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Sir Kenneth Branagh: Making Macbeth

Sir Kenneth Branagh: Making Macbeth

"My favorite quote from Shakespeare is the end of Hamlet--"The readiness is all" and it applies to many things I think."

"This is just the most fantastic thing to be able to do."

"In our case we start with a five minute battle. Oh man, does it rev us up."

"We've got to practice those fights every day as they're dangerous, it's raining, we're in the dark. There are 25 enormously butch fellas coming at us with pieces of cold steel."

"It's an all-consuming thing. I think I've learned more about the discipline required for doing this on this particular job than ever before."

Macbeth: Elemental – Kenneth Branagh Makes His Mark

Review by Renie Pickman-Thoon
A nave of mud. An apse bejeweled with candles. A crippled crown fire wall.

Above all, and below, darkness.

These and other visceralia are the marks of Macbeth, as realized by Sir Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford in what must be termed a perfectly elemental interpretation and adaptation. The setting, the chosen icons of symbolism, and the feeling of being part of what is happening—right there—mean a closer connection to the play and a more complex relationship with it, and the actors whom you come to see more clearly in the dark.

Secrecy was part of the intimacy. The Manchester International Festival venue for the play was shrouded in secrecy, and proved detection-proof until the very final days before the first performance (despite attempts to sleuth the locale—it’s turns out there are a lot of deconsecrated churches in Manchester). Saint Peter’s at Ancoats is a red-bricked deconsecrated church, refitted inside with several sections of wooden stands of raked wooden benches, set end to end as if watching a parade.

Guests were assembled at another secret locale—revealed in private email—Murray’s Mill which was filled with MIF volunteers who shepherded clans of ticketholders by clan name (Caithness, Fife and the like) to the entrance. Passing through the church door, and then past an actors’ walkway to the right, up a metal scaffold, to walk along a catwalk before funneling down to rustic boarded planks. Once seated, we faced opposite a bank of four rows of 28 guests, with a single string of guests fringing the upper walls in a fifth row as if empanelled in a jury box.

The temperature inside increased, as did the anticipation. To my left was an apse, with three tall windows, and three more above those, and from the farthest roof truss, a large carved wooden cross hanging over the lip of the apse. This was where an altar might be—and where later, a King might lay his trusting head to sleep.

As we awaited the start, a white-hooded feminine figure in the apse silently prayed, facing towards an arc of differently-sized white burning pillar candles; this staging upon entry succeeded in cementing our immersion in the church. The apparition would be revealed as Lady Macbeth, who clearly, or at least apparently, begins the play in a spiritual or religious place. Alex Kingston would reveal to us in a Q&A the next day that she was not only praying, she was “furiously trying to keep the wax from starting a fire”. This Lady Macbeth is practical and always thinking.

A dissonant low-level humming sound seemed to be coming from somewhere. Or was it imagination? It unsettled. It was-- unnatural.

Then there was a booming, a ruckus of sound.

And then RAIN.

You are sitting a mere dagger’s length beyond the reach of most of the rain pelting upon real men who are struggling just to see clearly through the downpour, let alone skillfully attacking each other in a vicious, loud, clanging, fight of broadswords. Yet there they are—and with every third clang, yellow and gold sparks fly through the air, like shooting stars vaulting into the seated clans who watch this mortal combat. And I’m not kidding about the vaulting sparks—I was hit with a burning rocket on the right side of my forehead while sitting in the fourth row. (It did hurt, but the adrenaline rush overcame the discomfort, and now I’ve got bragging rights.) The swordfights are rehearsed each day, and you can see why.

Instantaneously, the earthy muck which sucks at the feet of good men and bad becomes mud, and the tragic figures will be drawn down, down, one after another, besmirched and swallowed by the darkness below them.

Which brings us to witchcraft, and that wicked place below. The practice of witchcraft under the roof of what once was—and for us is now—a church may sound shocking. And the spectacle of writhing bodies in a fire pit may dislodge your sense of reality. Yet somehow, the core of the play’s tragedy spoke not merely from a nether-worldly curse or wicked prophesy, but in congruence with humanity’s own trip wires when we lack a solid balance. We are then no match for fire, water, earth; they demand our attention, they will call us back.

Elemental

Raw sights, sounds, and smells excite the senses in the opening of this play with a rain-soaked battle. Once experienced, it may be tempting to say that surely Shakespeare meant for this staging. The immediacy and primal nature (and yes, even the danger) activates our flight or fight mechanism. It’s here and now and things happen in such a rush. It’s the other end of the spectrum from Hamlet who thinks and thinks: Macbeth goes from a rain-soaked field, to hosting the King in a matter of hours.

