Ron Daniel wanted to begin his third season as associate artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. with a special event – “an occasion, something that presumably wouldn’t often be seen in the Boston area.” He and artistic director Robert Brustein decided that Henry IV, Parts I & II would more than adequately fill that bill. The twin masterworks provide a sweeping, complex view of life, from court to tavern, from brothel to battlefield, and explore relationships as diverse as fathers and sons, and cutpurses and victims. Daniels’s association with Brustein extends back to the 1970s, well before his long and impressive affiliation with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, but it has been his commitment to Shakespearean production on both sides of the Atlantic which is perhaps the most distinctive feature of his career.Order now
Shakespeare has proven to be Daniels’s “natural stomping ground.” Over the years he has marveled at the playwright’s imagination, stylistic daring and “apart from anything else, his wonderful ideas and thoughts and words.” His interpretations stem from a long immersion in the canon and from noticing “the same notions and the same obsessions being worked out time and time again in different ways. The plays have so many dimensions which are continually interlocking, but so bravely, boldly and generously that it’s wonderful. it’s thrilling.”
As former director of the RSC’s tiny Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is largely devoted to contemporary writing, and now head of Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, Daniels is as interested in new works and artists as he is in the classics. Part of the job at the Institute is his active search for young playwrights. “The RSC policy of radical contemporary work alongside innovative Shakespeare is what I’ve grown up with,” he notes. “It’s what interests me, and I hope to teach young people.” But because Shakespeare’s scope is so wide, for Daniels it “knocks everything else out of existence.” As a result, the pattern of his career has been to do two or three new plays followed by a season of Shakespeare.
“The idea is to actually keep feeding both the discipline and the dramaturgical skills that one develops through working with Shakespeare into the work with new writing – while at the same time keeping the Shakespeare contemporary and free of any sort of cobwebs,” he ventures’
Daniels’s aversion to “received Shakespeare” – what he calls “thatched-cottage Shakespeare, are where you wear tights and doublets and flowing hair, and it’s all rather beautiful … the idea that this is a classical work and this is the way it should be done” – is one of the most striking characteristics of his approach. His ideas are bold and thought-provoking, if not always tailored to the tastes of the critics. He treats the plays in an array of visual styles which broaden the setting and, consequently, the world of the play. Daniels’s Hamlet, for example, a collaboration with set and costume designer Antony McDonald, presented a world that was literally out of joint; none of the windows or doors of the set stood at right angles, and the emotional outbursts of the pajama-clad prince (the remarkable Mark Rylance) kept us wondering how feigned his madness truly was.
THE HENRYS WERE PRODUCED with similar flair. Conceptually, Daniels’s interpretation was not affected by the fact that he was producing the play in America, but the visual images he created with set designer John Conklin were anything but Eurocentric. “You can even say that the paradigm for this design is the American barn, and it is inside this barn that this nation evolves its history,” the director suggests. “In spite of doing a lot of research and background work, I am not particularly interested in the historical aspects of the play. I am interested in the political and personal aspects. England is a fictitious nation, as far as I’m concerned. The characters in the play are all preoccupied about how this nation is to be governed, or is being governed; the roots of the civil war are in a democratic movement that was created, in a sense, with the end of the divine right of kings.”
Two completely different eras unfold. The world of the court is created with images from the American Civil War, while Falstaff’s tavern world is very much of the 1990s, with a punk Prince Hal (Bill Camp) and his biker buddies. Some critics found such anachronisms distracting, but Daniels maintains that his interpretation is by no means cynical. “This is an interpretation of integration – of how this young man is very cleverly synthesizing within himself the feminine and masculine principles. The interesting thing about the play is the way it brings the warring aspects of a nation together through the person of the new king, who is himself a synthesis of these opposing forces.”
Is Daniels consciously working against “received notions of Shakespeare”? “The approach to a certain extent has got to be, ‘I have never heard of this play before, I have never seen this play before, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.’ ” He laughs when he continues, “I keep on thinking of Shakespeare as a very promising playwright. I am not trying to be perverse. I’m just responding to the text.”
FOR DANIELS, THIS RESPONSE is always manifested through bold set designs. His designers are his richest collaborators, and he believes it is they who “expand” his ideas. “In any play, you are constructing a world and constructing a culture, and one has to take it for granted that audiences do not understand a hundred percent of Shakespeare. You don’t have to compensate for that, but you have to do exactly the same thing as you do in directing a new play-you create images that you hope are bold enough, and you attempt to tell the story physically, so somebody who is a total foreigner should understand the story without any difficulty.”
This sort of emphasis on visuals, critics have complained, is sometimes achieved at the expense of the language in Daniels’s productions. But the director makes the case that it is a combination of the two which make a clear and strong production. “The extraordinary thing about it is that Shakespeare’s going to survive – he’s going to survive my treatment of his plays and my next-door neighbor’s treatment of them. But that doesn’t make the job of actually doing the plays necessarily any easier. The difficulty is managing to be respectful but not reverential. His mind is much bigger than mine, but I have to find my space within it, respecting the text. Shakespeare gives you that space, so it’s not necessary to play silly tricks with the work. You can blow it apart from the center while being respectful to the ideas and the notions, even to a very large extent his dramaturgy, which is sine qua non.”
If Daniels sees Shakespeare as a great synthesizer, the Brazilian-born director acknowledges that his work in America represents a synthesis as well. “In many ways being in this country allows me to be searching – to be synthesizing, if you like, both my Brazilian roots and my English development over the past 21 years. The result, I hope, is something more American, more of this hemisphere, than it is English.”