical or political time it is performed, but also during the performance of the play itself when the viewer connects to himself via Shakespeare’s play, characters, language, direction, design and actors.

I admit that my ideas on this have changed with time. Once I was a zealot for some sort of abstract faithfulness to the ideal Shakespeare. Today I am willing to see a lot of free adaptations, and all I want is to understand and feel what the creators are doing to the play. I want to know or feel (and these two things are not the same) “why.”

Today I can live with Shakespeare productions that I do not think are very good. I can join in the sorrow of actors and viewers if what they are seeing of Shakespeare in a specific performance is exactly this – but I am absolutely sure that Shakespeare will succeed in surviving even the most megalomaniac director, and also the most bored theatergoer.

Omri Nitzan, who so far has 11 directing credits for Shakespearean plays, emphasized during the brief discussion that in the end “The play is the thing,” as Hamlet says in the play when he intends on revealing Claudius’ guilt. A director who directs Shakespeare in a language that is not the original English, in other words in Hebrew in Israel, and does not bother to compare the translation to the original English, is negligent in his work – even if in his opinion he knows the work inside out. This does not mean that the play does not have a chance to be wonderful, since Shakespeare is a theory. And the audience in the theater and the actors on the stage are the practical experience.

This is what determines what Shakespeare is at this specific and personal moment. The hours of Shakespeare we clock, as artists and viewers, on the stage and in the audience. And all the rest? Words, words, words.

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