By: Natalie Dewan
This is the first installment of our “Director’s Cut” series; over the next few weeks Natalie Dewan will be speaking with the directors of the four Shakespearean productions on the 2015 Stratford playbill.
Our first director is Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Festival, whose “Hamlet” opened on May 25th. Antoni kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Natalie about his approach to the Festival, the 2015 playbill, and this new production.
The interview with Chris Abraham, who directed “Taming of the Shrew,” can be found here
1) The director’s job requires you to make so many decisions and wear so many hats, what is the first thing you do when approaching a new Shakespearean production?
I read the script.
I know, I know, I’m sorry but it’s just so true, you’ve just got to keep reading that script… you know some people have a very technical way of reading the script, they circle certain things, entrances, exits, key words that are used, time of day, all those things, and I don’t do that. I read the script repeatedly to just get… the feeling of my reaction to it, and what interests me about it, and what I feel the tone is like, what I feel the atmosphere is like. And so from those repeated readings, I begin to have some sensations about it.
After that, I then try to learn everything I can about the play, short of watching other productions, because I think that kind of short-circuits you. If you see other people’s versions of it, you start just going, “Oh, I’ll just do that” and that’s deadly…
But what I do find helpful is reading what other artists… or critics… or academics have written about a play. That I find very helpful…
2) What are you most excited for audiences to see in this performance? Is there any specific audience that you would particularly like to reach?
That’s a tough question, because it’s such a big, complicated play. I think that… the play is about young people, and it’s about how hard it is to make change and get justice in this old, corrupt world that we live in…
The tragedy of it on some level is that Hamlet learns too late that perfection is impossible in this world. He approaches the problem of determining… how to seek justice in a very innocent, almost academic way… As Shakespeare says in another play, “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”… and [Hamlet] comes to understand too late that sometimes you just have to act, sometimes perfection is impossible in this world. But his understanding of that comes with a loss of innocence… in its place comes a certain fatalism, comes a certain bloody-mindedness that wasn’t there at the beginning. And it’s part of his… growing up, but it’s a very sad part of his growing up.
So, is that what you really want audiences to see in this performance?
Yes, I want to see that Hamlet, he’s not a man who can’t make up his mind, as Laurence Olivier said, he’s a man who’s trying to act justly, and dispassionately, and that’s very hard to do. It’s what we should all be doing in this world, in this world of corruption… but to do it is so hard, and in some ways ultimately impossible.
Is there any specific audience then that you would particularly like to see the performance or to learn that lesson maybe?
Well, he talks about “guilty creatures at a play.” I think Shakespeare is writing this for the guilty creatures at a play. His son had just died, a few years before he wrote this. His father was sick, he’d just got him a coat of arms to avenge his father’s bankruptcy and reputation. I think he was writing to people like himself, that were grown up, that could empathize with the young, but that basically were creating a world to serve themselves.
So he’s trying to speak to the people who are on the inside, about having more sensitivity to those on the outside: the young, the poor, the disenfranchised. He’s trying to speak to the opposite, he’s trying to speak to the entitled.
So I think the play is for everybody, but I think it’s especially important for those in power.
3) “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Hamlet” were also on the Stratford playbill together in 2008; is there something about these plays that makes them particularly complimentary?
We had a lot of Shakespeare on the playbill in 2008, I think we had seven productions… and also because we don’t want to do the same plays all the time, there is a natural cycle to things. So some of that is at play.
But, I chose these plays because I was trying to put together a season about discovery. And it also struck me as I was doing that, how many of these plays are about male/female relationships and how difficult those relationships are. The treatment of men to women, how they treat women over time…
Each one of those plays has moments of incredible self-discovery, they range from very early work, to very late work, and all of them deal with the split between men and women, and on some level bringing us to wholeness, finding a way of living together, and being one. So those are the things that interested me in those plays, and that’s why I chose them in this year.
4) One potential challenge for all four of the Shakespearean productions on the Stratford playbill this year is their complicated and potentially controversial representations of women. As a male director, how did you approach this challenge?
Well, the first thing is, as the Artistic Director, when you’re going to do “Shrew,” I think it’s important to provide context. A couple of years ago when we were doing “Merchant of Venice,” I felt it was very important that we also do “Fiddler on the Roof.” And [I] created something called The Forum. The Forum is about 200 different events that range from talks to comedy nights, but they examine the plays in the playbill. So we centered many of the events around “Fiddler” and “Merchant of Venice” in that year.
