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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 8 December 2015

Sam Yates: “It’s about casting people from all walks of life.”

Director Sam Yates talks to Rafaella Marcus about the political dimension of Shakespeare's late plays and his production of Cymbeline for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Rafaella Marcus
Pauline McLynn in Cymbeline. Photo: Marc Brenner

Pauline McLynn in Cymbeline. Photo: Marc Brenner

I am due to meet Sam downstairs in the Globe foyer cafe on a Friday morning before rehearsal starts. This suits me absolutely fine because if you have a Globe pass, as I do having been assistant director on Pericles for the last six weeks, you can get delicious coffee for only a quid and every seventh one is free. Sam, having texted me a picture of his delayed train billboard to prove it, is running slightly late because of transport issues, so when he arrives I am a) trying to do a very quiet sound test on my laptop without seeming like a knob and b) trying to work out my caffeine consumption over the last few weeks of rehearsal.

Rafaella Marcus: So I was doing a bit of creepy Google research on your background, and there’s Shakespeare in what you’ve done so far, and you’ve assisted on it, but I wondered what your relationship to *that writer* was like?

Sam Yates: Well, I did study him at school and then did a couple of his plays, directing them, and then acted in a few, and then I assisted Michael Grandage on Hamlet, so that’s really the extent of my experience. I suppose I’m just drawn to that level of detail and humanity that he achieves in amazing language, basically.

RM: So then to jump in with Cymbeline, does that feel like a baptism of fire?

SY: I mean, doing your first Shakespeare in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and doing Cymbeline is possibly as exciting as it gets. I didn’t know the play at all, I just remember knowing the famous Jupiter descending moment as being a problem but…for sure it’s a baptism of fire, I’m just sort of relishing it and loving it. I mean, it’s a wonderful play so it’s not hard to come to work and rehearse it every day.

RM: I was thinking about the play a bit and its relationship with the other three in the season. There’s a lot of obvious thematic similarities across the four of them, but I was thinking more about the differences, and I think stylistically they’re quite distinct – Shakespeare seems to come to the verse style quite differently on each of the four of them, so I wondered if you’d had any specific approach to Cymbeline’s verse?

SY: Well, working heavily with Giles Block [the Globe’s text expert, and a bit like Giles from Buffy, but for Shakespeare directors instead of vampire slayers] and being guided by him –

RM: We love Giles.

SY: He’s wonderful, isn’t he? He did lots of fascinating work on the line endings and how in the later plays, Shakespeare starts to sort of run them on so they’re less hard and perhaps the thoughts are a little bit more dynamic and detailed and possibly a bit more psychologically astute, if you know what I mean. So it’s been working with him in great detail on understanding every word – I mean we hardly have any set, we have two pieces of furniture which you can’t live without, so in the end it really is about actors in the space and Shakespeare spinning his own magic web.

RM: Ok, so talking about the space then, because it’s obviously a pretty unique space to work in, I wondered how you’d found learning the language of that space, and the way that the architecture of the theatre pretty much is the design?

SY: Absolutely. I mean it’s a gift in a way. Richard Kemp, the designer, and me, we went in a number of times obviously, and you sort of go ‘oh, you don’t need to do anything to it’. Actually we found anything you added to that, if not done correctly, could take away from it because it is what it is. You’d spend tens of thousands trying to recreate that somewhere else, and have the candles etc etc, so we pretty much just let it be what it was, and I think it becomes most exciting when you put someone in the middle of it, and then it suddenly is alive. Acoustically it’s incredibly tight, so the silences are so silent, and therefore I don’t think you need too many because they’re sort of empty, unless someone’s speaking through them. I mean, what do you think?

RM: I think it’s brilliant, it’s one of those spaces where you put an actor downstage centre and suddenly they’re in the centre of the whole theatre – and in the centre of the whole audience, because they extend almost 360 degrees round, because you’ve got them sitting up in the musician’s gallery as well.

SY: Absolutely. We’ve been thinking of it very much as in the round really, or as a thrust, because if you sit on one of those sides you get a lovely wide shot of everything, so it’s definitely not a prosc arch, if you know what I mean.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

RM: That’s really interesting because we had Adele Thomas come in on Pericles to do a little bit on the joust and a couple of other bits and pieces, and she was very concerned with the depth and textures of those sightlines and composing those pictures for everyone to get a look, while Dominic [Dromgoole] obviously knows that space inside out and has this certainty that it all comes out in the wash, basically, it all tends to even out in the end, wherever you’re sitting. So it’s really interesting to hear how different directors negotiate that quite complex audience relationship.

SY: Ah, that’s really interesting.

RM: So going back to the beginning, that the architecture of the space is the design and anything you add in can potentially be too much, I suppose what it does is, it means you don’t have to conceptualise a Shakespeare play in the same way that you might have to or might want to at another theatre. Is that freeing or is that limiting?

SY: Great question. I mean working within the limitations of that space, i.e. no electronic lights, no recorded sound, makes you very inventive and actually the event of this production for us is that we are doing the play. And we’ve made some cuts but not many, so we are sort of presenting the play and trusting that his words and brilliant acting – and obviously there’ll be some costume design – are enough. We’ve tended to be modern in our readings of the characters on some level, and we’re trying to do sort of, you know, *sexy period* rather than *dusty museum period*. Musically, we’ve got three beautiful cellos and then a guy called Paul Johnson who’s a sort of wild card, so musically it will feel for today, but we’re trying to do that not by putting everyone in modern clothes or…it sort of would jar with that setting, I think, there’s no way you could…or you probably could but we haven’t on this one.

