Shakespeare's Access to Infinity
Today's moral climate seems like the budding flower of a Shakespearian idea. The crossroads of morality intertwined with a culture, planet, hyper aware of itself and seeking redemption, seeking resolution, is the extrapolation of every great Shakespeare character in our consciousness. This weekend, Shakespeare on the Rocks will once again bring forth the questions, the variations on a theme. At the Chamizal, the once flat earthed audience will have stadium seating for performances of Faustus, Richard III and Hamlet, and lighting fit for the illuminations hidden in language.
Oisin McGillion Hughes plays Richard III, a task the following interview will reveal as both a challenge of intellect and a penetrating look into oneself. Oisin is my brother-in-law, and thusly granted me a few hours to discuss the Darwinian evolution of Shakespeare from the 1600's up until this very moment. Over the course of the discussion, Shakespeare's ideas of morality, ambition, self doubt become as ubiquitous as the conjunctions in our language, and show the human condition as a continuous thread, costumed by time and space, hidden behind language.
Do you think any of the actors that played Richard prior to you walked in thinking, I can change this, I can do something really special? Or do you think once you get into that character it overtakes you? Do the actors matter? The characters? They are all going to die.
O. It is always about how the actor can interpret it. The words don't have to change. Ian Mckellen's production was very different from others, but the essence of the character is there because the essence is in themselves. The rumor was Richard was born with teeth. That is how I want to inhabit the character, bristly, like a boar, like a dog.
Can you escape the earlier interpretations?
O. Richard is often percieved as a one-dimensional villain, but Shakespeare makes him a human being.
When you meet him, Richard expresses a deep bitterness and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Richard did a lot of the dirty work that cleared the way for his big brother to become king. Now the cushy jobs are going to the queen's family and everyone is dancing and falling in love. Except for him. He's ugly, deformed, an outsider during peacetime. So he goes to war again.
War is the opposite of love. Is that why he is continually at war?
O: Yes. And he was good at it. He got rewards from it, it gave him some value.
Is he a manifestation of post traumatic stress? That ugliness is there.
O: Richard is living in a country suffering from PTSD. This is a time when Civil Wars were a regular occurance. So while the other characters seem to have settled back into civilian life, Richard knows the war isn't over. Life is war.
Is there any character that he does not check off?
O: There are people he underestimates. He has a “take a good look at the bad guy” attitude about him, like Tony Montana in Scarface. And like Scarface, he has this self hatred. You don't sleep with your face in a pile of cocaine if you love yourself. No one likes Richard. And he thinks, he knows, that no one will ever love him.
How is what you thought of the story changed since you started the role? What are the nuances and subtleties that you have noticed that you would like the audience to notice?
O: The good guy in Richard III appears in two scenes and is totally two dimensional. A hero so 100 percent good that everyone loves him. He is based on Elizabeth's grandfather so politically, for Shakespeare, he had to be so. He is not in the story, he just shows up and gives a rousing speech, kills Richard and restores the peace. But the bad guy, Richard, he has all the screen time, you know. Why is he so fascinating, intelligent and has so much to say about human nature if he is just “the bad guy?”
So lets talk about moral ambiguity. There are tons of plays but Shakespeare's resonate because of something other than having a platitude, a lesson. Perhaps the resonate because of the moral ambiguity? Shakespeare does not seem to have that. Does he resonate because life is morally ambiguous.
o. He does not give an easy answer. The bad guys die, but they die screaming, trying to tell you something. If it is as clear cut as good and evil, why would he have so many villainous characters that say intelligent things, that don't go calmly into the good night, that rail against their fate. Shakespeare does not have a story about a good guy who saves the world. Because that doesn't tell us anything about human nature. We can't learn from perfection.
Like his romances. Romeo and Juliet. The end of love is death, when you find your soul mate, you die.
O. The only natural conclusion of love, or anything really, is death.
Even The histories are cannibalistic right? Kings devouring kings.
