In town to talk as a part of the Books on Film series and her work with noted director Julie Taymor in a unique production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I got the chance to sit down not just with an actor but a genuine ‘Shakespearean Actor’.
An award winning actress and Artistic Associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company that are few who are better versed in the work of the Bard then Miss Kathryn Hunter. With the upcoming retrospective I got the unique pleasure to talk with Miss Hunter about the challenges of Shakespeare, how uniquely visual a storyteller he was and why his work translates across all imaginable boundaries.
Dave Voigt: Shakespeare’s work has always been so rich and so bold that there is one thing that has always fascinated me because there are people who refer to themselves as “actors” and then there are those who refer to themselves as “Shakespearean Actors”, from your perspective what is it about the Bard’s work that really emboldens that special badge of honor?
Kathryn Hunter: It’s a good question, I would say it comes down to the challenge of the verse and the structure of it all because it isn’t naturalistic speech and the challenge comes in making it all seem completely natural , effortless and spontaneous. One has to address the structure of the verse in dealing with the iambic pentameter and put in a lot of technically work and then subsequently throw it all away. I would guess that is one of the challenges and then I really think that it comes down to whoever Shakespeare really was, and we can go on about the fashionable debate on who he was or was he many but I think that undeniably that he seems to have a single identity in many of his plays with one voice that almost like a Mozart can intuit a great deal about the human experience . As an actor, he was able to get underneath the skin of so many of his memorable characters like a 14 year old Juliet and they are psychological portraits that are archetypical characters at the same time. I think that a great piece of work, like the ones that Shakespeare wrote demand that the actor can come up to that level.
DV: Now you’re in town to talk about your work in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Julie Taymor and Julie does have this track record of being able to transition from telling stories for the screen and then for the stage, as an actor when you are preparing a Shakespearian production, does your process change at all?
KH: Initially I don’t think that Julie knew that this was going to be a film, the initial task was to make for the production for the theatre, and then a producer came with the idea to record it on to film. Then Julie, who is of course a very visual person to begin with brought all of her experience to bear on it all and do what I felt was a very unique thing. They filmed the performance itself over four nights in front of an audience, and then during the day we did lots of pickup shots where they were shooting from very unique and close up camera angles. I think she did this working with the crew she had with her working on her Freda Kahlo picture, and they could quickly make some pretty interesting decisions such as putting the camera on the listener rather than the speaker and having roving cameras which allowed for a certain degree of momentum in the story. I think what was there for nothing as it were when we finally put it on film is that Julie is so incredible gifted visually and in that sense perfectly suited for Shakespeare because was so visual in his storytelling.
DV: In addition to your talk, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is also launching a retrospective of cinematic adaptations of the Bard’s work and I was wondering; a) What do you think Shakespeare himself would think of seeing his work on film and b) Why is it that this material translates so well across languages all across the globe?
KH: I really do imagine that Shakespeare would be absolutely delighted. I mean not at the ones that weren’t so good but let’s look at this for a second. Shakespeare rarely ever told an original story, he heard stories and retold them in his own unique way. Sure some are historical or fairy tales but for the most part they are stories that he has heard in another context, and borrows from them and plays with them quite a bit much like a jazz musician would. I think all good storytellers retell stories for the audiences of the moment and tells them in the moment so I am certain that Shakespeare would love to be in our visual age where his works are constantly being reinterpreted rather than just having stories done the same way that they have always been done.
To answer the second part of your question, about why does the storytelling translate so well across language barriers, it’s funny because just the other day I was watching Kurosawa’s Ran; his retelling of the King Lear story which is just absolutely amazing. I think that the stories themselves hit on some fundamental and archetypal truths that resonate deeply across cultures. I think that’s why people are able to say; “Ah, yeah” “It’s a king who wants to give up his authority and his kingdom but still keep it at the same time and I think Kurosawa makes it a story with sons (instead of daughters) because it just fits better with his culture and heritage. You can see while watching it that he is keeping very closely to Shakespeare’s words and intents but really almost jazzing with it and to make sense of it for his people and for now. But they just work so well because they are these archetypal stories with these truths about the human condition.
DV: That really does boil it down to the one true lesson from Shakespeare’s work when you get past the structure and the complexities of the verse it all comes down to the effectiveness of the actual story.
KH: That’s right, and it’s interesting that you say that because when I first worked with Peter Brook, he was working on a much shortened version of Hamlet and he asked me to read Hamlet’s speeches but in French. My background is Greek American but I grew up in the UK and I was brought up with the English language and this material like everyone is, and at the time reading it all French just felt so deeply offensive! (Laughs) I even had to ask Peter, “How can you do this in French and be bereft of Shakespeare’s original language” and he said that it was because he had discovered that in the absence of the language that the essence of the original story still comes to the forefront. Sure he missed the language and the richness of it but he mounted some very successful productions because he really did find the root of the story.
DV: Do you think that we do that enough today, remembering to get to the root of the story much like Shakespeare did back then?
KH: Without sounding too glib, maybe it will be a little glib but I feel like that there is a certain kind of storytelling in Hollywood that CAN be a little formulaic at times, where you can see things coming from a mile away as they overcome obstacles and fall in love and all that. It can get fairly predictable at times but there are also a million exceptions to that as well. It’s funny, I was recently working on something with writer Karen Blixen who might be most famous for Out of Africa. She has this one short story called The Blank Page, it starts with the storyteller talking to this young couple who wants to be paid for telling them a story. She starts to tell them this story and not to waste too much of your time it’s about how her grandmother taught her to be unflinchingly loyal to whatever story that she is telling and how if you do that your audience will just be speechless by the end of it all…but to get back to your point, our culture craves those quick sound bites and that quick data but maybe just maybe it really is the old artists who have the art of storytelling down, and there are still a few people out there who know how to do it properly, because we really do need stories in our lives just as much as we need food to survive. It’s why we tell stories to children at bed time, we need to have that transposition of what life is and to teach that through the art of storytelling. Human beings will always need good stories to sustain us, it’s a necessity of the human psyche and out of that will come good storytellers.
All the World Is a Screen: Shakespeare on Film kicks off this June 9th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in downtown Toronto. To learn more and for ticket information you can visit their website right here.