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January 27, 2015

Zee JLF Conversations: Tim Supple

Text by Nittal Chandarana

“I think the most difficult play to direct was As You Like It because that’s Shakespeare walking a line between genres.”

Verve quizzes British theatre director Tim Supple on his favourite writer, William Shakespeare, and his work

On the challenges of directing a play by William Shakespeare
“The first challenge, really, is to read it and understand it, and I don’t just mean understanding what the words say; that’s one thing. But beginning to look in detail at what is happening in the drama. The second challenge is to transfer that understanding into good decisions of design and casting. The third and most profound challenge is to help the actors bring to life these very complex characters and handle the text, and ‘physicalise’ these actions in ways that make it absolutely true to Shakespeare. Which means, both real and and meaningful to audiences, but at the same time complex and rich.”

On helping his actors approach Shakespeare
“There’s lots of different approaches and there’s no quick fix. They have to do everything. they have to paraphrase every word into their own language and understand it. They have to go through exercises that will help them become fluent in the language of Shakespeare. They have to rehearse in any way that any other actor would have to rehearse: searching for truth and realisation of character and they have to put all this together in the moment of performance. All of these jobs take work and exercises. One has to endlessly invent the right exercise. It’s always difficult to act well but it’s more difficult because of the language and the otherness of the human experience of that time.”

On the most difficult Shakespeare play to direct
As You Like It — because that’s Shakespeare walking a line between genres. Between tragedy and comedy, between drama and philosophical contemplation, and writing work that is of a very high intelligence, but not driven by such clear, accessible narrative as Macbeth or Othello or King Lear even. I find it a very hard play to get to grips with. In another way I found Romeo and Juliet very difficult, which is actually a very simple play, but I don’t actually think it’s a very good one. So I find it hard to love that play.”

On being true to language and aesthetics when performing Shakespeare
“There’s a difference between what you need to do when bringing Shakespeare alive on stage and what you need to do when bringing him alive on film. Film is a literal medium, although it can be abstract, but it’s concrete, isn’t it? Shakespeare wrote for stage, which absolutely open in terms of setting. I think you have to get both right, the language and the setting. If you make a film where you take Shakespeare out of his language and put him into a different one like Haider and Omkara and Kurosawa, that’s very much a way of doing it but then you’re not doing Shakespeare. You’re doing what Shakespeare did. Shakespeare took stories and remade them. Films like Haider do what Shakespeare did. I don’t think Haider is doing Hamlet. It’s a different take.” 

On non-British actors performing Shakespeare and its quality being once-removed
“They can be more exciting! What you won’t get in any non-British performance, even American, is that sublime ease of articulation of the text, which you will get best from actors who grew up and did their schooling and theatre in the language of Shakespeare. But we have to remember that no one in Britain today speaks the language of Shakespeare so even Judi Dench or Ian Mckellen are stepping into another language. They’re just nearer to it than actors in New York or India or Russia, but I think the removal can make for even more exciting interpretation and understanding as long as the audience lets go of the idea that there’s a certain way of speaking Shakespeare, which there isn’t. It constantly changes. What I think is that there is a very specific musicality to Shakespeare, which you can’t ignore. Just like you can’t play Mozart if you don’t observe the music.”

On film adaptations that have retained the essence of Shakespeare
“Ran and Throne of Blood. Omkara, certainly, and to an extent Maqbool and Haider as well. I think they do a really good job. I think that of the adaptations, the Kurosawas are probably the best of all but I do think that Omkara is extremely good. Westside Story is certainly one of the very best. As I said, it’s (Romeo and Juliet) a lesser play. I think what Vishal Bharadwaj did with Othello is in a way terribly impressive because it’s harder. But Westside Story is a great adaptation.”

On the importance of teaching Shakespeare in schools and colleges
“Without question it should be taught. It gives you insights into the ways that you can use language. It gives you insights into human experiences that we still share and we should aspire to. Shakespeare is intellectually liberal, he’s a fierce free-thinker. Naturally so, he was a very enlightened man. We should aspire to imbibe Shakespeare’s ability to articulate human experience and empathise with people with different experiences. Even Shylock, which is a character I don’t think Shakespeare liked, was given the speech with, ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’, which is a great act of empathy.”

On his favourite Shakespeare play
“In terms of sheer joy of theatre, the whole ensemble of characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes a beautiful play. In terms of single character articulation or human experience, it would be King Lear at the moment, but that’s what I’m working on. The plays I think are the greatest are Hamlet, Henry IV Part I, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those for me are the four that I love the most.”

On his notion of the myth of Shakespeare
“Oh there’s just one, and he was an ordinary middle-class man from Stratford, who had a brilliant ability to magpie everything he heard or found out. I think his genius doesn’t lie in greatness of language or all of that. It lies in he heard it, he wrote down.”

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