O. All it takes to win friends and influence people is a fake smile, a fake tear. That was history, the cannibalism.
You look at modern politicians, that is what they do. They hug babies but there is always a darkness there. Who ever succeeded Richard III had to have inherited that, right? In the same way politicians inherit that darkness. Nixon did not have a real smile, he could not hide it. Kennedy had Camelot, the smile. Thats why Nixon, who sweated on television, is considered to be the worst president. But Nixon was easy, “you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore” they all hated him, no one liked him. He was a tackling dummy. Before he married his wife, he was her chauffeur on her dates. He failed at everything, he was not funny, he was not charming. His mother blamed him for his brothers death. He had to resign. The only real choice he made was to resign, and that seemed like the only choice he ever had.
O. There is a similarity to Richard. The bitterness, the ugliness, the outsider. His brother Edward is the handsome one, probably got him dates, wrote the love letters. That's Kennedy. And the inferiority and loathing that Nixon probably held for Kennedy is the same that Richard feels for Edward.
Was the self destructive path there at the beginning of Richards life do you think?
O. He declares at the beginning that he's gonna murder his way to the top. Typically, Shakespeare gets the plot moving right away. By the end of the first monologue, his brother is cuffed and being led away. Based entirely on a rumor Richard spread. He tells Clarence, “I'll talk to the king”, then once Clarence leaves, it's “go tread the path that though shalt never return, sweet plain Clarence, I do love the so that I shall send your soul to heaven.” So first scene, his brother is already dead in Richards mind. This leads to the King dying of anguish. Richard tries to put on the face, like Nixon trying to be Kennedy.
Hunter Thompson said Nixon had a smile that never matched his face. Is there any indication of where this came from for Richard? Nixon was born into it. It was providence, god hated Nixon.
O. Yeah, from his childhood, Richard was considered untouchable, because he was born deformed. Deformity was evil in those days. Richard was allowed to live because he was born into royalty, so he could be a Duke. His only job was to stab others in the back when his brother says so. But Richard cannot be King. He was the kid that was told “you're bad”. He was born into it, and did not live in the world where he chooses to do the right thing or wrong thing. His choice is do I continue to live like this, or do I go for the throne? Shakespeare was showing, ahead of his time, a nihilistic world view, where Richard realizes 'I've killed people and nothing has happened to me. I have killed people and there was no punishment from god. I was dealt a bad hand at birth? I can never be happy why should anyone else be?' He is a nihilistic character and as far as he can see, good and evil don't matter. There are no rewards or punishments.
Does he acknowledge that good and evil matter to other people?
O. He knows that for the other, morality and religion are just a show. If they were really moral people, they wouldn't be where they are. There is blood on everyone's hands.
Good and evil are make believe? The stop signs, the red lights?
O. That is the conclusion and how could Shakespeare not think that, living in a place where Kings and Queens came and went. One queen says everyone is Catholic, then another comes and says everyone must be Protestant. How can you genuinely believe in anything when someone is dictating your beliefs? On a side note, Marlowe, a good friend and mentor of Shakespeare, was actually a government agent, some kind of spy. Conspiracy theories abound regarding his death. Many think it was political. Shakespeare was purposely non-political, but look at the language, the soliloquies. Shakespeare gets away with it because it was his “characters” speaking and not him. He knew where his bread was buttered. His troupe was called “King's Men” after all.
Then Shakespeare kills them off. So the audience says ' he was saying some crazy stuff' then bam, he is dead.
O. But you never feel the world is redeemed when they die.
So outwardly Richard had to be the loser, the bad guy. The cult of the loser
O. Yes but he does not want to be a loser, the world wants him to be a loser. There is something heroic about him fighting that. What else is there? He just wants to touch the throne. The thing is, he is no different than any of the other Kings. There are no good people in Richard III. It is a morally blank universe, the choice is not to be good or bad, but the same kind of morality that a drug dealer who chose between poverty and being a kingpin. The butcher or the cattle, not good and evil.
Is there anything in Richard you see in yourself?
