Picturing the Bard’s word

A British troupe brings Shakespeare’s ‘3D thinking’ to life in theaters around the world, including to audiences that understand little English.

TNT music theater (photo credit: PAUL STEBBINGS)
TNT music theater
(photo credit: PAUL STEBBINGS)
Countless scholars and thespians through the ages have lauded William Shakespeare’s feel for language, and his unerring ability to reel off craftily crafted phrases.
So it comes as some surprise to hear Paul Stebbings state that the Bard did not necessarily set so much store by the written word.
Stebbings is the Germany-based British director who founded the TNT music theater in 1980. Over the past three-plus decades, he and his company have been touring the globe, bringing Shakespeare’s gems to all kinds of audiences, some of whom only enjoy a sketchy command of the playwright’s mother tongue. Israelis have also flocked to TNT’s multidisciplinary productions of Shakespearean works over the years.
The British company will return to these shores next week, from January 4 to 10, to put on seven performances of Hamlet around the country – in Zichron Ya’acov, Modi’in, Jerusalem, Ra’anana, Rehovot, Baka al-Gharbiya and Tel Aviv.
“This will be TNT’s seventh year here,” notes Judy Kleinman, who runs the Israeli arm of the American Drama Group. ADG was established in Munich by Ohio native Grantly Marshall in 1978, with the express purpose of disseminating high-quality theatrical drama around the globe; it has been bringing professional English-language theater to Israel since 2007.
“Each year it keeps on improving [in terms of attendance of TNT shows here],” Kleinman continues.
“We saw Romeo and Juliet about five years ago in Haifa [performed by TNT], and there were only about 40 people in the audience,” she recalls. “But they kept on coming back. Three years ago I brought them to Zichron [Ya’acov] with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we ended up completely selling out an evening performance and having to put on a matinee because there was so much demand.”
And success bred success.
“Two years ago, we brought over Much Ado about Nothing, and we sold 300 seats for each performance, and last year we totally sold out for performances of Romeo and Juliet,” Kleinman notes. “It shows that Grantly had confidence in this market, and he was right.”
Is it a challenge to try and perform the works of the most English of writers to people who may not be able to grasp all the textual nuances? “We have been doing this since 1981, worldwide,” says Stebbings. “Just yesterday I received invitations from Nicaragua and Panama, and I can assure you that Israel is a lot easier.”
Of course, offering the audience captivating aesthetics to go with the script can help convey the storyline.
“Our style has always been very visual,” explains the director. TNT employs life-size puppets as well as highly theatrical ghosts and a healthy dose of comedy in its work. And music, both instrumental and vocal, does its part to keep the audience engaged as well.
Stebbings notes that catering to people for whom English is, at best, a second language can help keep him and the other company members on their toes.
“I think the discipline of performing for second-language audiences simply creates a sharper form of theater,” he explains. “None of our productions are purely designed for second-language audiences. Hamlet, for example, has toured Britain, and we don’t change the shows when we take them to Israel or anywhere else. I think it just makes for a clearer style.”
As far as he is concerned, the Bard’s genius transcends all cultural borders and language barriers.
“I think theater is a language, and Shakespeare is the best playwright ever,” he declares unequivocally, adding with typical British understatement that “the combination is fairly positive.”
He believes the raw material lends itself to a definitively cross-disciplinary approach.
“A theater text is a bit like a musical score. It’s not a novel, and lots of people make the mistake of thinking it is,” he says. “Shakespeare is brilliant at writing things that happen. Just look at the start of Hamlet: ‘Who’s there?’ [says a sentry named Barnardo]. The words are wonderful, but the words are always dynamic, and they are always dialogue. Even when it’s a soliloquy, it’s a dialogue with the audience, so it’s not very difficult [to impart to second-language audiences].”
It seems Shakespeare himself was mindful of the possibility that not everyone in the theater would be able fathom every word of his plays.
“Shakespeare’s own audience was very, very similar to the second-language audience of today in lots of ways,” Stebbings says. “They were not necessarily all literate, and certainly wanted things to happen and to happen fast. So it’s not very difficult to return to the essence of Shakespeare and find that it works.”
He says Shakespeare was also blessed with an eye and an ear for precision, and for crystallizing his scripts. “The narratives are obviously wonderful, which is why they work so well in translation. I always think that if you cut out five minutes from a show and put it on, it should, in itself, be interesting.”
There is, it seems, ne’er a dull moment in the Bard’s oeuvre. “You’re never looking for the pace to drop; you’re never looking to tread water for 10 minutes in the hope that it’ll get good in 10 minutes.”
And while Stebbings may be at odds with those who hold Shakespeare’s writing in such high esteem that they would never promote another means of portraying the storyline, he believes the playwright would be happy to come to a TNT show and watch his work being performed through a variety of sensory mediums.
“If you look, for example, at the structure of a very difficult scene, such as the final scene in Hamlet with the sword fight, there are so many people involved, where certain actions, such as the sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet, are going on while the queen is being poisoned,” he says. “In other words, Shakespeare is thinking three-dimensionally; he is thinking visually. In his head, the whole scene was plastic and not on the page, and it wasn’t very important for him that it wasn’t on the page. He was brilliant at 3D thinking.”
TNT will perform Hamlet at: Beit Nir, Zichron Ya’acov, on January 4 at 8 p.m. – tickets: 054-957-4306; Einan Theater, Modi’in, on January 5 at 8 p.m. – (08) 973- 7330; Yad Labanim, Ra’anana, on January 6 at 8 p.m. – (03) 696-0389; Wix Theater, Rehovot, on January 7 at 8 p.m. (08) 946- 7890; Yad Labanim, Tel Aviv, on January 8 at 8 p.m. – (03) 696-0389; and Hirsch Theater, Jerusalem, on January 10 at 8:30 p.m. – *6226, www.bimot.co.il.