Branagh admitted that he does not see the Macbeths as an evil scheming couple. He is coming back from battle. There were these weird sisters—can you believe what they said? Alex Kingston buys in, almost as if Branagh’s won a prize, and has merely to collect it--rather than murder his King. She reads the letter as she walks through mud sucking at her heels. The deed's yet to be done. He barely has time to wash up, and the King is coming over to stay the night. Make ready, and get the caterers. And he loves his wife, who loves him. Do we have enough wine for the party?

There is no intermission, for Macbeth, and wisely the production reinforces the rush to murder by denying its audience an intermission.

“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.” – Act 1, Scene 4.

No stars pierce the bell-tolled night to give guidance to this Thane, already a member of Duncan’s army and inner circle and who that same day rendered a true general’s service to his King. There is a moment in the regicide on the altar when Macbeth seems to look at and recognize the life and King before him. And what taking that life will mean: a challenge to God. But in the darkness, people can’t see what they’re doing. True sight’s eyes are gouged with the midnight murder, replaced with Branagh’s waking vision of a flesh and bloodied Jimmy Yuill as Banquo who passes neatly through the dining table. His eyes see not what others see. Kingston’s pleading with the assembly to mark it not reads as the desperation which grows inside of her—that murder will out, and her husband is beyond acting any innocent part.

Once launched, there is only the unholy mission at hand, hurtling a clutch of families onto the bloody steel of ambition. Yet, not ambition so much as how one sin leads to another, must needs lead to another; the step that o'ersteps tumbles this man and woman into a place where they are wholly lost---when tomorrow brings "nothing". Not even the company of the married soul whose torture ends its own torment.

The church walls seemed to breathe, they seemed to hum. Pacing in the transverse from left to right and back again, the entire population seemed haunted, full of dis-ease, or at best not free to choose their destinies.

As the man who would be King, Branagh is genuine, friendly, strong, and a real man with real desires, sexual included. As tyrant, his fearsome power-mad trek gives the lie that he directs what deaths will follow, though the mounting murders seem to beget horrible splintered versions of themselves: blood will have blood. Fallen, his voice, gestures, and looks paint the clouds which gather above him and fill his mind. Every word delivered by Branagh is clearly spoken, and seems to have been invented on the spot. An exception is the “Tomorrow” speech, which Branagh seems to be pulling out from inside of himself, slowly, painfully, as if drawing out his essence in the form of invisible sinews, a kind of dissipation in front of us. It was so quiet in that huge church then. If you have never experienced the talents of Sir Kenneth on stage, put it on your bucket list. It’s as if he isn’t speaking aloud at all, but addressing you alone. So public and so private.

Alex Kingston is well-cast in a role which can be diminished by caricature; Kingston shines. As Lady Macbeth and her husband dis-integrate, we are struck at how each of them is now divided from themselves as well as each other. Objective reality is no longer shared, they cannot shake the altered reality of a damaged mind, a soiled soul. High up on a lonely precipitous narrow, Kingston walked and talked, without rest, employing a repetitive gesture (wash your hands, put on your nightie) as a device that took the place of her working mind. This “locked in” behavior felt both scary and suited to a mind which had snapped.

Early on, when Kingston takes Branagh's bloody hands, in the center of the nave, and they look at one another, we realize they are lost. I felt a moment of grief – it was like another fall of man. Yes, the horrors of murder in a church and the level of moral transgression had not evaporated. But, in a world where people still make bad choices—and so often—my distress for them was real, if not deserved.

There is so much more which might be remarked upon: Birnham wood advances with minimal yet strong blocking amidst a tribal beating scored by Patrick Doyle; three doors house three weird sisters whose strangled voices grate unnaturally upon the air; grief-stricken scenes from Ray Fearon’s Macduff; the ease, fluency and excellence of the ensemble of actors. The women’s performances are impressively strong and the men are stunningly gorgeous. The care and cultivation of this production are clear right down to the special type of “mud” used. A once-in-a-lifetime theatre experience, this Macbeth is a triumph of elemental story-telling.

If you are lucky enough to be heading to the Armory to see a version of this site-specific production, your sojourn lies ahead. Lucky you.

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Kenneth Branagh in "Macbeth"
The Hollywood Reporter
'Macbeth': Theater Review
6/5/2014
by David Rooney
> The Bottom Line: Fasten your kilts and sporrans, it's going to get nasty.