O. There are elements of Richard in everyone, right away, everyone has had a moment where they felt left out. Shakespeare was an outsider, trapped in a just post-medieval time period. Here is a guy with this genius brain stuck in this primitive, flat world, we live in spheres... Shakespeare must have felt very frustrated.
Two hundred years ago the whole world was wrong. But he wasn't. His grasp of human nature is spot on, hidden behind the language, you have to parse through it. Today, you have to hide the human condition behind colloquialisms.
O. Yeah, the colloquialism is used to mask yourself. You are hiding the same ideas. That is why he is so popular. Richard is so three dimensional, he is so alive. Richard was bigger than his play. The characters around him just serve the plot. Hamlet is more developed, always fighting his plot. He does not want to be in a revenge play. He is struggling against this medieval plot, his father, in armor, warlike.
But Hamlet assumes the role eventually
O. Yeah, and he hates it. The audience is like “yeah.....Richard was a bad guy, and the good guy won but why do I relate to the bad guy?”
Charles Manson had that. According to the press he was a murderer, evil. Then he did a television interview and he is telling people “I am America's child, I was raised in prison, in the street, no parents” and he had this lucidity, clarity of thought. America turns off their television go back to the narrative, he is a murderer, he is an anomaly. Richard III audience members will leave Richard III but something will not seem right, and it will not seem right until they see the play again. It is a haunting.
O. Yeah, but Manson, like Richard, cannot be the a reflection of the society, the audience did not want to see that. The 60's did not want Manson to be reflective of them, so they caricatured him and on some level he gave them what they wanted, played up to T.V.
And less than a decade later we have an actor as president.
O. Reagan, yeah, who can “frame his face for all occasions.” People wanted the illusion, they forgot he was an actor.
They want to forget he is an actor.
O. A Hollywood actor, a reboot, puts on cowboy boots and acts like he grew up on a ranch. Hold on, I am gonna pet my cat, Elias Cateas.
What are your thoughts on other Richard performances?
O. Ian McKellan wrote and directed a version that I loved. Richard is a character that we love to hate, like Darth Vader, like The Governor, and McKellen got that.
Or in America, oneself. We are the people we love to hate. It almost seems like we don't have the ideal of being a better person. When you are a child, you leave the theater and you think, “I am a ninja turtle.” You leave a movie as an adult and it is more internalized, you don't say “I am Jesse James, I am Walter White,” but we cheer for them. We hate winners.
O. We love movies about gangsters, but at the last second we have to pretend we are moral, the bad guy has to get his comeuppance.
And we are armchair quarterbacks on the American stage, constantly going beyond our means. We all think, I would stop somewhere, Scarface went too far. But we have seen time and again that once you get the inertia you cannot stop.
O. The Greek idea of hubris, the gods will shut you down. You can see it in a non religious way, after a certain point you cannot fight nature. There is a certain point where you will die. In reality Richard was king for a few years, in the play it feels like a few months.
In the earlier times in America it was Horatio Alger, pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Then, we have moved into a more Scarface, Ayn Rand ideology.
O. That is why I think Shakespeare is more relevant today, right now than ever. We are in a similar point in our cycle that he was in his cycle. We are no longer surprised by anything. And I think it is important to note that Shakespeare was not a theater major, but people say, he had to be an aristocrat. Aristocrats go on fox hunts, they rent stuff. Einstein was not an aristocrat. He was the guy everyone assumed was going nowhere. Like Shakespeare, his plays are not about morality in the 1600's, he looks at people, the universe and gets to something deeper.
Yeah, he just drove the bus. Spielberg makes history lessons.
O. Mamet called Spielberg emotional pornography, because he packs on the violins. Shakespeare plays fast and loose with the facts, because he is not interested in the specifics, he is trying to find something recognizable in the monster. He takes historical figures and that is why when they do a production and are meticulous with the costumes, I have to ask, are you trying to do costumes to represent Shakespeare's times? Do you think Shakespeare cared about that? He cares about what is common to all of us, that is why you have to change it, to take away the buffers so the audience can get a good read.
