This is probably getting too inside-baseball about a theatre festival that most readers aren’t going to attend, but bear with me (and perhaps if you read enough of my stuff, you’ll feel like you did attend). Kelly Nestruck has a piece in Toronto’s Globe and Mail about the transition between the McAnuff and Cimolino administrations that’s worth reading, but I wanted to focus on one paragraph that frames the debate between a supposedly inventive re-interpreter of Shakespeare (McAnuff) and a supposed traditionalist (Cimolino):

[T]he debate over McAnuff’s merits as a classical director is a flashpoint in a larger artistic argument that has been raging in the Anglosphere since the actor-manager model of putting on plays disappeared after the Second World War: Who is more important to the vision of a production – the director or the playwright? Should theatre’s primary allegiance lie with authors or, as in the film world, auteurs?

I want to resist this framing. The master is neither the word nor the image, neither the intentions of the playwright nor the innovations of the director. The master is the story, understood as the revelation of character through action, and everything else – both words and images – must serve that.

The wonderful thing about live theatre is that no production is definitive – as soon as tomorrow, an different approach to a text can give us an entirely new story. And the wonderful thing about the classics is that they are not going anywhere – Shakespeare and Chekhov and Brecht and Ibsen and O’Neill and so forth are strong enough to survive any ill-conceived interpretation. Not in an individual production, necessarily, but to fight another day in the next production. So the “cost” of experiment is borne primarily by the theatrical company itself. And for that reason, I think the right response to the question, “how should Shakespeare (or other classics) be directed?” is Nestruck’s: “lots of different ways.”

The real question is how an individual director should approach a text – how, given where their native strengths lie, they can best tell a story with the play. I’m not always convinced that even the directors themselves always realize where those strengths lie, and I’ll give a couple of examples with respect to the directors that Nestruck is writing about, the outgoing and incoming Artistic Directors at Stratford.

McAnuff is often noted as a director who uses his actors as props, part of a visual scene that he’s constructing. But on the strength of half a dozen Shakespeare productions I’ve seen him direct, I’m not convinced that this is where his strength actually lies. My two favorite classical productions of his tenure, his 2010 As You Like It and his 2011 Twelfth Night, were visually stuffed with a myriad clashing conceits. But that didn’t bother me. First of all, these are comedies, and you can effectively approach a comedy as a grab-bag of comic moments and find visual counterparts to them. I didn’t mind the flying refrigerator in Twelfth Night, and I thought the costumes made perfect sense because the world McAnuff set the play in was, basically, the world of rock, and the costumes looked like nothing so much as the sorts of things the Beatles might have played with wearing in their last couple of years as a band. And, indeed, while many critics noticed McAnuff’s visual tricks, what struck me as much more important was auditory, specifically: the use of music. McAnuff turned Twelfth Night into a rock musical, and, moreover, made music a central metaphor for the zaniness of love that is the play’s center, which is right out of the first speech of the play:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Most important, though, the production made emotional sense. The key decision McAnuff made wasn’t to have a flying refrigerator, but to have Feste be another man (along with Malvolio and Duke Orsino) in love with Olivia. This interpretation significantly shapes the play, recenters it on Olivia (where frequently it focuses on Viola), lends weight to Feste’s songs and illuminates the visual concept as well (since Feste is the spirit of music in this production).

In other words, McAnuff knew what story he wanted to tell, and while not every detail was part of telling that story (I could have done without the tennis court and the golf game), the most important of them were – and that story was strong, specific and compelling.

By contrast, this year’s Henry V is much more visually coherent. And there are some striking moments of pageantry (particularly the march of sails across the channel). But I found myself unmoved by it, because it wasn’t, primarily, telling a human story. I could see what McAnuff was trying to say about the play – that this is a patriotic pageant on the surface, but that under the surface there are compromising details – but first, that’s not a very interesting or original thing to say, and second, it’s not a story. Nestruck talks about quietly effective moments, and there were some – I thought Aaron Krohn made an interesting and persuasive Henry. But I didn’t think the production framed and supported those moments; I thought, too often, that it crushed them, because it wasn’t, fundamentally, telling a story through them.

I had a long conversation with another director about the play, trying to get a handle on my frustration with this production, and he said something very interesting to me. You have to take the chorus literally. What the chorus says is: there is no way we can possibly show you the battle of Agincourt. It’s impossible. So what are we going to do? We’re going to have to ask you to use your own imaginations. When we talk of horses, you, the audience, have to think you see them. That’s really the opposite of McAnuff’s approach to this play, which I think explains a portion of how it went wrong for me.

