"The ART Crucifies Shakespeare's Masterpiece"
"And if you didn't recognize the above description as the opening of Richard II, take heart: it's not likely the Bard would either. Director Robert Woodruff has flattened a rich double portrait."
The above are quotes taken from two reviews of Robert Woodruff's staging of Richard II currently running at the American Repertory Theatre. Not surprising since Artistic Director Robert Brustein has long been a champion of Auteur Directors both in his criticism (see "Serban Under Siege" among other reviews) and in the selection of his guest directors. What is a continual curiosity to this writer is the vehemence with which detractors react to the often imaginative stagings of Auteur directors, especially when it involves Shakespeare. The above quotes do not only call into question whether Woodruff's work illuminates the text, or if his work makes logical sense but rather if he has a right to bring his own sensibility (a modern one) to the work at hand.
Would anyone question an authors right to pen an adaptation of Richard II? I think not. What about the allegation that Shakespeare would not recognize his own work? What I have to say in response has been argued by many theater people more prestigious than myself: Peter Brook, Charles Marowitz, etc. Still, it needs to be stated again. And again. Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. We cannot possibly know what he would think about a current production.
Wait a minute. Since we are speculating, let me speculate. Someone who writes with the complexity that Shakespeare writes, someone who has the ability to see an issue from many different vantage points, would, I believe, embrace Woodruff's production. Why? Because Woodruff (and lead actor Derrah) successfully bring their artistic sensibilities to the fundamental directorial question of the play: Why does Richard abdicate without a struggle? To explore this they have given us a Richard who wants to live as oppose to govern.
Yes, he is self obsessed. Yes, he has a strong libido. Yes, he lives ostentatiously. And as a result it becomes understandable that when of his country has turned against him he is totally unprepared to handle this situation.
I found there to be a certain courage to this Richard, a willingness to accept what he has wrought and instead of fighting it, explore it. To live it. There was a masochism to Richard's decision as played by Derrah. A guilt. Yes? Perhaps not. While I don't believe that Woodruff, Derrah or Shakespeare have completely explained why Richard does what he does, isn't the search what makes the work so fascinating?
And, I did find myself as an audience member feeling some sympathy, "caring" for this Richard. And, I also found myself intrigued by this staging, whether it was the image of Richard emerging from a relaxing swim as his kingdom is rising against him, the skewed visuals the raked stage provided, or the striking death bed scene where Gaunt is tied to a gurney while his mourners carrying wreaths lounge about and Richard punctuates his with kisses on the mouths of his followers.
Also, while I found the visuals stunning, to my surprise they did not (at least in my experience) overwhelm the language. I think the reasons for this are two fold: the ability of the actors to communicate the poetry, and, the raked stage which often kept the actors stationary (one cannot easily do sweeping crosses on a heavily raked stage). Individual creativity and imagination. The ability to bring one's unique temperament in the work. A "modern" temprement because that is all one can bring. Directors like authors need to do this. And if they are truly meeting the text, connecting with it, the author is sure to recognize his own work side by side with the other creators, even four hundred years later.
Milton Coykendall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org