Kenneth Branagh stars as the murderous thane, with Alex Kingston as his ruthless consort, in this vigorous staging of the Scottish Play, directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford. NEW YORK – Kenneth Branagh first made his mark as a screen director with his pared-down yet robust 1989 version of Henry V. His film output since then has ranged with varying success from personal projects like Peter's Friends through further Shakespeare adaptations to giant popcorn odysseys like Thor. This sensational environmental stage production of Macbeth, which Branagh stars in and co-directed with Rob Ashford, is in many ways a logical culmination of that eclectic experience -- a medieval, mystical blockbuster that combines superlative, fuss-free classical theater acting with muscular storytelling, visceral physicality and propulsive rollercoaster pacing. Oh, and lots of mud.

The production was jointly commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Manchester International Festival, premiering last July in the intimate confines of a de-consecrated church in that Northern English city. Reconfiguring their site-specific staging for the Armory's massive, 55,000-square foot Drill Hall, the directors and a brilliant design team led by Christopher Oram have created a traverse stage flanked on two sides by steeply raked spectator stands. A Middle Ages jousting tournament would look right at home here. But the immersive aspect kicks in even before we get there.

Upon arrival, the audience is divided into clans and split off into various rooms showcasing military history. A glass or two of wine is served before druids in hooded cloaks carrying flame torches usher us along a path through the eerie haze of a vast, dirt-floored moor. At one end of the actual playing space, Oram has sculpted imposing Stonehenge-like monoliths, while at the other, Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) stands with her back to the incoming crowd, silently invoking the spirits at an altar of votive candles and weathered frescos.

The opening battle -- during which Branagh's Macbeth and his men successfully crush an attempted rebellion against Duncan, King of Scotland (John Shrapnel) -- takes place in a downpour that turns the field to mud. Making remarkable use of the sprawling performance area and the audience's proximity to the actors, the violence of the sword- and dagger-play gets the drama off to a thrilling start -- so much so that the front-row patrons probably don't even mind getting a large mouthful of rain spat in their faces by the victorious Macbeth.

It seems inconceivable that despite a distinguished theater career that began in his native Northern Ireland and has continued uninterrupted in the U.K. for three decades, Branagh is only now making his New York stage-acting debut. Not only is Macbeth an ideal role for him, with his ginger head, ruddy handsomeness and steely gravitas, but at 53, he’s also the perfect age to embody a warrior hero making a furious grab for power before his time is up. Branagh's Macbeth is not a man given to thoughtful reflection but to instinct, action and increasingly, to fear and involuntary glimmers of conscience, making him a surprisingly human tyrant.

In an intermission-less production that rarely pauses for breath during its two-hour duration, the usurper's jockeying for throne and title has been stripped of politics and reason, and de-intellectualized into something closer to raw pagan lust. There's no doubt that this Macbeth is in carnal and emotional thrall to his manipulative wife -- he can't keep his hands off her when he returns from the battlefield. But there's also something almost primal driving his characterization from within, an innate force of darkness fed by the cryptic prophesies of the Weird Sisters.

Played by Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan, the witches are an uncommonly nubile trio here, darting around like snickering J-horror waifs, with their eyes glowing and their bodies writhing in orgiastic pleasure through each new bout of bloodshed. Their "Double, double toil and trouble" incantation is delivered in a state of convulsive possession, as they conjure a churning human soup out of flames.

Fluidity and urgency are the production's keynotes, frequently amplified by the pounding of composer Patrick Doyle's war drums. Testosterone runs high throughout, even extending to Kingston's driven Lady Macbeth. Playing against the soft womanliness of her physical appearance, the former Royal Shakespeare Company member draws a circle around herself in the earth in her "Unsex me" soliloquy. With that gesture she liberates her capacity for male cruelty to a degree that both beguiles and frightens her husband, while also triggering her gradual descent into insanity. From the moment she persuades Macbeth to seize his chance and kill the King while he's sleeping under their roof, the couple's fate is sealed, even as they shrink from it in terror or madness. Theatergoers who insist on poetic oratory and subtle textual exploration might be resistant to Branagh and Ashford's bold directorial approach. But this is a riveting staging, unblinking in its lucidity as it exposes the ugly essence of power and brutality with a starkness that makes it impossible to look away. Just the use of the long corridor-like performance space alone is mesmerizing, often requiring the quick attention shifts of a tennis match.

