Pathways to Shakespeare

Phillip Breen

February 15, 2013

Phillip BreenPhillip first became aware of Shakespeare as a volume sitting alongside Dickens's novels on a bookshelf at his grandparents' house on Merseyside.

He decided to take a look and found himself reading Much Ado About Nothing and really liking the humour of Benedick. So much so that at age 12 he learnt some of the lines and enjoyed the Branagh video he watched with his mum.

Shakespeare was not part of the culture he grew up in. Rather it was a world of the Mirror, boxing and football - he's still a Liverpool fan. But he studied Macbeth for GCSE, wrote three essays, interesting enough to be considered plagiarism and would have done English A Level had he not been told he was not bright enough!

His academic studies took him in a different direction: to read Social and Political Science at Trinity College, Cambridge.

But having seen stage productions of Shakespeare at the RSC, notably Iain Glen as Henry V directed by Matthew Warchus, which he thought clever and glamorous, there was some part of him wanted to be in that world.

He admits to cancelling his interview for Cambridge twice because he was in South Pacific and when offered a third date he went down more anxious to hold his lines for the show in his head than about what he would say in the interview. He thinks that perhaps he applied for Cambridge because he feared rejection by RADA.

It was as a talented director in the Cambridge Footlights that he attracted attention. He was nominated for the Perrier Award for a production that toured nationally and played in the West End. He won the Channel Four Award for Young Directors in 2002 and went on as Assistant Director at the Royal Opera House, Chichester Festival Theatre and Theatre Clwyd.

During his period at the Footlights he had not been involved with Shakespeare. But at Theatre Clwyd he worked with Terry Hands on Romeo and Juliet, discovering with him The Sonnets of Shakespeare and realising above all the role of the director as teacher. He was Assistant Director on Gregory Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC.

He is passionate about The Merry Wives of Windsor. It just works as a great dramatic piece. The language is sophisticated, presenting us with idiolects of characters who don't listen to each other.

The scenes at Fords' house are pure farce. First names are used like Meg and George.

Phil researched the various texts used in performance at the RSC: Terry Hands 1968, Trevor Nunn 1978, Bill Alexander 1986 and Ian Judge 1996 and compared them with Quarto and Folio.

He did not wish to work with the cuts and rearrangement he found, rather trusting to Shakespeare's own structure. He therefore restored the German scene.

He speaks of the pain in the comedy. There is a lot of evil plotting. There is psychotic jealousy, disorientation and humiliation which make us think of the darker plays.

His angle on directing is interesting: 'I try to start from the perspective of a 15-year-old audience member hearing the play for the first time. I remember how I felt when I came at 15. It was incredible. It absolutely blew my mind.'

He counts himself lucky not to have done an English degree because he encountered Shakespeare without prejudice. He believes that if teaching Shakespeare is to consist of cold intellectual games it is probably best not taught in school.

If it is a yardstick of difficulty against which we measure how clever a person is we are not doing Shakespeare a service. The language can be challenging, but the actor who can deliver the humour on the line rather than resorting to stage business is serving the text well. We have to ask ourselves: 'why is Shakespeare worth staging?' Not to lead the audience to feel smugly that they have solved the cryptic crossword or to think: 'am I stupid? I don't get it.'

A good production should invite recognition from the audience of our common humanity reflected there. Exactly Hamlet's advice to the players: the purpose of playing is to hold the mirror up to nature.

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Teaching Shakespeare