Look at the first lines of Richard, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” There are two layers there. Edward has ended the war, but Richard is mocking this idea. The son of York, the sun. But for me (Richard) this is my winter, because everyone is dancing, but I can't because he came into this world “half made-up” so he cannot dance, he was a premature baby. That was uncommon back then for a warrior, my interpretation is different, I am aiming towards a pit fighter, a brute, a dog, I bear my teeth. I gained weight for this role, I lifted heavy weights, ate and lived like a spartan, to change my body, to change my mind.
O. Yes, it has to be once in a lifetime on the stage. If you think about it before, it is dead. If you are on stage, it is primal, you cannot say it the way you have always said it because it is then dead. The actor can't try to reproduce something else either because that is done, dead. That is why my goal is to make the play alive every time.
In real life, the thinking guy can get ahead, but in the primal world, the guy that thinks dies. That seems to be the balance.
O. Someone like Richard knows the rules are made up, but he attempts to circumvent the rules in a Machiavellian way. But the interpretation of Machiavelli in Shakespeare's time was different, it was for the common good and Richard is not doing it for the common good. He is doing it for himself. The rules, he sees the artificial constructs and knows if he can fake it, like if Nixon had tried to be like Kennedy, worked on his posture, got a nicer suit, it would work, but the real Nixon always comes out.
What about the Shakespeare plays that you have seen. You are a Shakespeare nerd, is there anything you feel missing?
O. The worst examples are when actors think the language is the obstacle, or when they are more concerned with the plot. Shakespeare did not care about plot, he stitched them together from other plots. The story was in the characters. You see “Taxi Driver”, “Drive”, it is a B Movie plot, but they are made like art movies. They are subversive but in a clever way. You watch Richard and say “look at how bad he is, he got what was coming to him”, but you don't have the catharsis of thinking evil is gone. I would almost prefer a breakdown of the plot in the program, so they don't have to worry so much about the plot points.
Shakespearian in pop culter refers to plot points.
O. Yeah, and that is ridiculous, Shakespeare had plots simply as scaffolding, there are only seven types of plots. Skyscrapers have identical scaffolding, though they don't look anything alike. Plot wise it is a guy taking out people in his way to become king. The interesting part is the emptiness of the victory, the reflective moments when he is by himself and how it does not change anything. You can struggle and fight and become king but life is empty.
Could the language be an obstacle in another way, could it be that Shakespeare resonates because people cannot get a definitive answer. Is the actors job to help the audience understand the words. That all these people don't matter, they are people costuming ideas, a world view disguised as a plot.
O. Yes. He was a philosopher who was able to make an interesting story. Why does Hamlet soliloquize so much unless Shakespeare's goal is to say something else. Shakespeare is sending it through time, that feeling of angst and anxiety. He is an intelligent guy looking for meaning and understanding and the best thing he can do is write it down and shoot it forward to us and ask “did you find the answer yet?” but we are at the same point, and we seek the same answers, in a less eloquent way. And Shakespeare was not political, he was a human concerned with the human condition. That is why it lasts. His characters are looking for answers and they never find them.
Do you think the audience hears the questions?
O They have to on some level, just by not making him a two dimensional villain, the questions can be more clearly heard. I think it would be nice if they see that other dimension. Here is a character that everyone hates, his mother hates him, the audience hates him. I think it is great. Shakespeare creates a character that everyone hates but for that time on the stage, he owns it. Richard says 'I may die at the end of this play, but for these two hours I own this stage, I do what I want. See that guy over there? I am gonna kill him, I can do that and there is nothing you can do' and it is like life, I know I am gonna die, but while I am here watch out. History may look down on him, and those who know the play can look down on him, but Richard lives way longer than he did in real life.
And he is reborn.
O Yeah. “I am just dying for now. I will be back.” He will live forever, that part of ourselves will live forever, that will continue to be reborn.
Opens Saturday, October 25th @ 7pm with a matinee performance Sunday, October 26th @ 2pm. Directed by Hector Serrano. For more information, visit Shakespeareontherocks.com