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- Twelfth Night at Stratford
VIEW Magazine - August 2006
by Kerry Corrigan
He’s the man who set A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Amazonian Rainforest, Measure for Measure in totalitarian Eastern Europe and Pericles in the mystical Far East.
Now he has William Shakespeare’s delightful comedy Twelfth Night come to life during the British Raj in India, and that exotic locale proves an apt setting for Illyria, the mysterious country where Viola is washed ashore.
McMaster Alumni Leon Rubin, now in his sixth season directing at the Stratford Festival, is a man with a quick mind and a passion for directing “classical” theatre. Traveling the world and experiencing theatre through many different cultures, he’s more able to define and interpret Shakespeare for a contemporary audience. He feels that by examining how other cultures present the bard, we can learn to make it more relevant to our own.
Rubin was born in England and earned his undergraduate degree there before coming to Canada, and McMaster, on a scholarship to study English, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. All along, directing had been his passion yet, surprisingly enough, it wasn’t until he arrived in Hamilton in 1975 that he truly felt he had the freedom to produce what he wanted.
He hadn’t experienced much live theatre as a child.
“When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I was at an old boy’s grammar school. I joined an acting course in the evening, and discovered that it was all girls, with only about two boys. That’s when I decided I like theatre.”
He discovered that “acting was not my strength, but maybe the other side of the lights was more interesting” and devoted his time to directing after that.
When he arrived at the Hamilton campus, he was thrilled to find the under-used Robinson Memorial Theatre. He had a proscenium theatre and the freedom to produce whatever he wanted, two things not available when he was an undergrad in England.
“I formed a company. There was some money and we were generously funded by the school – happy times,” he says, with a smile. “In the U.K., we had no resources. You got a resource, use it. I was very lucky.”
After earning his MA at Mac, and a stint in Toronto, Rubin headed back to England. His initial interview at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while still a PhD student at U. of T., was “grueling, all the famous directors I’d written about sitting in one room grilling me!”
He passed the interview and went on to work with all the major directors in England in the 70’s. As assistant director on Nicholas Nickleby, the 8-hour theatrical marathon that “won every award in London,” Rubin felt very lucky to have worked on the show which was written and rehearsed at the same time, so lucky that he wrote a book about the experience.
The first theatre that he ran was in the “battle zone” of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He’s also been artistic director of Watford Palace, an Edwardian theatre on the edge of London, and at the Bristol Old Vic, among others.
When he “got tired of running theatres”, Rubin caught the travel bug and began extensive work directing in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, a number of exotic locales. He directed the Japanese-language premier of The Real Thing, in collaboration with Tom Stoppard. Lately, his busy schedule has included a yearly stop in Stratford.
Rubin confesses a genuine concern for the limited number of directors of the classics.
“There are very few, and it’s hard to learn when there are not that many outlets. If you’ve only got a few, the chance of a gifted or interesting director is reduced. Stratford doesn’t necessarily mentor directors,” he points out, certainly not the way they do actors.
To that end, in his present job in the Dept. of Drama at Middlesex University in London, Rubin is training theatrical directors from all over the world to tackle the classics. One of his most promising students, Melissa Haller, acts as assistant director for Twelfth Night.
Rubin describes his relationship with his regular artistic collaborator at Stratford, set and costume designer John Pennoyer, as “symbiotic.”
“John is very open,” he assures me, and they work together on the look and the feel. Which gets us back to Rubin’s imaginative choices for settings, which provide a sumptuous framework for the stunning performances he elicits from his actors, all presented with seamless blocking and highly comic staging.
For Rubin, the exotic locales mirror our expanded appreciation for other cultures.
With the way the media has shrunk our world, thanks to internet and TV, “people are more aware. Stratford needs to catch up.”
“We’ve learned a lot from other cultures about Shakespeare,” he continues. Societies like Japan, which still have that continuity of ritual, are more similar to the Elizabethan audiences for whom Shakespeare wrote, than modern Western ones. A Kabuki Macbeth can help us to appreciate more the magnitude of Macbeth’s treason. Similarly, an audience in Afghanistan or Africa, who have experience with warlords, would be far more conscious of the spiral of disaster set in motion by King Lear’s intention to divide his kingdom.
That helps to illuminates his desire to “locate them in a place that’s more keen, but you have to pick the right environment, and don’t distort.”
He’s found that in Imperial India at the height of English colonialism. Duke Orsino becomes, in Sanjay Talwar, a handsome Indian aristocrat, while the home of Olivia, the delightfully determined Seana McKenna, is the type of proper upstairs/downstairs household that the Victorian English would have kept.
“They took the whole house to India,” Rubin muses. “They wore proper clothes, which were totally inappropriate for the Indian weather, clothes they could barely breathe in.
“And then of course there’s the new Puritanism, which you need for Malvolio,” played by the scene-stealing Brian Bedford. And with the brilliant Dana Green as Viola, Twelfth Night truly is “beautiful, not just funny.”
Still, Rubin hastily insists that it’s “not a political essay, it’s a backdrop.” He sees it as re-imagining Shakespeare for the world we live in.
// tie dye