I have mentioned before, ‘many a time and too damned oft’, I suspect, my opinion that the director of a play should serve the writer. In other words, it is your duty as a director to try and discern the writer’s intentions and by use of all theatrical artifacts make these clear to an audience. I drone on about this because too many directors think they know better than the writer and impose their views on the text. (Even worse are ‘adaptors’ of plays, those miscreants who under the guise of translating a text alter it to fit their own opinions and prejudices. Poor old Chekhov and Ibsen have suffered cruelly under this treatment!) So, an honest director will study a text and try to tease out of it what the writer intended but a question immediately arises - why do some writers – and I’m looking at you, Will Shakespeare! – make it so bloody difficult?
I am provoked to this complaint because a friend of mine is directing The Winter’s Tale and I have been re-reading it before I go to see it. Long before you reach the trickiest stage direction in the whole of Shakespeare “Exit pursued by a bear”(!) which induces a headache in most directors almost immediately, one is confronted with the hideous problem of Act I. scene ii. For those not familiar with the play (and that includes me) the play opens with two lords, one from Sicilia where the scene is set, and the other from Bohemia. They are discussing their respective kings with great respect because Polixenes (Bohemia) has been accorded generous hospitality by his true friend, Leontes (Sicilia). The situation thus set, we move on to scene ii.
Here we meet the two kings. Polixenes is expressing his enormous regret in having to depart and return home as well as his heart-felt gratitude for the extravagant hospitality bestowed on him by his life-long friend Leontes who, in turn, begs him to stay longer but is unsuccessful and so he turns to his wife, Hermione, and asks her to intercede and persuade Polixenes to stay. This she does with great affection and some witty banter – when suddenly – out of the blue – no warning – Leontes, talking inwardly, goes off on one and we are shocked, putting it mildly, to realize that beneath the courteous, friendly exchanges, he is actually eaten up with furious, murderous jealousy because he is convinced that his wife and his best friend are secret lovers!
Now, you don’t need to study Shakespeare for too long to realize that there is a difference between your reaction arising from the written page as opposed to what you see and hear on a stage. Even so, I suggest that in this case the unveiling of Leontes’s secret hatred comes as a shock whichever way you discover it. But worse, reading it off the page it comes across as totally unrealistic! You may read it for yourselves, here. At this point, a caring and careful director will pull out the first tufts of his hair – there’s usually a lot more to come later! Did our Will really mean it to be unrealistic? Or did he actually want a dramatic shock at that point – even if it is a little less subtle than you expect from him? Should Leontes indicate, somehow, in some way, that all is not well and that he’s merely going through the motions in asking his (ex)friend to stay longer? Is there anything in the text leading up to that frightening revelation that will help an actor to signal the ticking bomb? I suppose, at a stretch, you could say that where-as Polixenes talks at some length, Leontes’s responses are mostly two-lines only but that’s a very tiny hook upon which to hang your directorial hat. And if there’s not much, if anything at all, in the text, how does an actor signal his secret feelings? And, an even bigger question, if there’s virtually nothing in the text then should you do it at all? Obviously (never a word to deploy too often in these sort of circs!) if Will meant it to come as a shock to his audience then your job as director is to swallow your doubts and serve the writer. I think . . . possibly . . . well, probably . . . maybe . . . on the other hand . . . oh, hell, why do I do I get involved in this sort of thing?