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Theater: Adrian Noble’s Shakespeare Festival At The Old Globe

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Aired 7/1/10

The Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival is underway with new artistic direction from Adrian Noble, former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. The plays running in repertory are Shakespeare's tragedy, "King Lear," the comedy "Taming of the Shrew," and the Alan Bennett-penned "The Madness of George III." We'll talk with Noble about the Globe's 2010 Shakespeare Festival.

Robert Foxworth as King Lear and Bruce Turk as the Fool in the Old Globe's production of "King Lear."
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Above: Robert Foxworth as King Lear and Bruce Turk as the Fool in the Old Globe's production of "King Lear."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): How do you deliver a wintry windstorm suitable for King Lear on a outdoor stage on a summer night in San Diego? That's just one of the challenges facing the new artistic director of The Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival. Another is finding a clever way to link three plays in repertory, using the best talents of the players and the best instincts of an audience. As it happens, the Old Globe has found someone whose experience equals that challenge. Adrian Noble was the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for thirteen years. This is his first season at the Old Globe here in San Diego. And, Adrian, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

ADRIAN NOBLE (Artistic Director, Old Globe Theatre): It’s lovely to be here. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: The plays running in rep are “King Lear,” “Taming of the Shrew” and the “Madness of George III,” and that one was written by Alan Bennett, not Shakespeare. Talk about how you decided on these three plays.

NOBLE: Well, it was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Old Globe organization and we were looking for something that would be a kind of signature production so we looked at what are the great Shakespeare plays, “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” etcetera. And “King Lear” came up really because, A, it’s one of the greatest tragedies ever written by a human being and, secondly, we had an actor who could play it. We have Bob Foxworth, who could play this part. And so that plus the fact that I would be very – I was very happy to revisit it. So we had a cornerstone for our season, we had “King Lear.” And then I looked for counterpoints to that. So we thought with a big tragedy we would need something lighter, so we looked for an early Shakespeare comedy, “Taming of the Shrew.” So we had a point-counterpoint. And then I was – then I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a contemporary voice in there. And then I thought, of course, that with Alan Bennett’s “Madness of George III” you have a fascinating – you could create a fascinating dialogue with “King Lear.” They’re both about autocratic monarchs. They’re both about monarchs who disintegrate in madness. And both plays tell the story of a journey through madness into some form of enlightenment. So we had a nice three-way conversation going on with the three plays.

CAVANAUGH: There’s so many elements that go into getting together a repertory production, a repertory festival. Do you like that? Do you like having to balance the players and what the plays mean and, you know, the resources that you have.

NOBLE: Well, I do. I’ll tell you why I do, it’s because that’s the context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. You see, he wrote his plays knowing the actors for whom he was writing them. He wrote for a company that had probably up to 20, 30 plays in their rep at any one time. And so if you sort of – if you compose a rep like “King Lear,” our rep “King Lear,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “Madness of George III,” you’ll find that a kind of actor will be able to – will naturally be able to play two or three parts because that’s how Shakespeare wrote them, thinking about, oh, I have an older character actor…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

NOBLE: …so he could play that part, that part, and that part. I have a young girl who’s coming through, very, very exciting young talent, and she could play that part, that part, and that part. So it’s sort of absolutely consonant with Shakespeare’s own thinking, so it kind of falls into place rather easily.

CAVANAUGH: We tend to forget that. We think of Shakespeare in some sort of sanctuary writing these…

NOBLE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …these great epic pieces and he had all these considerations because he was putting on a show.

NOBLE: And Shakespeare was an actor.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

NOBLE: That’s the other thing to remember. He was an actor and he was also a shareholder in the theatre, so he – he had an eye on the box office, you know.

CAVANAUGH: On the bottom line.

NOBLE: On the bottom line. So, as they say, if a show wasn’t doing well, they’d whip it off and bring on a kind of hit show, put in a comedy. So all of those things balance out rather nicely, and I like the juggling acts that go along with that and also I tell what I also like is that if you just cast a one-off play, say on Broadway or on the West End, what – or, indeed, a show on television, what you’re most likely to do is cast an actor who is, if you like, perfect for the part. You know, type casting at worst, but perfect for the cast, for the role, at best. But if you’re casting a company, what you have to do perforce is give an actor maybe one role for which they’re perfectly cast then another role which is a real challenge for them. And that’s very often when the exciting breakthroughs come, when somebody’s working outside of their comfort zone. So, again, I like that.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, is directing “King Lear” difficult? And the reason I ask that is because I read an interview of yours and you said, you know, the playing of Shakespeare by American actors is a bit more Stanislavski-esque than it is in England. You know, British actors just go for it because they have this whole tradition behind them.

NOBLE: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Do you find that American actors perhaps are hesitant to give the kind of reading of Lear that we would be familiar with?