The large ensemble contains no weak links. In addition to the exciting central performances of Branagh and Kingston, Richard Coyle's ruggedly masculine Macduff is notable, and his shattered discovery of the murder of his wife (Scarlett Strallen) and son (Dylan Clark Marshall) is among the play's most wrenching moments. Jimmy Yuill is a warmly avuncular, almost Falstaffian Banquo, which makes his apparitions as a bloody ghost all the more startling. Shrapnel brings effortless authority to the doomed King, and Alexander Vlahos as his orphaned son effectively shakes off any trace of callow youth as he finds his noble calling.

Stunning stage pictures punctuate the production, bathed in the piercing shafts of Neil Austin's sepulchral lighting. Among them is the disturbing image of the witches, who at one point appear to levitate between Oram's stone pillars (pictured below). The funeral procession for the slain King is an affecting moment of pageantry amid the barbarism. Similarly beautiful in its choreographed formality is the advance of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill, with soldiers hidden behind shields made of tree branches. And Macbeth's vision of a dagger before him brings a flourish of dark magic that echoes the play's supernatural elements.

The production's most resonant effect, however, is illustrated in a lament spoken with stirring depths of feeling by the nobleman Ross (Norman Bowman), for a country that "cannot be called our mother, but our grave." Even after tyranny is vanquished and peace and justice restored, the sorrow of death hangs like a thick mist in the air.

Park Avenue Armory, New York (runs through June 22)

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Richard Coyle, Scarlett Strallen, John Shrapnel, Alexander Vlahos, Elliot Balchin, Jimmy Yuill, Patrick Neil Doyle, Edward Harrison, Norman Bowman, Andy Apollo, Dominic Thorburn, Nari Blair-Mangat, David Annen, Harry Lister Smith, Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, Anjana Vasan, Dylan Clark Marshall, Katie West, Benny Young, Tom Godwin, Stuart Neal, Jordan Dean, Cody Green, Zachary Spicer, Kate Tydman

Directors: Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Patrick Doyle
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Fight director: Terry King
Illusion consultant: Paul Kieve
Presented by Park Avenue Armory, Manchester International Festival, in association with Colin Callender

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JUNE 4, 2014
PUTTING THE MUD IN “MACBETH”
POSTED BY SOPHIE BRICKMAN
The New Yorker

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of “Macbeth,” premièring in the U.S. on June 5th at the Park Avenue Armory after a sold-out run in Manchester, begins with an epic, visceral battle scene that takes place on a dirt stage: rain pours forth from the heavens, thunder rocks the air, swords clash and sparks fly, actors bellow, mud spatters.

“I was given a note by the director yesterday,” Jim Leaver said, on the morning before previews began last week. Leaver is the production manager, and he was kneeling in the cavernous fifty-five-thousand-square-foot Drill Hall where the play is staged, running a handful of dirt through his fingers as the tech team tested out the speaker system. He cleared his throat and raised his voice to be heard over the sound of brandished swords, cracks of lightning, and “Star Wars”-esque bloops echoing around him. “He said it wasn’t ‘puddly’ enough.’ ”

He was referring to Ashford, who has received eight Tony Award nominations, one Tony, and one Olivier, and was standing in the Armory’s entryway, clad in jeans and a checked shirt and holding his notebook. He opened it to show the negative note—“No puddles!”—scrawled on one page, then made an attempt at clarification: “To play the post-battlefield scene, it’s more profound to have puddles, to have murdered bodies lying there in the puddles.”

The Goldilocksian task of making the mud just puddly enough falls to Leaver, a white-haired, jovial man whose British accent lends his filthy talk an air of sophistication. He has been immersed in “Macbeth” mud for more than a year. During tech rehearsals in London last summer, he began experimenting. “We took chopped wood and soil and had at it with watering cans,” he recalled. “It looked like it was puddling nicely and wasn’t too slippy, which is what we’re trying to achieve here. Nice puddling, minor slippiness.” Alas, as tech week progressed, the soil started to coagulate. “It wouldn’t drain, so we had the actors in mud up to their knees. We did some soul-searching,” he said.

He and his team landed on an “optimal mud recipe”: three parts finely ground bark to one part builder’s sand, which keeps the mixture from binding together and aids in water drainage. Christopher Oram, the set and costume designer, called it “a brilliant solution. You get the quality and sensuality, but it’s also playable. And it smells peaty. That’s key.”

