Pathways to Shakespeare

Robin Soans

June 6, 2013

Robin Soans as PoloniusRobin Soans, playing Polonius in Hamlet and Corin in As You Like It has over 40 years' theatrical experience. I ask him what he has learnt through accessing Shakespeare himself and how pathways for others can be created through performance.

Shakespeare's language is often grounded in life as it is lived. Robin tells me a fascinating anecdote in connection with this. Trevor Nunn, Artistic Director of the RSC 1968-1986, was out walking in Ilmington, a village some six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, when he came upon two agricultural workers tackling a hedge. When he asked them what they were doing he was told 'I'm rough-hewing and he's shaping the ends'. Hamlet tells Horatio: 'There is a divinity that shapes our ends rough hew them how we will.'

Shakespeare was very much in touch with the world he lived in, perhaps something that gets lost in the heavily-annotated texts of his plays and lessons that can form part of an academic experience of Shakespeare.

As I talk to him, Robin keeps returning to the idea of clarity and points out productions that were in touch with the spirit of a play and those that were not.

A school production of Henry 1V, Part 1 in which he played Hotspur certainly had this clarity, he reflects, a positive beginning for him despite the cake-tin helmet that rolled off his head in his dying moments much to his grief but to the audible amusement of the audience!

It was at Oundle School that he acted in and directed plays which were clearly spoken - the secret of their success.

Aged 13, he visited the RSC, seeing Dorothy Tutin in Much Ado About Nothing. He remembers the set: the elaborate garden that filled the stage complete with trellises. He wanted to take all this stage clutter away so that he could hear and see!

Five years later he returned to see Henry 1V. This time he was impressed. It was the intelligence and clarity that informed Ian Holm's presentation that made an impact on his young mind.

He read Jurisprudence and Philosophy at Saint Andrews but immersed himself in university drama playing Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, staged at Dundee Rep.

By the time he left university he had committed himself to an acting career and went on to study at RADA. After training there he found himself in his 20s with two very different experiences of playing Shakespeare in professional repertory theatre.

The first was a stunning production of The Tempest at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1972 directed by Michael Bogdanov, a protégé of Peter Brook.

The set was a giant spider's web, Prospero in the middle bare-footed as were all those on the island. It gave Ariel the freedom to fly. Alonso's court wore cumbersome platform-soled shoes and heavy costumes, a hindrance in this environment. This production married the concept with the text, the idea that Prospero wanted to put the world right before completing his work. Word quickly spread around the city and four days into the run 400 people were queuing for tickets to see Shakespeare in provincial rep.

But the next year he was in Richard III at Leeds Playhouse, a boring production with no originality. Rehearsal consisted merely of delivering the text and as a consequence Shakespeare was 'shoveled on' as Robin puts it.

Then there was a lunch-time Hamlet, a production that lasted an hour. What had seemed a good idea at the time didn't work. 'Don't attempt to shortchange Shakespeare' Robin tells me he learnt from this.

He talks about King Lear with Robert Stephens in the title role, a piece almost perfect in rehearsal but spoilt by having unnecessary add-ons.

Adrian Noble who directed this production used to tell his actors that they acted as a conduit from the page to the audience and warned that they must not 'scrabble it' or the audience wouldn't get it. He was talking about clarity in line-delivery. But if a play is over-ornate in design the same can happen he says. Sometimes it's a case of less is more.

Certainly Robin feels this applies at Shakespeare's Globe where he played Menenius in Corialanus five years ago. The play is complicated-psychologically complicated and the language likewise. 'In the interests of clarity you must go for a short back and sides on this one', Robin says. Economy of movement, clarity of diction serve the play well.

At The National Theatre playing Holofernes in Trevor Nunn's Love's Labour's Lost he experienced a concept which worked.

He set it on the eve of the First World War with a fin de siecle feel, a pastoral idyll of leisure which crumbled before our eyes. Leaves fell from the trees which became the spectral trees of No Man's Land. Trevor Nunn he calls 'The Master Craftsman', able to totally engage an audience from start to finish.

Robin speaks highly of both directors he has worked with recently: David Farr on Hamlet and Maria Aberg on As You Like It because he feels that the productions developed organically in rehearsal. They had a clear vision for the plays.

Hamlet explores the disintegration of the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship as a consequence of the task imposed on him. As You Like It reflects the repression of a totalitarian state on self-awareness.

Robin likens it to the pebble and the bottle: you can hit it with one but miss with a handful. As a director you come with a clear concept for the play not 57.

Clarity of vision from the director, organic work in rehearsal arising from this concept and clear communication of it to the audience who can see the relevance of the play to their own lives would seem to be the way to keep pathways to Shakespeare open.

by Viv Graver  |  No comments yet


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Teaching Shakespeare