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Shakespeare - The Today Programme

Monday 24th April 2006

Jim Naughtie interviewed Rowan Williams and Gregory Doran (Chief Director of the RSC) for BBC Radio 4's Today programme, on the occasion of Shakespeare's birthday and the start of a new season of complete works by the RSC at Stratford.

ShakespeareJIM NAUGHTIE: Archbishop, let me ask you the most basic question of all- what is it in the end that Shakespeare gives you, not specifically as a religious leader (but you can't divorce yourself from that responsibility), as a man and someone in your position, what do you get still from the plays and the poetry and the figure of the artist?

ARCHBISHOP: Two things above all. One is I think the perspective of appalled compassion that we find in a lot of Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies and the last plays, that human life is so extraordinarily vulnerable, and the response of pity which is itself a vulnerable response. That's something that speaks to me very deeply. The second thing is simply a sense of excitement about language; the amazing things that can be done with language, the amazing depths of richness of the metaphor that he brings. I still feel my eyes filling as I hear some bits of Shakespearean poetry; I see some things on the stage which just excites me.

JN: Because you were saying in your sermon in Stratford that that business of imagination, puzzlement, space, the unknown, is important in your religious life as much as it is as someone who responds to good poetry?

ABC: Absolutely. I think part of the religious response to human beings themselves is to see there's a huge hinterland, a huge sort of darkness behind the eyes and the faces of people, which we never encompass, we never get around; but to know that that's there, to approach it with respect, with compassion, that's immensely important.

JN: And Greg Doran, as a director trying to put Shakespeare on the stage, you know that you're never going to crack it absolutely, don't you? You know the same thing?

GREGORY DORAN: There's no such thing as a definitive production of Shakespeare, but what there is are people who respond in that moment, both audiences and actors, to that play and how it articulates things that are happening in society at that time. I think Shakespeare just gives us the words; he does all the big things, he does life, death, ambition, love, jealousy, hate, and I think that's why I keep going back to him because he manages to see humanity from 360 degrees.

JN: And do you think that is still alive in audiences, particularly young audiences out there and the company here over the next year is going to be trying, as it always does, to introduce people to the plays for the first time? That's something that you have to remember that some people are always coming fresh to this.

GD: I never do a play for the critics, I always do it for the person I was when I first came to Stratford when I was 12 or 13, and wanted to be told a story, and wanted to be excited by language, and wanted to be engaged in the totality of the experience. So that it's not studying a play, thinking about how you're going to answer the questions, it's about seeing the whole experience of the journey of the play.

JN: Archbishop, you write poetry yourself and you have quoted here in Stratford [W.H.] Auden saying "poetry makes nothing happen", and you tried to explain what you mean by that. What do you mean by quoting Auden saying poetry makes nothing happen? What attracts you about that observation and what does it make you think about?

ABC: What attracts me about Auden's remark is it's a kind of puncturing of a particular kind of literary or poetic ambition or sentimentality, as if you can go out there and coin the slogans and people would just march behind you and do what you want them to do. It's not like that and it's important I think that poets don't get confused with ideology propaganda and the rest of it. At the same time, Auden is not quite right in the sense that poetry uncovers things that do make a difference and that do change perspectives and change possibilities.

JN: But sometimes they creep up on the poet unbidden and unwanted?

ABC: Exactly, and part of the sense of poetry really working is when you feel that the poet is not just writing out his or her preferences and insights, but actually struggling very hard with things overtaking them.

JN: And when you confront a Shakespeare play as a director, do you feel that about him as a person?

GD: What I most enjoy about directing a play is partly the communal experience of actors creating roles and the multiplicity of perspectives. You can't ever say with a Shakespeare play, 'it means this'. There's no moral at the end of it, there's no easy summing up, there's just a multiple perspective view of the human condition and that's what makes the plays so extraordinary.

JN: And I sense Archbishop that although you lead a Church which partly tries to reassure people, you want them to know that there isn't an easy summing up, even from your perspective?

ABC: I think Christians, like anybody else, need to understand how a particular kind of art or theatre works, which simply makes them more human, doesn't provide them with the answers, but gives them more room for human growth. And I think any sense that the language of faith shrinks the world you are in, is fatal to any living religion.

JN: It has to make the world more complicated, not more simple, in a funny way?

ABC: If complicated means rich and resourceful and challenging, yes.

JN: Archbishop, Gregory Doran, thank you so much.

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