In Manchester, less for authenticity’s sake than for logistics, the components came from Scotland. Manhattan’s version of the Scottish play will be performed on North Carolinian soil. On Memorial Day weekend, a truckload of fifty-two cubic yards of mulched pine bark and seven cubic yards of sand travelled north. About half of it was dumped onto the Armory floor. “We loaded it in the American way, with big, burly guys,” Oram joked. “The British way was effete, with wheelbarrows.”

Every day, a team of three crewmembers is in charge of mud maintenance. It is raked and turned over entirely on alternate days.

In Manchester, the play was performed in a deconsecrated church that held about two hundred and eighty people. Though the production setup is mostly the same in New York—a center “trough” of stage running between two sets of stadium seating—the Armory production is on a larger scale. Faced with excess space, the directors decided to tack on a vast indoor heath, which the audience members, four times as many as in England, must walk through to get to their seats. The Armory, with interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, was built by the National Guard’s Seventh Regiment of the Civil War—known as the Silk Stocking Regiment due to its upper-crust New York membership. The building served more as a social hall than a military one. Over the years, its Drill Hall has held such events as the lying-in-state of Louis Armstrong and a production of the New York Philharmonic that involved three orchestras surrounding an audience. The space is tailored to each performance, mostly from the ground up.

In the case of “Macbeth,” this involved two key considerations: how to prepare the space for a nightly rainstorm—the set-production team built a ramped floor on top of the existing one, outfitted it with a waterproof pond liner, and topped it with an outdoor-flooring product, a layer of black carpet to insure that only water filters through, and then, finally, the earth—and how to make it rain.

Two cubic yards of heated water—“like a bath, so the actors don’t get ill,” Leaver explained—are sanitized with pool chemicals, then pumped up four stories, into the forty-foot pipe that hangs from the ceiling, where it is released from nine jets. “You have to finesse it a bit,” Leaver said. “It’s twice as high as it was before, so the first time we tried it, the first two rows got absolutely soaked.”

After filtering through the mud, the rain runoff drains into a tank underneath the seating structure, then is pumped through a tube to the dressing room and flushed into the sewer system. “We’ve put a bit of ladies’ hosiery over the end of the tube to catch any mud clumps,” Leaver said. Lest the New York sanitation system be alarmed, he deemed the water “cleaner than what comes out of your toilet, you know, with the papery bits and all that.”

A seven-hundred-and-twenty-square-foot dumpster is standing by on Sixty-sixth street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, for dirt fill-in as the production winds on and the mud is depleted. Actors trek it out through the dressing room—the wardrobe department stays late every night to launder the dirty costumes, giving new meaning to Lady Macbeth’s utterance as she descends into madness—and some inevitably is washed out in the water. And there’s yet another cause of mud reduction. “When you have thirty guys charging through the battle in this earth, the audience needs to be expecting to interface with the, shall we say, earthly qualities of the show,” Leaver said diplomatically.

In other words, if you’re sitting in the first few rows, expect to get dirty.

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'Macbeth,' Scotland Included

By Stefanie Cohen
The Wall Street Journal
May 29, 2014
Photos by Andrew Hinderaker

Creating a Mini Scotland in a New York Armory

The production starring Kenneth Branagh spreads through a New York armory and includes a heath, a henge of stones and a large mud pit.

Painter Richard Nutbourne hopped off a flight from England last week and headed straight to the New York's Park Avenue Armory to check that the nearly two dozen giant artificial stones he had shipped over the ocean had arrived safely. "They look a little small in here," he said, dusting off some loose dirt from the 19-foot high slabs of polystyrene and fiberglass with a plaster finish. The rocks had survived the trip virtually intact. Indeed, the 80-foot-high ceilings of the Armory did dwarf the slabs—not unusual for productions playing inside the castle-like structure completed in 1881 as headquarters for the National Guard's Seventh Regiment. But Macbeth costume and set designer Christopher Oram wasn't concerned. "You don't want them too big," he said. He emphasized that the stones needed to be part of the "human scale" of the set for the new production of "Macbeth," starring Kenneth Branagh in his New York stage debut. The show opens Saturday at the Armory.

The set is as ambitious as the play's main character. It features a giant slab of Scottish heath along Park Avenue, where Macbeth will wage battle against rival clansmen and, ultimately, himself. The full-size "stones" form a henge at one end of the stage. There's a 20,000-square-foot heath through which audience members will traipse to get to their seats, at the far end of the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall. Once ticket holders arrive at the stage area, they will climb into rough-hewed wooden bleacher seats on either side of a long narrow pit filled with dirt. During the first scene, it will rain, which will turn the dirt into mud. In this mess, at intervals over the next two hours, clans of Scotsmen will attempt to bludgeon each other to death inches away from the front rows.