Now, that approach sounds like it means “just do the text – paint a picture with words.” And yes, painting with words is a lot of what goes on in Henry V (which makes it all the more unfortunate that McAnuff underscores his play so heavily – sometimes you can’t hear the poetry, and always the emotions are flattened by the overt signaling of the underscoring). But it can’t mean just that – it’s not a radio play. So the challenge for a director is to awake that imagination – not to show the audience Agincourt, but to make the audience think it sees it. And that will require visual cues – things actors do, potentially with props, that trigger visual hallucinations on the part of the audience.

Now: Cimolino. Given that present as someone who cares first and foremost about the text, I find it striking that one of my favorite productions that he directed was last year’s Grapes of Wrath, and substantially because of the visual style of that production. (By contrast, the use of music for transitions was at best innocuous and at worst distracting.) The visual style was spare – the backdrop consisted of a wash of sunset color – but that starkness was precisely what made it so effective. The few elements – the jalopy that brings the family from Oklahoma to California, the river they swim in on the way, the downpour in which Rose of Shannon is delivered of her stillborn baby – were all the more electrifying because they stood out against that blank backdrop. It was a phenomenal production, and it was the work of a director who was thinking not, “how can I let the text speak for itself” but “how can I tell this story most effectively.” In this case, that required a certain kind of visual drama.

By contrast, while I liked much about it, I have found myself less enthused by this year’s Cymbeline than many critics have been, substantially because, at the end of the play, I still didn’t know what story Cimolino was trying to tell, what, held this hodge-podge of a play together. That’s not because Cimolino didn’t try to pull it together – he did. Cimolino did not simply let the text speak for itself, because that’s impossible, as impossible as talking about a book reading itself. He did have an interpretation of the play, and that interpretation is expressed most directly in the framing, entirely Cimolino’s addition, of King Cymbeline’s dream. The play begins with Cymbeline in bed, surrounded by the other characters, and he speaks the first line of the play – “You do not meet a man but frowns” – which, in Shakespeare, belongs to a random gentleman (the line is repeated a moment later in its original context), and then cries for his daughter – “Innogen!” – and is whisked off. And then, at the end of the play, after declaring his universal peace, Cymbeline finds himself again center stage, surrounded by the other characters of the drama, all staring at him as he stares around, bewildered.

So, clearly, Cimolino wanted to say that this play “belongs” to the title character, and to recenter the play on him. And that’s an interpretive act – and one accomplished primarily visually (though not expensively). But, unlike with McAnuff’s Twelfth Night, this recentering on Cymbeline was not accomplished by the establishment of a novel emotional relationship between characters. And for that reason, to my mind, it wasn’t really accomplished at all, and no amount of powerful acting by Geraint Wyn Davies – and he delivered plenty of that – could, by itself, bring the story home for me.

Cimolino, in other words, used a visual to tie together his production and for me – though not for most critics – that didn’t exactly work. But not because it was a visual choice, but because I didn’t know, from the play, what the emotional underpinning of that moment was. If I were advising Cimolino, I’d say he didn’t do enough to establish that meaning, that he needed a more substantial departure, perhaps an entire dumbshow, to fully bring the his interpretation of the text home.

Earlier on, I said the goal of a director should be “telling a story with the play.” I mean that “with” in at least three senses. First, “with” the play rather than “about” the play – a production is not a thesis; it’s an experience, and we shouldn’t be alienated from the material. Second, “with” the play rather than “against” the play – productions that ignore the text, and simply tell the story they want to tell, are usually disasters. But third, “with” the play rather than “of” the play. Because every production is an act of interpretation, and every act of interpretation is also an act of creation. Each production is a unique play, and each must have its own story. The text of the play is material to be used to tell that story. Hopefully, you’ll use that material well rather than poorly, but you have to use it to tell your own version of the story, because that is the only version you can possibly tell.

So the implicit identification of “visual” with “directorial” and “verbal” with “textual” productions is, I think, misconceived. “Visual” doesn’t mean “with big production values” – actors can paint incredible pictures with nothing but their bodies. And a production can consist of nothing more than actors speaking text and still be disastrously out of harmony with that text – far and away the worst production of a Shakespeare play I ever saw was one of these, a Richard Maxwell-directed production of Henry IV part 1. Even with a company of actors who are trained as well as Stratford’s are in speaking the verse, it takes a directorial vision to tell a story with that company.

Cimolino has demonstrated many times that he has that vision. I expect to see that vision on display in next year’s Merchant of Venice and (especially) his Mary Stuart. He shouldn’t sell his own role short by calling for a crabbed traditionalism that, in truth, has never characterized his own productions in past, and that I don’t expect to characterize them in the future.