NOBLE: Well, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, I have to say, because I know some British actors say, oh, American actors are very, very unconfident with Shakespeare and they work in a very different way. At bottom line, actors are actors, I think. They have a – They’ll work at something instinctively and they’ll bring a whole range of talent and experience to bear upon that task. And so but what I – You see, what I think I bring to the party is a kind of an experience not only of doing a lot of Shakespeare but of how to handle the language, the verse, the words, and how to make actors feel comfortable with the language, the verse, the words. And what I find exciting is marrying that with whatever acting tradition they happen to come from, which is mostly Stanislavski but is mostly Stanislavski and in the U.K. as well. It’s just this kind of perhaps a bit more confidence in the U.K. actors but I’ve found the – I’ve got nothing but admiration for American actors. I’ll tell you for – Here’s an example. When we’re doing “Madness of George III,” the read through, okay, the read through with 24 actors, the British accents were perfect bar one or two vowels…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

NOBLE: …in one or two sentences.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yeah.

NOBLE: But like two or three occasions but, otherwise, per – I mean, that’s a sensational – absolutely sensational. The prep they’d done was absolutely extraordinary.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Adrian Noble. He’s the artistic director of the Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival. He’s the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Now you set your production of Lear in 1776. Why?

NOBLE: Well, I’ll tell you why, it’s sort of – It kind of came from doing “George III,” actually and which is set, actually, in 1788. “George III” is set in 1788 and George talks about the loss of the American colonies a lot. That’s one of the sort of his sore points, if you like. And when I started to work on “King Lear,” you know, whenever you’re designing a Shakespearian production, you have to create a world in which it’s logical that those events will take place, okay? So it’s not logical, I don’t think, to set “King Lear” in the White House in 2009, right, because, you know, because King Lear has absolute power. You know, the President of the United States has to get bills through Congress instead. So it’s sort of silly, it seems to me. Therefore, you have to find a world in which it’s logical that he could do those things. So one tends to go back in history. And almost the last time in which it was logical was towards the end of the 18th century. And then I thought, well, that’s rather an interesting notion here, because here’s a play in which there was a – a crisis occurs at the beginning and the crisis occurs partly because of the fragmentation of the empire, right, and that’s exactly what happened in the “Madness of George” and it’s exactly what happened in England during the latter – that latter part of George III’s reign. And so it seemed to be interesting. And so, again, part of this dialogue between George III and King Lear. And so we set it, you know, just after the American Revolution.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, Adrian, how did you find the San Diego Shakespeare Festival or how did the San Diego Shakespeare Festival find you?

NOBLE: Well, they found me, actually. I’ll tell you how. I’ll tell you how this happened. When I left the Royal Shakespeare, I sort of didn’t want to do Shakespeare for a bit so I did a lot of musicals, I did a lot of Ibsen, I did a lot of – a lot of opera, and I worked in the Met in Paris, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And I was doing a TV show in Canada with – actually with a guest on this program, with Marvin Hamlisch, actually, who I just met in the green room.

CAVANAUGH: He’s coming up next.

NOBLE: He’s coming up next. So Marvin and I were doing this show in Canada. And when I was in Canada, I was approached via – by the Stratford Festival in Canada to direct a – A new regime was going in there and they wanted me to do one of the opening shows of “Hamlet.” So I sort of thought, oh, well, I – that sounds good to do. So I…

CAVANAUGH: I know that one.

NOBLE: Yeah, I know that one. So I did that. And I loved – I loved it. I loved coming back to Shakespeare after six or seven years. And after that, I decided to write a book about Shakespeare and in the midst of – So I was immersing myself in Shakespeare and then literally out of the blue my agent in London got a telephone call from the guy who runs the Old Globe here, Louis Spisto, so would I be interested in becoming the artistic director, running this for a year and directing a couple of plays and – And it seemed perfect timing, actually. And I thought, yeah, I would like to do that, actually, especially because as – At that point, I was right in the middle of writing – I wrote this book called “How to do Shakespeare,” which is just published, by the way, which you can all buy. And part of it is to do with the handing on of the skills about doing Shakespeare, right. And the very things I’m working on here and so it just seemed perfect timing. So I thought that sounds a good thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now as a director of this production of the – of the two, at least, of these plays in repertory, you have to be concerned about everything from the acting to the set design. And as I said in the introduction, you know, of course there’s this huge storm scene in Lear. I’m wondering how it is that you actually do handle that scene in this outdoor setting in beautiful San Diego on a summer night.