"We wanted to present a 'Macbeth' that will be visceral and aggressive and masculine and frightening, and yet also addresses the poetry of the writing," says Mr. Oram, surveying the transformation from Drill Hall to heath. Over the course of 10 days, between 75 and 100 men and women labored to create the massive set. As opening night neared, men outfitted in mountaineering harnesses hung like spiders from the giant metal frame of the bleachers they were constructing; their clanging sounded like swords clashing. A team of workers fabricating the heath rolled gray paint onto the floor, while another group separated moss into clumps. The stones themselves—painted by Mr. Nutbourne with gesso, plaster, bits of seashell, pumice stone, granite and sand—loomed in the center of the hall as if dropped there by prehistoric Upper East Siders.

Co-directed by Mr. Branagh and Rob Ashford, this version of "Macbeth" is the third major production in the past two years in New York. "We wanted to embrace the Armory space, and use the entire room, not deny it," says Mr. Ashford, who co-directed the play at Britain's Manchester International Festival last summer, where the sold-out production won raves from critics. At the festival, the actors performed in an old church with a mud pit stage built into its center. At the Armory, the creative team wanted to keep the intimate scale of the church stage. The challenge was to fill the rest of the space. That led to the idea of the heath, a swampy patch of land with shrubs, moss, grasses, puddles and hillocks. A custom-made ancient, mossy "paved stone" pathway runs through the heath, which will lead audiences metaphorically away from the city and into the pagan, earthy world of the play, in which three "weird sisters" predict characters' fates.

To make the heath, Mr. Oram commissioned New Jersey scenic shop Infinite Scenic. Co-owner Valerie Light and her design team first laid down a carpet over the floor to protect it. Then Ms. Light's crew placed plaster molds and pieces of clear plastic on the carpet which would turn into small mounds of earth and puddles. They interspersed grasses in clumps over the floor. Then six men in plastic suits (to keep from getting dirty) and dust masks drove a diesel truck into the hall via a garage door on Lexington Avenue. They fed a container on the truck with a sound-absorbent and natural fiber insulation product called K-13. They mixed it with water and glue, so it resembled cold, gloppy oatmeal, then sprayed that brew over the floor with a fire hose, forming a muddy carpet of sorts. A team of scenic designers followed behind, raking the muddy mixture into what would resemble earth and dirt; the muddy carpet dried in that shape. "I've never made a swamp before," said Ms. Light. At the end of each performance, the "rainwater" seeps through the stage mud into a trough below the stage that feeds into a reservoir, draining the stage so it's fresh for the following day. Shakespeare didn't write stage directions into his plays, an absence that freed Mr. Oram to let his imagination run wild, he said. "This is all out of my head. It's a little insane," he said. "Actually, it's a lot insane."

The Small Miracles of Shakespeare

"Can there be a final, perfect version of Shakespeare play on the stage--and if not, does the literary work only exist in a kind of ghostly form, waiting to be tentantively, imperfectly embodied by each new approach?

I have opinions about these matters, but I do not have the answers. No one does. That is why Shakespeare raises to such an intense degree the question of authority. There are no operating instructions handed down to us by the writer. . . . In terms of productions, anything goes.

He creates a world for us, and that world seems incomparably right, and true. He does not seem capable of setting a foot wrong, not at the line level, where the poetry is perhaps the best ever written, and not at the structural level where everything coheres into a profound theatrical experience. . . . [E]ach new generation raises new sensitivities, new concerns. That too is a source of Shakespeare's continuing authority: his infinite flexibility, his adaptability to the needs and sensibilities of each era.

All this makes him seem like a miracle worker, or even a God. And I do believe in, my thoroughly agnostic way, that Shakespeare's plays are small miracles. Like the ancient Greek temples left standing on the southern shores of Italy, they seem not to stem from powers we think of as human. And yet they are human: and unlike the ruined temples, Shakespeare's [play even feel human in scale. Side by side with the hugeness and the impressiveness of his work is something much smaller, much more graspable, much more easily recognized. If Shakespeare at times comes across as a grand remnant of the oversized past--one of those monumental "bare ruined choirs" to quote his own line--he is also our most intimate mirror, the one in the bathroom perhaps, where we casually catch our own faces morning and night, hardly even aware of what we are seeing."