"It's up to me to provide momentum, energy, and an impulse to the project." In his first interview, Jeremy Herrin talks about his role as a director and his return to the Globe stage. He also discusses his casting process and how he approaches Shakespeare's text.
Time: 8 minutes 33 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
Welcome to the first ever “Adopt a Director” podcast series. My name is Harper Ray and I’ll be talking to director, Jeremy Herrin. Through these conversations, Jeremy will chart his journey in staging The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe for the 2013 season. In this first interview, we will explore his thoughts on directing, thoughts on The Tempest, and wider issues relating to directing for the Globe.
Have you directed Shakespeare before and where was that?
That was [here] at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and it was a couple of years ago. It was a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life. That was the first Shakespeare that I’d ever directed. I suppose the thing about Shakespeare that I think is most remarkable – even more remarkable than the incredible skill he’s got as a dramatist, in that he keeps the whole story moving brilliantly and there’s moments of real poetry and transport and drama and comedy and you get a real sense that all the characters are subtly and peculiarly different – I think that even more impressive than all of that is the generosity of the world view behind it. There’s no cynicism in there, but there’s a lot of realism. There’s no short cuts or sentimentality. It’s just an incredible experience.
What do you see a role of the director as being?
Well, it’s lots of different things, depending on what’s needed at the time. I suppose it’s up to me to provide momentum and energy and an impulse to the project. It’s up to me to practically make it happen. It’s up to me to be the arbiter of taste. It depends how you do it. And I chose to try and be as much of a facilitator as possible. I provide a platform, or an opportunity, for the other artists that I’m working with to express themselves and to do their best work: work that feels true to the text and true to themselves. So, it’s lots of different things but, at it’s best, it’s a collaborative facilitator.
At this point, do you have an idea of the major themes or issues in the play?
Today, it strikes me that it’s a play about vengeance and vengeance being overtaken by virtue. As human beings, we have a base instinct to rectify the wrongs we might have received through a violence or recrimination on some level. And yet, the highest part of ourselves is about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption. And that’s often a very difficult place to get to, even in everyday life in the 21st century. To feel a sense of generosity towards someone who’s behaving aggressively is a really difficult place to get to. And I think – today, anyway. Probably because of the work I’ve been doing this morning – it seems to me that it’s a play that anatomizes that on a fairy tale scale.
When casting central roles, what were you looking for and why?
I don’t know. It’s an instinctive and intuitive thing that, as a director, I feel I want to see that person play that part. And that it would feel right that that person plays that part if this other person plays that particular part. So, you just start to form a picture. There’s a lot of trial and error with casting but it’s intuitive and instinctive. Physically, you want to be able to tell the story: if you didn’t hear it [the play], you would want to feel the sense that the story was right. So, physically, you do a bit of casting. But there’s no point in just casting physically. You want actors that can respond to the text and have got the skills and the talent to form their interpretation with all the tricks of the trade. And you want people that are going to be interested in working in the way I [or you] like to work.
Did you have a particular text or edition that you used? And if so, did you edit it?
We used the folio. We worked with Giles [Block, Globe Associate - Text] on the folio. He knocked up something from the folio that was as close to the original punctuation that we could get. Which I really like because it doesn’t normalize the speaking in the way that a 21st century editor would do with a full stop because there’s lots of colons, which means that the energy flows through the lines. And it means that the actors can go on and then they can play it at pace, which I think is one of the best ways to play Shakespeare. It’s almost like if you stopped and you explained every image, there’d be far too much to cope with. Whereas, if you understand everything and you try and communicate it quickly, it goes in. T.S. Elliot said this thing: “poetry communicates beyond comprehension.” So, you don’t have to understand it but you fundamentally comprehend it. Understanding is somehow more weighty than being able to pick apart each image. And, I suppose, if you stopped and explained everything, you wouldn’t stand a chance because the writing is so fertile.
How does knowing that this production is intended for the Globe stage change or impact your approach?
Well, if you were doing it in another theatre with lights and with a different stage, I would definitely have made lots of different design choices. And, I suppose, it’s really possible to do a really good modern dress or a contemporary setting of The Tempest that would work really nicely. But my feeling was that that wouldn’t work so well in the Globe because the environment is so complete. It’s almost like a set in itself that places it in a historical context, which is wonderful for all sorts of other aspects of the play and certainly in terms of the stuff that I was saying before about not reducing the play to a thesis. It [the stage] prevents you doing that. It sits the play up and it allows you to help yourself, in terms of its broader thematic meaning, which is really great.
But, if I was doing it in another [space], that’d be a different thing. I think I’d be more interested in creating contemporary stereotypes to explain some of the comedy, in a way that you probably can’t do in that setting [at the Globe]. There are all sorts of issues about lighting: you could cut from scene to scene in a more contemporary and naturalistic way [in other spaces] in a way that you just can’t do at the Globe because it’s daylight or light’s on all the time. So, you are often aware that you are in a play, which is good for comedy, as well, because there’s no fourth wall. That is really flexible. And I think a lot of people are funny about the actors’ relationship with the audience, in that it seems sort of vulgar or crude. But, actually, it’s because it’s all things: it can be as heightened as it can be crude. I think people that are worried about that are people that are probably worried about life itself because you’ve got all of those registers (those tonal registers) from the most base to the most spiritual, the most elevated. And it seems [there’s] something slightly prissy and Victorian about trying to contain reality behind an imaginary fourth wall. I think what’s wonderful about the Shakespearean stage is that it’s there and that it’s undeniable in reality. It’s got a beating heart and it smells and it’s real. And often, that’s inconvenient because we have to engage with what the cleverest person in history tells us life and reality is. So, it’s great for that.
Obviously, this play features different locations (including the shipwreck) and various magical acts. Now, you’ve mentioned before about different mechanics that other theatres can employ such as stage lighting or projection or pre-recorded sound effects. Without those things here [at the Globe], how do you approach conveying some of those?
Well, I suppose you really lean on the language and the intention of the actors and the conspiracy that we can all create within that circle, with the audience about believing it. At the moment, we’re trying to do the shipwreck in the first scene. [It] has got a level of self-conscious playmaking about it. We’ll see how we go. But, at the moment, my instinct is that we’re going to literally ask the audience to help create that in quite a subtle way. But their imagination will be involved in that way and then I think we’ll move on from there. That was the wonderful thing that I discovered last time, doing Much Ado About Nothing. There was no way I could have predicted (and I didn’t predict) how much of a part of the experience the audience is. So, this time, I know what that is and I’m going to have fun using that. Last time, it took me a few previews to realize, “actually, we could have a lot of fun here.” And the audience is really, really up for that. And they’re really up for being engaged. There’s something about people being on their feet and only paying a fiver that makes for a really great night or afternoon. It’s because they really want to be there. And, actually, if they didn’t want to be there, they could just walk out. I think that’s really, really wonderful. Rather than a 20th or 21st century audience that are sat passively in the dark, waiting for things to happen to them, in the Elizabethan model, they [the audience] are going to make it a good afternoon. They’re going to make it a good night.