As part of the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival, the State Theatre of Georgia comes to Santa Barbara.

As part of the Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival, the State Theatre of Georgia comes to Santa Barbara.

That Is the Question

A Critic and a Director Debate the Merits of Avant-Garde Approaches to Producing Shakespeare

Two years ago, when director John Blondell and his innovative Lit Moon Theatre Company presented their first International Shakespeare Festival, I was writing for the Santa Barbara News-Press, an organization that would soon suffer its own tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. As a longtime fan of the troupe, I found myself disappointed by the European companies it brought to Santa Barbara.

I went into the festival with some skepticism about the value of importing foreign-language productions of the greatest English-language playwright. As a British critic said in reviewing a similar festival, the concept had a “coals to Newcastlish” feel to it. But, as it turned out, the fact that the plays were done in translation proved only to be half the problem.

Although the shows had such titles as Othello and Romeo and Juliet, they were aggressively avant-garde productions that had little in common with the familiar texts. The plays were stripped not only of their poetry, but also of their plots; even those who knew the originals intimately could not always follow what was happening. As a result, the sometimes dazzling, sometimes ridiculous theatrical imagery was presented without context, and thus seemed to me to be devoid of meaning.

I complained in my News-Press review that the productions were more irritating than illuminating. “Making these profound texts accessible to a modern audience without violating their integrity is a greater artistic challenge than using them as a director’s funhouse,” I wrote, “and it can yield far more rewarding results.”

Festival director John Blondell, who is a friend, waited for some months before writing a substantial rebuttal. In it, he wrote: “It’s simply not enough any more to understand what Shakespeare might mean in isolation, in and through our own traditions, methods, and, yes, even language.” As the second biannual festival approaches, we sat down over lunch and discussed our differences.

Tom Jacobs: Let’s start by defining our terms. What are the driving aesthetic principles behind the festival?

John Blondell: The festival draws on and uses the iconic status of Shakespeare to promote mutual understanding between disparate cultures, and to explore the theater-making traditions of those cultures. Instead of thinking of Shakespeare’s plays as the end product, we’re using them as a vehicle toward a deeper understanding of what it means to be different cultures living in the world today. Shakespeare’s plays become a kind of lingua franca, a shared knowledge.

Shakespeare is the most produced playwright in the world today. Different countries have their own orientation to his work, and to its place in their own theater traditions. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is to bring those traditions to bear on our own culture, with the hope that we can get a sense of what animates them.

The presentation of Shakespeare-or of anything that is worthwhile culturally-is always in a dynamic state. One of the things I want to do with this festival is show this dynamism, and how it is reflected in different parts of the world. It’s a kind of artistic diplomacy. We’re also attempting to expand people’s notions of how the theater works, beyond notions of language and character. The stage is a kind of three-dimensional pictographic language.

TJ: It seems to me you and the directors you are importing use Shakespeare’s plays the way a jazz musician uses a melody. That is, they’re only important to the extent they spark your own creativity. But in my view, a Shakespeare play isn’t a jazz melody; it’s a fully notated symphony, complete and pretty much perfect in itself. I see the job of a director of Shakespeare as akin to that of an orchestral conductor, whose task is to realize this masterpiece as best he or she can-through the lens of his or her own ideas and personality, to be sure, but with the bottom-line purpose of conveying its greatness to the audience. Isn’t it hubristic to take a masterpiece and say, “I can do something more interesting with this”?

JB: The short answer is no. What you describe is an orthodox and very defensible way to present these plays. There also is a very long orthodoxy of Shakespearean adaptation. In my case, I narrow certain of the interpretive possibilities to create something that hopefully has a profound impact for the audience. Take Hamlet. Uncut, there are four-and-a-half hours of material. We know the original playing time was two hours. So where is the “authentic” or “genuine” Shakespearean voice?

It’s also worth noting that my own methods, in coming to play Shakespeare in a certain way, have come from the makeup of my company, rather than from a philosophical or aesthetic standpoint. I have a relatively small company; I can’t do a fully staged show.

