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Stratford goes back in time with ‘Original Practices’ Romeo and Juliet

British director Tim Carroll.

Erin Samuell

British director Tim Carroll is known for his "Original Practices" productions at the reconstructed outdoor Globe Theatre in London – that is, Shakespeare productions that attempt to present his plays as close as possible to how they would have been originally presented. Carroll's recent Twelfth Night in that style – starring Tony winner Mark Rylance as Olivia – was nominated for four Olivier Awards.

Now, Carroll has brought Original Practices to Ontario's Stratford Festival, where he is directing the opening show of the season, Romeo and Juliet, as if it were an afternoon performance at an outdoor Elizabethan playhouse.

Will this bring Stratford's audiences closer to Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers as they were originally intended? Or does the approach – considered sexist, racist and reactionary by some critics – risk turning Romeo and Juliet into no more than moving mannequins in a museum exhibit? The Globe and Mail sat down with Carroll to challenge him on a controversial approach.

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Directing Shakespeare as it was done in Elizabethan times, to me, makes about as much sense as going to a barber to get your dentistry done today. Why turn to the techniques of the past?

It's not necessarily a question of trying to find ancient techniques, so much as trying to invite the audience into an imaginative leap so that we place the play in the world when it was written and for which it was written – and see how much of it comes alive by that method.

Your production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford will not be fully Original Practices, right?

Original Practices when we do it at the Globe means as far as possible not doing anything we know Shakespeare wouldn't have done. It's a very exciting and playful and imagination-feeding game. One of the restrictions it gives us at the Globe is to cast no women – that's one that we haven't employed here.

So what have you employed?

What we have employed is not just trying to use old-ey England-ey costuming, but real Elizabethan clothes to the extent we can make them – and real Elizabethan etiquette of bowing and wearing swords.

There were no directors in Shakespeare's time. Isn't therefore directing a show in Original Practices fundamentally a contemporary approach?

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It certainly is. In real Original Practices, we should get rid of me altogether, but of course the point about any imaginative reconstruction is that we don't start from the same place they did. We have to train in order to get back to something they did. Even to say "get back" suggests a backward step – I don't think it's a backward step.

You're staging your Romeo and Juliet as if it were at an outdoor Elizabethan playhouse. Can you explain how the outdoor lighting will work indoors?

The real discovery for me working at the Globe was shared light – having the audience visible to the actors and sharing the light with them makes a huge difference to the energy. It means that the audience are in no doubt that they are, as the French would say, "assisting" at the performance, not just observing it.

Have you looked at farmers' almanacs from the time to find out what the weather would have been like?

No, but Kevin Fraser, the lighting designer, has duplicated or recreated in his lighting the changes of light that you naturally get over the course of an afternoon. He has a mixture of lighting changes that reflect the passage of time – and other random lighting changes which aren't planned to go at any point, but could happen at any time.

So the lighting will be slightly different with every performance?

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Yes, as it is at the Globe, where you have gloomy days and sunny days.

Why not present the play as it was at Blackfriars, an indoor theatre of Shakespeare's time, or at its court performances?

I also like the Blackfriars model. When we moved Twelfth Night and Richard III from the Globe to the Apollo [in the West End], we decided we would make it an indoor banqueting hall conceit – as though it was being done by candlelight. I went for this way of doing Romeo and Juliet, because, as an early play, it's very clearly an outdoor play.

There's a school of thought that Shakespeare's company – the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men – didn't actually like performing in the open-air, suburban playhouses. They had to because of the plague and Puritans chasing them out of the city. Is it just romanticism to prioritize open-air performances conditions?

The more romantic thing would be to have lots of candlelight and Queen Elizabeth sitting in state in Hampton Court watching a very elegant and dimly lit evening performance. For me, the excitement about the afternoon open-air playhouse, the attraction of it, is the fact that it is radically different from what we're used to and therefore like any good art it is defamiliarizing.

You don't just do Original Practices. With the Factory Theatre in London, you staged a Hamlet that was presented in a number of impromptu secret locations. To me, the main quality of Shakespeare's writing is that it was very adaptable to different spaces and different eras. Isn't what you did with Factory truer to his spirit?

I don't think there is anything that is really able to claim it is truer to the spirit. I know what you mean – there's a playfulness and a roughness about my work with the Factory, which I think is somehow essential in Shakespeare, and I hope this kind of work has it as well.

As with your Factory work, you've done very little blocking for Romeo and Juliet at Stratford.

Shakespeare's company would have had very little time to do what we call blocking, telling people where to move. They would have had to be more like sportsmen – who just have an instinctive sense: "If you go there, I'll go here." I've given the company in Romeo and Juliet the freedom to go where they like on stage … and do what they like and keep alive and responsive.

