Paul Hart, Artistic Director of the Watermill Theatre, is currently touring the country (and abroad) with his unique and imaginative take on a pair of Shakespeare favourites.
This week, Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet are being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal. A former associate with Shakespeare performers Propeller, Paul has brought a number of productions to the city over the years, and we sat down to ask him what audiences can expect this time:
These are very different versions of Shakespeare to what people might expect – why is that?
My feeling with Shakespeare has always been that, when they were performed originally, they were being done for that contemporary audience. I’m a great believer in wanting to make the plays feel relevant to a modern audience, because I think that’s what they are. I think the themes are really eternal, actually.
So I’m not interested in doing Shakespeare that preserves the original performance conditions or anything like that; bringing Shakespeare to life in a new way is what I’m really passionate about.
Does that make them a good choice for people who maybe aren’t that familiar with Shakespeare?
I think our dream, when we started rehearsing them, was that we wanted to create the productions that we would have loved to have seen when we were at school and maybe didn’t know a huge amount about Shakespeare. I think they really are accessible versions of these plays.
That’s partly down to the music; there’s a huge amount of music in both productions, which I hope gives a real sense of the world of both the plays. So we’re very true to the original text, but absolutely keen to open the plays up to a new audience
You visited before with Propeller – did you try to bring that same energy to the stage?
Definitely. I worked with Propeller for nearly 10 years, so every fibre of my being is influenced by their amazing work on Shakespeare! And I think you’re absolutely right, the energy is the crucial thing: it’s about having an ensemble of actors who just go for it, and are bold and experimental and play with ideas. That is very much what I’ve inherited from the Propeller model, and I think anyone who came to see those shows will really enjoy these productions as well.
Having said that, there are a lot of differences here. We’re trying to do something very new and different, but it all feeds off of that Propeller tradition.
Talking of that ensemble, you’re working with a cast of actor-musicians. Was that a challenge?
It opened up a lot of possibilities for us. The idea of having actors who also play instruments was because, when I thought about those plays, I couldn’t not hear the music of their worlds. So the music felt really central. And I love seeing plays where the actors are playing instruments, it opens up a whole world of possibilities. And they’re an amazingly talented group of people who’ve come together to create these, so it’s just been an extra element for the audience to enjoy, I think.
Plus, it’s unlocked a huge number of things in both plays that I didn’t necessarily expect, so that’s been great fun to see.
You recruited a lot of those actors straight out of drama school. Were you aiming for a really youthful energy here?
Yeah, absolutely. The idea with Romeo & Juliet particularly was to cast a really young group of actors who are the chorus. And we play on the idea of ‘what youth is’ quite a lot, and what it is to be at that point in your life, where you take huge risks and you have a great time, but you also experience really extreme emotions – maybe more extreme than at any other time in your life.
And for me, that was the most important aspect of the play, so I was looking for young actors, particularly for the roles of Romeo and Juliet. The actors playing those parts in this production are both from the National Youth Theatre. They had a real kind of rawness about them, but also a kind of unbelievable skill with the text as well.
So I don’t think we lose anything from that, but at the heart of the production is this focus on youth and what that is.
Final question; do you have a favourite line from these two plays?
I think it’s a really obvious one, but I’ve never quite managed to shake off the idea of ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ as a brilliant starter for a play. As a way of kicking things off, that’s an idea, and it’s a challenge to the audience and it’s a challenge to the actors. And I think that you’ve got the best first line to a play ever written, so it’s got to be that one for me!
Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night are here until 10 June, and tickets are available now.