TJ: True, your Lit Moon productions tend to be condensations of the originals; Richard II was the one you took the most liberties with. But some of the European productions you brought in for the 2006 festival had little in common with the plays except for the title.

JB: This brings up all sorts of issues about translation and adaptation. Is there a point where Shakespeare stops being Shakespeare and becomes something else? I think that’s a very interesting question, and a knotty theoretical issue.

We’re talking about the iconicity of Shakespeare’s work, but we can also talk about its mythic dimension. One thing that is at play constantly in any myth is the way it becomes reordered, transformed, changed, and even undercut. I see these performances as reflective of some aspect of the contemporary culture of the artists involved in their making. The ones I want to bring are those who expose dimensions of the play that I have never thought of.

Ultimately, the question comes down to who are you serving? Who are you trying to bring pleasure to? Is the point to try to understand Shakespeare, or to move an audience? To me, the end always is going to be moving the audience. Shakespeare is the vehicle to do that. It seems to me that you would say what the art needs to do is illuminate Shakespeare.

TJ: I’d argue that’s the best way to serve the audience. As you accurately quoted my original review, “The productions assembled only had a tangential relationship to the original text. As a result, Shakespeare’s poetry, layered characterizations, and deep insights into the human condition were missing.” Are you taking issue with that criticism? Or are you saying those things were missing, but you presented something equally interesting in their place?

JB: Certainly the poetry was missing. You can’t argue with that. But I’d say you got something else-something important. If we only bring in uncut productions in English, they’d have to be from America or the U.K. But that would continue the Anglophone hegemony in terms of theater. A lot of [non English-speaking] European directors and critics have claimed Shakespeare as somebody very important to their culture. The significance of Shakespeare in these countries is profound.

TJ: The closest equivalent I know of to the shows you have brought here are the operatic productions often derided by American critics as “Eurotrash.” In these, the director subverts or submerges the original meaning of the piece. But even in those productions, the score is considered sacrosanct. The score is played exactly as the composer intended. If the essence of Mozart’s genius lies in his notes, surely the essence of Shakespeare’s genius lies in his poetry. Doesn’t his language deserve the same respect as Mozart’s scores?

JB: Thinking about this question, I think of the scene at the end of Henry V, in which he says, “I love France so much that I will have all of it.” I love Shakespeare so much that I will cut him ruthlessly! I’m looking for a way to use Shakespeare’s language in such a way that suits the needs of my company and suits the needs of the audience.

Shakespeare is not an end to me; it’s a material, like stage space, like actors, like the music that might be employed. The role of the director is to deploy those materials in as interesting and arresting a way as he or she can. If that means cutting Shakespeare for an end that has a powerful effect, absolutely.

TJ: I think it’s pretty easy to make the case that Hamlet, which already is so well-known, can be compellingly done in an hour-long version. The audience can fill in the gaps. But again, so many shows you brought here for the last festival had only a tangential relationship to the text. Since we’re agreed that the practical effect is the most important thing, what is an audience member to make of a show that is not in English and does not follow a familiar plot? From my perspective, such productions do not succeed at communicating much of anything.

JB: I think there is a context here that you are missing, or you are not accepting. I’m saying the language of the theater goes far beyond Shakespeare’s language. It’s a language of presence, of actors in time and space.

TJ: But we’re talking about the greatest poetry written in the English language. Why would you throw it aside? To me, Shakespeare’s collected works is what the Bible is to committed Christians; it’s the greatest source of wisdom I know. That is not to say I agree with someone like [literary critic] Harold Bloom, who thinks they should just be read. But it feels to me they are being violated when they are seen as mere artifacts to be played around with.

JB: I completely understand what you’re talking about. But I have other fish to fry, in terms of both aesthetics and culture. There are few ways that people can get a sense of what other cultures are like. As this country becomes more and more isolationist, it’s more incumbent upon artists and others to find ways to open up the world. Shakespeare can be that window.

TJ: I have no doubt that developing a better understanding of the culture of Georgia would be interesting, especially given recent world events. But I don’t go to Shakespeare to learn about Georgia. I go to grasp his insights on what it means to be human.

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