In this year, I thought… what I’m noticing is that a lot of these plays that I was looking at about self-discovery, like “Oedipus Rex” for instance, are about men and women, sons and mothers, fathers and daughters. And they’re tough, they’re very difficult pieces. So I thought, rather than shying away from this, rather than just trying to slip in something like “the Shrew” and pretend there are no issues… I felt that there needs to be a kind of thoughtful review of the entire issue. Not just a view within each production, but within the context of each production, and how one production provokes thought relative to another.
Then as a male approaching work like this, let’s say the case of “Hamlet,” I’ve got to really do some thinking, as I try to do in working with Seana McKenna and Adrienne Gould, on what the nature of the expectations are on both sides, and what has led to the disappointment that is there, palpably, on both sides, and whether or not they come together…
So I think that, whether you’re a man or a woman, the important thing is thought and empathy.
… Last year we had five female directors, which was a record number at the Stratford Festival. This year, we have four, it’s not because I didn’t ask others, but I’m happy to say they were very busy, the people that I was interested in. And I think it’s very important to have more and more female directors here at Stratford. But we are very well-represented within the creative teams; more than half of our creative teams, as a whole, are female. That’s important because it helps more fully examine whatever issue you’re dealing with.
5) There are some great women directing other shows at the Festival this season, why not hire a woman to direct one of the Shakespearean productions?
Well of course I have hired women to direct Shakespearean productions, like Martha Henry, and there will be a major Shakespeare on the Festival stage next year directed by a woman. And we have a long history; Diana LeBlanc, Jeannette Lambermont, many women have directed here.
In this case there were certain reasons why. Martha has directed “Measure for Measure” for us just recently, and I wanted her to direct “She Stoops to Conquer” for a very important reason, which is that we had done our first Restoration comedy last year in “The Beaux Strategem.” Martha was part of that, and I wanted her to pass on her experience and continue to develop our strength in comedy of manners and Restoration comedy by directing “She Stoops to Conquer.”
“Carousel,” I felt was a play that has some very difficult issues in it, and I asked Susan Schulman to direct that, because she is a very gifted director, and also I thought would be able to bring a woman’s perspective to that important material.
So there were different considerations… I don’t look at gender in relation to Shakespeare and not-Shakespeare, it’s very project-oriented.
6) As a director and a busy creative person, your days must be hectic and varied, especially coming up to the opening of a performance. What are some tasks or rituals in your life that remain a constant every day?
Exercise, my family… I’ve been happily married since 1980, and I have two wonderful kids. So, you know… I’m pretty boring. I like to get a good night’s sleep, I like to exercise, I like to read, I like to spend time with the people I love. And I’m not much into partying, I’m not much into jet-setting, although I do have to travel a lot.
So I think that, to get any real work done, you’ve got to focus on the work, and do the work, and do the things that support you in doing that work.
7) From each pair below, pick one:
a) Comedy or tragedy?
Oh I think comedy. I’ve been directing a lot of tragedy recently, and I’m about to begin “The Alchemist,” and I can’t wait to start getting into a room with Stephen Ouimette, Jonathan Goad, and just laughing and enjoying ourselves. I think there’s too much tragedy in the world, we need more comedy.
b) Iago or Richard III?
Richard III. His scope is bigger… his anger, his hurt, his imaginative abilities are able to ensnare an entire kingdom and make the impossible, possible. There’s a narrowness to Iago’s world that Richard III doesn’t have. He’s the spider that can eat the entire country.
c) Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or Tim Blake Nelson’s “O”?
Well I like Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I thought it had real energy, and I thought it was imaginative while staying true to the impulse that’s there. So I thought it had drive, youth, sex… it was good.
d) William Shatner or Bruno Gerussi?
That’s very hard. Bruno Gerussi was just the nicest man in the world. He was at my opening night performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” as Romeo, and he had played Romeo here. He was our first Romeo at Stratford. And he was so warm-hearted and supportive, and he broke a lot of ground. He was seen as being very ethnic, very exotic, at a time when that was very uncommon in Canada, on our stages.
And so, I have to say that although Bill Shatner’s been so good to Stratford, and we had an event with him here last year, and he was just the classiest guy. He really, he genuinely is. He’s just really generous and very thoughtful of others, a real gentleman. But Bruno has a special place in my heart because of what he did in terms of diversity in this country, and what he did for me personally as a young actor, you know just kind of giving me confidence. I would have to say Bruno.
Click to read all the critics’ reviews of Hamlet.