Brazilian-born and London trained director Ron Daniels is no novice when it comes to staging Shakespeare. By his count he's already staged three Hamlets -- one with Mark Rylance, one with Roger Rees and a third in Tokyo, in Japanese! So it was time to find a new challenge when approaching the Bard.
That's where Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience came in. He and Daniels agreed that it would be enlightening -- and fun -- to stage Richard II and Richard III in repertory. And that's just what TFANA's doing, Jan. 17-April 5, with an official opening set for Sunday, Feb. 15, when both shows will be performed.
Daniels staged Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company last summer and One Flea Spare earlier this year at NY's Public Theatre.
Steven Skybell (who spent last summer as part of the much-praised repertory company at London's new Globe) tells "sad tales of the deaths of kings" as Richard II, while Christopher McAnn (late of A Dybbuk at the Public and last season's The Changeling at TFNA) mourns "the winter of our discontent" as Richard III.
Also appearing in the historical tragedies are TFNA regulars Graham Brown, Patricia Dunnock, Mark Niebuhr, Robert Stattel, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Mark Engelhart, Jonathan Fried, Tom Hammond, Edward Henwood, Brian Homer, Laurie Kennedy, Seth Michael May, Pamela Payton-Wright, Sharon Scruggs, Kevin Waldron and Scott Wood. Why the double bill? Over lunch at the Galaxy Cafe, one block from TFANA's home at the Theatre at St. Clement's, Daniels discussed the excitement of the plays' juxtaposition.
"Though at first, Richard II comes off as something of a tyrant, In that play all the characters are essentially moral and decent. They often act against their better natures, and they're appalled by Richard's resignation because they believe the in the sanctity of the realm. Even Bolingbroke in his revolt has no intention of becoming King; he just wants to be Duke of Lancaster."
Continued Daniels, "Now by abdicating, Richard creates a void of chaos and destruction. So when we come to Richard III, there's not a single decent human being in it. In our set design, the beautiful Church of the first play is now bombed out by the second. And yet, ironically, Richard III's world is much more fun and gleeful than Richard II."
Daniels also asserts his belief that Richard II is a later, better play than Richard III. "I hardly did any cutting of Richard II; the structure is quite complex and perfect. On the other hand, Richard III is a `bad' play structurally. It's also the third-longest in the canon, so I did some cutting and interpolated a speech from Henry VI and some of Colley Cibber's lines -- such as `Richard's himself again!' -- because they're as much part of the play now as Shakespeare's."
Because he got his first theatre experience in Sao Paolo, Daniels didn't actually see a Shakespeare play until he was 21 and on scholarship in London in 1964. "In Brazil I started the Workshop Theatre of Sao Paolo, and I was fiercely nationalistic, championing new Brazilian playwrights over the classics. I would have returned to Brazil after my scholarship, but then the junta took over. I was lucky that two of my grandparents were English, so I stayed there and ended up with dual citizenship."
Daniels joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968 as an actor, and began his directing career there in 1974. He first came to the fore as a director of new plays, such as Female Transport at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but has also staged numerous Shakespeares, including Pericles and Timon of Athens. Asked about the aforementioned Japanese Hamlet, Daniels said, "It was much easier than you'd imagine. They give you a translator, and pretty soon you begin to imagine you're actually speaking Japanese. Of course, on the morning you find yourself without one, you suddenly realize you're lost without them." Daniels went on to say that communicating with the Japanese actors was also easy because his Shakespeare productions tend to have clear and visual narratives.
"I'm not interested in the plays as history," he said, "but as moral metaphors. The plays work as epics, but also at the familial level. I'm not there to put my particular `interpretation' on things but to be a conduit for the playwright to reach the audience. The plays speak for themselves. That said, there are little touches, I guess, that might be recognizably mine. For example, I'm very interested in the use of dress and undress. Not in the sense of nudity but of how dress reflects our perception -- and the other characters' perceptions -- of a character. Are the shoes on or off? How is this person presenting himself to the world? With Shakespeare it's always a question of seeming vs. being."
As for Daniels' projects after the Richards, he both seems and is busy. He's directing a Public Theatre reading, Feb. 23, of What I Tell You In Darkness, a new play by Stuart Greenman, author of Silence, Cunning, Exile. After helming a revival of "Madame Butterfly" at San Francisco Opera, he anticipates directing a "light Off-Broadway commercial show" sometime this spring. Daniels is also executive producing and directing films scripted by Naomi Wallace, author of One Flea Spare.
Says the director, "My kids are now grown, so I can go off and do adventures!"
Both Richard II and Richard III are performed at the Playhouse at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St. (between 9th and 10th Ave). Ticket prices are $37.50 for one play or $75 for both; there will be a $19 student rush the day of performance, subject to availability. The schedule will vary, but on Saturdays and Sundays both plays will be performed, Richard II in the afternoon and Richard III in the evening. For exact dates and tickets, call (212) 279-4200.