Director’s Note
 

Director’s Note

Joe Dowling

My introduction to the magic of William Shakespeare was at The Gaiety Theatre in 1957, where I saw Cyril Cusack play Hamlet. My nine-year-old imagination was fired and, ever since then, I have been a devotee of the work of the glove maker’s son from Stratford-upon- Avon, who also happens to be the greatest writer in the English language. Many years later, when working with Cyril here at the Abbey Theatre, I told him the impact his performance had on me. He was genuinely astonished as, he remarked with some residual bitterness, he had received some of the worst notices of his career for that performance! Notwithstanding the sniping of critics, what I remember most was the power of the language and my astonishment at how accessible it felt to my young eager ears. For days after seeing the play, I wouldn’t address anyone in my family without a “thou” or a “thee”. That soon wore thin and earned me well deserved fraternal thumps.

That production began my fascination with the power of the language, the structure of the poetry and the richness of the imagery that seemed so exciting and different to anything I had heard before. A subsequent visit to The Gate Theatre that same year to see Hilton Edward’s production of The Tempest confirmed that my infatuation had turned into a fully blown love affair. As time moved on, I read and studied the plays with enthusiasm and regretted that so few productions were mounted in Dublin theatres. On the few occasions the plays were produced at The Gate or the tiny Lantern Theatre, I could indulge my passion and test how my private reading compared with live performances. Invariably, with the arrogance of a tyro actor and director, I was dismissive of the efforts and knew with certainty that I could do much better! In time, I realised how difficult the Bard could be.

I was very fortunate that my drama teacher, the redoubtable Miss Ena Burke, the doyenne of Dublin elocutionists, was an expert in Shakespearean verse. She was a formidable teacher, who took no prisoners and expected us all to revere Shakespeare with the same passion as she did. Week after week in her large room in Kildare Street, our eager band of would-be actors were introduced to the great stories, the iconic characters and the depth of his understanding of the human condition. With Miss Burke’s intimate knowledge of the texts, we learned the beautiful effect of an iambic pentameter line, we learned how to deal with feminine endings, how to create a caesura pause and the power of antithesis – all to to illustrate Shakepeare’s remarkable poetic gifts and innovative dramatic structures. For me, there was no greater pleasure than to work diligently for months on a Shakespeare scene in preparation for the annual jamboree known as The Father Matthew Feis. For us drama nerds, it was our Croke Park, our Wimbledon and Lansdowne Road rolled into one. Each year, the competition for medals was fierce and determined. Among my proudest memories of that golden time were receiving The Shakespeare Cup for my rendition of a Hamlet soliloquy and achieving a victory with a duologue from Macbeth along with the wonderful Nuala Hayes as my scene partner.

Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in London made a major impact on how Shakespeare could be produced for a modern audience. Seeing that legendary RSC version of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy was a complete revelation. Brook set the play in a large dazzling white box with four cushions as the main scenic effects. Titania’s bower was a large red feather that descended from the sky and the actors doubled as acrobats. Every word of the play was crystal clear and the text was deeply mined for subtext and hidden sexual meanings. For the first time, I saw that Shakespeare’s work could be contemporary, fresh and interpreted in ways that broke with the Victorian realism that had become stale and conventional. Brook freed up a whole generation of directors and actors to look at these familiar works and find personal, political and social relevance in the texts. While I abhor the voguish habit of directorial deconstruction of these great texts, I greatly admire those who treat Shakespeare as a contemporary writer with as much to say to our society as he did to Elizabethan audiences. Ben Jonson described his rival as “not of an age but for all time”. Four hundred years after his death, his work is as popular as ever and the issues he explored so deeply love, hate, duplicity, lust, anger and conscience are as much a part of the universal human psyche as they were in England in 1616. Time moves on but human behaviour alters but little. More than any other writer for the stage, Shakespeare’s work reflects our common humanity and “holds, as t’were, the mirror up to nature”.

For twenty years from 1995, I was the artistic director of The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, founded in 1963 by the legendary Tyrone Guthrie whose modern-dress productions of Shakespeare preceded Brook by thirty years. He was a true pioneer and, in Minneapolis, he created the perfect stage for Shakespearean production. Surrounded by the audience on three sides, the staging demands a direct relationship with the audience and creates an intimacy where the language becomes more important than the scenic effects. So, on a regular basis, I was able to indulge my passion for Shakespeare by directing more than ten productions on that magnificent stage over the years. Back in the Gaiety all those years ago, I could never have imagined how much joy this playwright would offer to my professional life. Now, back at the Abbey Theatre, my original artistic home, I am honoured to be part of Fiach Mac Conghail’s final year as Director and particularly pleased to direct this production of Othello, the first time our national theatre has presented this play – one of Shakespeare’s most popular works.

Joe Dowling.

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