We've seen directors fail at Stratford's Festival Theatre their first time out because of the tricky sight lines on the thrust stage. Is that not a danger without blocking?

Well, if you're talking about experience, the company – actors like Sara Topham, Jonathan Goad and Scott Wentworth – have a lot more experience of that stage than I do. In that sense, I'm plugging in to their experience.

I saw your Richard III last summer at the Globe with the all-male cast. Do you feel the aesthetic value of casting men in characters like Lady Anne outweighs the inherent sexism of casting that way?

Well, sexism – I don't know. I wouldn't even acknowledge sexism in it.

But is that not sexism – to cast only one sex?

If that's how you define it, then yes. I don't think it's sexist in terms of its motivation – that's the crucial thing. You get a reward from embracing the fact that some people will be cross with you for not casting women – that is, the extraordinarily heightened artificiality.

In Shakespeare's time, I imagine there were no actors of colour in London. Would you apply the same logic to having all-white casts?

I certainly wouldn't consider going with an all-white cast, because, although it is unlikely there would have been any obviously black-skinned actors, the fundamental thrust of the company then is that it did represent all the elements of English society. We are in fact, following the original practice of saying it will be an all-male company, but the men can be all drawn from anyone living in this country now. The difference between races is mostly an invented one, which disappears with culture, whereas the difference between men and women never does disappear and never will.

Doesn't that philosophy go against the spirit of Shakespeare's comedies, where he plays with how gender is a performance?

Exactly. And that's why having someone who is already pretending to be another gender, particularly in Twelfth Night, creates that level of confusion and artifice before you even start.

If you were doing an Original Practices production of Othello though, you wouldn't have a white person playing Othello?

I might. And I might have a black person playing Iago in white makeup. I'd probably be run out of town, but I don't care – if you know your own motives for doing something, then you can live with yourself.

If Shakespeare was writing for the audience of his time, why should we not put on his plays for the audience of our time?

Yeah, why not? As well.

As well.

I would agree entirely, that's why nowadays I don't tend to put Shakespeare's plays in any other period than when they're written – and now. I either want to go all the way back to then – because that's what all the words refer to – or now, because, as you say, that's who we are.

I've compared Original Practices to originalists on the American Supreme Court or religious fundamentalists who want to go back to the original meaning of a text – the problem being that it's impossible to entirely put your mind in that of people who lived a long time ago. Do you feel like what you're doing is ultimately impossible?

Yes, I do. I think the right way to frame the task – and that's why I resist the use of the words "going back" – is to think in the same way as the Renaissance thought about classical architecture and art. In many ways, they tried to recreate what the Romans had done. But they did it in order to move foward. The Early Music crowd can never really know if their performances sound like Monteverdi. What they have done by really exploring that world is they have created a wonderful new style. I'm always very encouraged by the Early Music story, because, when they started in the 1960s and 1970s, for at least 20 years, they were considered a bunch of fruitcakes.

You told me earlier that you avoided award shows like the Oliviers. Are you uncomfortable with the culture we live in – do you prefer immersing yourself in the past?

I don't think I would like to have lived in Shakespeare's England. I'd probably drop dead of dysentery or cholera or something. I'm not at all nostalgic and I never had any time for those people at the Globe who would come in order to see "good ol' England" before all the lefties ruined it. Shakespeare's describing in all of his plays an extremely corrupt and venal and violent society, so in what world is that a golden age?

So you don't like awards shows, but you do vaccinate your children.

I do have two children and I do vaccinate them.

Romeo and Juliet opens the 2013 Stratford Festival season – which runs until October – on Monday.

Did Shakespeare sound like a hoser?

At the end of opening week, director Tim Carroll will help answer that question as he presents scenes from Romeo and Juliet in "original pronunciation," as part of The Forum, the Stratford Festival's new series of talks, panels and presentations.

While the actors in Carroll's production on the Festival Theatre stage speak their lines in contemporary Canadian-accented English, selected performers have also been working with dialect coach Nancy Benjamin to learn the lines as they would have been pronounced – or so it is argued – at the play's premiere back in the 1590s.

In recent years, scholars have endeavoured to establish exactly how Shakespeare sounded in Shakespeare's time – perhaps the furthest you can go down the "Original Practices" wormhole. The British Library even released a selection of the playwright's sonnets and speeches spoken time-trippingly on the tongue last year.

But according to Benjamin, in certain ways, Elizabethan English would have been familiar to us today – particularly, when it came to the "ou" sound. "Shakespeare's 'about' would sound closer to the Canadian 'about,'" she says.

Original pronunciation: A fascinating experiment – or much ado "aboot" nothing? You can hear for yourself at Studio Theatre on June 1 at 10am.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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