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Out of the academic world

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'The good doctor has to be different': Directing Shakespeare
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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I was asked to come and do plays at Nottingham Playhouse. Oh, no, before that I had done some other plays and I can’t remember which order they came. I was rung up, again, one of these unsolicited invitations that came my way, two undergraduates from Cambridge, a man called Stephen Wright, who subsequently became my agent - many years later - and a man called Jonathan James-Moore, who ran... went on to do... to be Director of Comedy for BBC Radio, rang me up while they were still undergraduates and said we’ve formed a thing called the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company where we get together undergraduates from the two universities and get a professional director to come and do a play which we'll then take around America... to American universities.  Would you like to do one? And I said, I've never directed a Shakespeare, and they said, well, I’m sure you’ll know how to do it, and so we did a production of Twelfth Night. And then I did two more... the year later I did Julius Caesar, and then I did Hamlet, and took them with great success all around.. well... twice in places in England, it went to Oxford and Cambridge and then we took them to American universities. Once again it came in from the, sort of... Private Eye came and jabbed me because I did a production of Julius Caesar which I based on the artist... the Italian artist de Chirico... and that was attacked as being typical... as opposed to doing it in, you know, in Roman costume, which anyone, you know, a decent person educated in the classics would’ve naturally done.  But, of course, the good doctor, as I’m always called, the good doctor has to be different.

Well, the good doctor is different because he keeps seeing things differently, and that’s why subsequently when I wrote my book many years later called Subsequent Performances, the whole subject was what do you do with works from the distant past which have constantly been repeated.  You can’t just repeat them, and there’s a long and detailed logical analysis of what repetition means in the performing arts.  And I think I justified, well not only my own work, but justified this rather complicated business of works which have entered their... what I call their afterlife... that it’s not an example of being different for difference's sake, it’s being different because, in fact, I’m different from my predecessors, and that if I weren’t, I'd be a fossil. As indeed anyone who does these works, if you were to line up these works in some magical process where you could see their many subsequent performances, looking at them you would hardly believe that they were instances of the same play or opera because they’ve entered this thing that Aby Warburg referred to as their nachtleben... their afterlife.  But try and explain that to Private Eye or, indeed, to any of the critics for whom it is just typical... being too clever by half. As far as I’m concerned too clever by half is not half enough. But there we are.

Initially studying medicine at Cambridge, Sir Jonathan Miller came to prominence with the production of the British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe. Following on from this success he embarked on a career in the theatre, directing a 1970 West End production of “The Merchant of Venice” starring Laurence Olivier. He also started directing opera, famously producing a modern, Mafia-themed version of “Rigoletto”.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Nottingham Playhouse, Cambridge, the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, USA, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Julius Ceasar, Oxford, Cambridge, Private Eye, Steven Wright, Jonathan James-Moore, Wiliam Shakespeare, Giorgio De Chirico

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008