NOBLE: Well, first of all, at the Old Globe it’s the most beautiful setting. It’s a lovely, lovely space. And myself and the designer, Ralph Funicello, we’ve reorganized the space a bit and so I think it’s even nicer now. It’s a lovely, lovely space. But you have the opportunity at the Old Globe of opening the back walls and you – and all of these trees, which is the park, the San Diego park. The zoo is out the back actually. So you can – and you can light it so you can actually give the audience access to nature, not artificial nature, not painted stage but real nature, so that interested me. So we opened the doors and we have that. And then basically I asked the guys, the technical guys, said, what have you got? What kit have you got? And they said, oh, we’ve got a lot of snow machines because we do the Grinch here. And I said, okay, get your snow machines out. I want the snow machines.

CAVANAUGH: They do do the Grinch a lot, yes.

NOBLE: And so I used all the snow machines. I had never – You see, I’ve done the play twice before actually and I’ve used real rain, etcetera, etcetera. And I had snow. And I thought, well, this is marvelous. I’ve got all this wonderful effect I can do. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: And in “Taming of the Shrew,” and I know you don’t direct that play in the repertory but it involves some unusual seating, too. Tell us a little bit about that.

NOBLE: Yeah, well, we – Well, Ron Daniels, the director of the “Taming of the Shrew” wanted to create – well, sort of like embrace the action completely. So he wanted audience members on the stage at the sides and almost behind the actors. So whenever I look at – Say I’m sitting in the orchestra and I look at an actor, I will see another member of the audience beyond the actor, if you see what I mean, so…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

NOBLE: And it creates a real – a really friendly, warm atmosphere, which is perfect for that show. And then he builds on it by having some of the younger actors, the – coming out before the show begins and they talk to the – talk with the audience and they kind of goof around a little bit and it’s a charming, charming start to the show. And then they do a lovely dance. And so it creates a sort of a festival, a party atmosphere actually, which is perfect for a comedy. It wouldn’t be quite right for “King Lear” but it’s perfect for a comedy.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get to the, as I say, the third play in the repertory. It is Alan Bennett’s “Madness of George III.” And, you know, people may be familiar with his Tony Award winning play “The History Boys.” They also might be familiar with the film version of this. How close is it to the film version?

NOBLE: It’s pretty close. It’s pretty close. I mean, the – I’m trying to think back now. I saw the film but it was a long time ago…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

NOBLE: …so I can’t really remember exactly. I mean, whenever one makes a film of a play, well, you know, it has to be opened out, I think is the saying.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

NOBLE: And they – and cut in a different way so that you don’t get a sequence of long scenes so you get, you know, chop – chopping about. But essentially the story remains the same, which is a monarch at the height of his powers who is afflicted by what they think is madness. In actual fact, it was – it’s subsequently been diagnosed as, I think you pronounce it porphyria or something like that.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

NOBLE: And it has horrid side effects. You can’t stop talking and you often know you are saying – talking rubbish but you can’t control it. You have – your skin – it’s like the skin is on fire.

CAVANAUGH: Ohh…

NOBLE: You can’t put – all your clothes hurt you. Your urine is blue. I mean, pretty – pretty – and so – and this – that is exactly what happened, and it’s very well documented, happened to George III. And so it charts his descent into mad – It’s very, very funny. It’s a comedy.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

NOBLE: It’s a hoot. It’s very, very funny. A lot of that wonderful Handel music.

CAVANAUGH: Have to add that.

NOBLE: One has to – have to add that, yes. And his descent into madness and his – him sort of coming – He emerges from that as well. But it’s also quite interesting as well about the politics because as he descended into madness, of course, all the vulture – the political vultures gathered because they wanted, you know, his son to become Regent and that would’ve meant a change of government and – and so all the politics are very, very, very interesting, which haven’t really changed an awful lot in two hundred-odd years.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it hasn’t. Now it’s very interesting and it’s proof of the repertory nature of these plays that your star in “Lear” is not the star in “George III.”

NOBLE: That’s correct. No, the star in “Lear” is, in fact, playing a supporting part in the “Madness of George III.” He’s playing the Dr. Willis, who comes in and actually cures George. So we get a wonderful kind of transfer. And the guy playing Petruchio, for example, plays Edmund. It’s a lovely – as I say, people mostly play two or sometimes three parts. It’s jolly hard work, actually.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds like it.

NOBLE: It’s really, really hard work.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you. We are out of time but I want to thank you for coming in. I want to ask you will you be here next year?

NOBLE: Yes…

CAVANAUGH: Good.

NOBLE: …I’m going to come back next year, yes.

CAVANAUGH: All right.

NOBLE: I love it here.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. I’ve been speaking with Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival. The Old Globe’s 2010 Shakespeare Festival continues through September 26th. The plays running, once again, are “King Lear,” the “Taming of the Shrew,” and the “Madness of George III.” Thanks so much.

NOBLE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: KPBS.org/thesedays if you’d like to comment. And coming up, Marvin Hamlisch and a preview of the San Diego Summer Pops, as These Days continues on KPBS.

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