RM: That leads me onto my other Cymbeline-related question then – again, with these late plays, there’s a tendency to characterise them by their more fantastical or outlandish elements – like you were, the thing I’m most familiar with in Cymbeline is the fact that there’s a literal deus ex machine at the end, and there’s a headless corpse at some point – but there is maybe a greater degree of that psychological realism, all that stuff about jealousy, it’s sort of like a little revisiting of Othello or Much Ado, and I’m very interested in how you went about balancing those elements?

SY: For me the fantastical elements are very few and far between – I sort of don’t think there are any, except for maybe Jupiter descending and leaving a tablet on Posthumus. For me the rest of it was extremely real people all trying to be good and all getting it wrong and all trying to figure that out, which is sort of what I feel like everyone is doing all the time. So for me it’s very much a human story, really. The fairytale elements, I know you can drawn out – you know the thing about the two cedars – but it’s not something we’ve chosen to do, it didn’t feel to me like it was inherent in the text really. If you look at how it’s written, you join each scene (and there’s twenty-seven, which is a lot) halfway through so it’s very filmic or West Wing-y, that you join when they’re walking and talking and we just catch up with them, and it’s modern in that respect. They’re short scenes, some of them very short; he often doesn’t specify where you are, he’ll just say ‘Enter Posthumus alone’ or just won’t say anything, and for me I think he was therefore more concerned with people than place necessarily in this play, even though he does move around quite a lot.

RM: Which is a great contrast to Pericles –

SY: Huge, huge contrast.

RM: Which is so place, place, place, place, place – I think Dominic said it was a bit like Star Trek –

SY: Completely!

RM: You’ve sort of got everyone’s characteristics defined by the place they come from. As well as it sounding like Star Trek, when you’re putting out rehearsal calls for Tarsians and Tyrians and Pentapolians and everything else.

SY: I mean he does it a bit [in Cymbeline], we have Milford Haven through the boys in the cave, and then you have Rome, and then you have England, but that’s it really. And there’s nothing to say where you are except for a slight costume change really, there’s no sort of written accents, not like Henry V.

RM: So finding that the more fantastical elements of the play have maybe been overemphasised, what do you do about the fact that – actually you might totally disagree with this – but even within this play where you’ve got a lot of people who are trying to be good, some of them are written more fully, I guess, with more psychological depth, and some aren’t – like, you get a deathbed conversion from the Queen and other things like that. How do you allow them all to inhabit the same universe?

SY: I think it’s to do with who you cast, and actors who want to delve into detail, and personally I think all of these characters are very, very well drawn, and that’s why I think it’s such a rich piece, but you want actors who are going to invest in the material. I’ve never worked on a play where I’ve felt that a character wasn’t well fleshed out, or if they weren’t then you flesh them out with the acting.

RM: So there’s this other dimension to all four of these plays as well, which is probably the most overlooked one, which is the political dimension to them. It’s something that I’ve found with Pericles again and again, that there’s this seam running through it of ‘what is good kingship?’ and we go to these different places and see different examples of kingship, most of which are terrible and involve incest or famine, and then there’s a couple of good examples – and it seems to me there’s a real political uneasiness in Cymbeline as well, it’s an occupied Britain that we’re in.

SY: It is, it’s still occupied by the Romans and that relationship is slightly breaking down – the main event is Cymbeline refuses to keep paying this tribute, this three thousand pounds a year that they pay to Rome as thanks for helping them out in the war, and they refuse that and therefore Rome declares war on them. In a way it’s about Britain and Britain finding its own place in the world and slightly resisting a Roman rule, so it’s not a million miles away from some of the tensions we have with absentee landlords or absentee governments and other places that want independence, so that certainly runs through it.

RM: I’m hopping back now to what you said about how you cast it, so tell me about your cast, because you’ve got a real mixture in there of some well known for stage and then some having worked more in other mediums as well.

SY: Yeah, I’m really pleased that we’ve got some people who have never done Shakespeare before, and we also have some of the core people who have worked a lot at the Globe before, who are obviously highly skilled. I’ve just tried to bring in people with depth and skill and huge humanity really, but you’ll see when you see it that the characters are very, very specifically well drawn. I wanted to cast very specific actors so that there was absolutely no confusion about who was what and what was going on, because that’s one of the criticisms thrown at the play is that its plot is confusing – well, I disagree, and I hope that an audience would say the same in seeing it, so it’s about casting people from all walks of life, all parts of the world and across the country.

RM: What’s the best thing? What’s been the best thing about doing this show here?

SY: I think working with this language, with a massive team around you, at the Globe, which is London’s home for Shakespeare, and having masters like Giles Block around and a wonderful company of actors, who are all as excited to be part of what feels like an event really, to put it on in its intended theatre for the first time in 400 years. With no set.

Cymbeline is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 2nd December 2015 – 21st April 2016.

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Rafaella Marcus

Rafaella is a director, writer, and the artistic director of Mingled Yarn, making witty, inventive theatre with an interest in myth, intersectional feminism, and formal experimentation. She writes about theatre for Exeunt and The Stage, and occasionally blogs about pop culture with the caps lock button on.

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