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The fuss over trousers in La Traviata

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Re-designing theatre
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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I’m usually asked to do it some months or even a year before, and I'll sort of think about it for a while and I'll suddenly get a vision of it in my head about when it ought to occur... when it ought to be set. I have fairly, sort of, straightforward principles about the extent to which it, if at all, it should be updated or reset in something other than what it seems to be set in. Because all the works I do, almost without exception, are works from the distant past. I don’t do works of contemporary playwrights or contemporary composers.  Almost all the works I do are the classical repertoire. And there are, in fact, problems about how to do them, what do you do with works which have entered their afterlife, which are no longer visualised either by audiences or critics or even by performers and audiences in the way that they were visualised, cherished and so forth at the time when they were done... so there’s a problem about what you’re going to do with it.

I mean, the sort of... the more idiotic versions of it, you do it as the playwright intended.  But, you can’t do it as the playwright intended because when Shakespeare did it he wrote it for the Globe Theatre, for a style of acting which no one would put up with nowadays, and where there has been 400 years of redesignings of the notion of theatre. So what happens is you start to suddenly get a picture of what it... how it might look, when it might look, and you sometimes, as I sometimes do, update it. I’ve just done a Hamlet which I wouldn’t dream of updating. I’ve always done it, and I’ve done it four times, set it in the year it was written. The preoccupations, the interests, the events that take place are inconceivable outside the period in which it occurs. I mean, it’s about monarchy and succession and legitimacy and so forth, as King Lear is.  There’s no point changing the period.

But every now and then there are things like Measure for Measure which are not really set in anything which has got that sort of presupposition built into it, and I have done a production in which I set it in Freud's Vienna in 1910... because it’s about people who are dishonest about their own sexual desires... who discover them as a result of being exposed to someone who they lust for.  And here was Freud writing about that at that time, so I thought it would be nice to have it drably set in Freud's Vienna, without, in fact, having Freudian issues.

But one of the things which I always come across when I think about a particular period is what’s it going to look like? And because I’ve been saturated all my life in the visual arts, partly because my father was a painter and a sculptor, but also because of just going to picture galleries again and again and again and again. I know what the past looks like. And photography has a great effect on me. I mean, when I did that Measure for Measure, which was done with a scenic design which consisted just simply of the scrap doors from building sites... but I set it in this Freudian Vienna without recreating Freudian Vienna, but I looked at Austrian and German photographs of that period and I just dressed people like that.

I based it on this great Austrian German photographer, August Sander.  Well, you know, no one in the critical world has ever heard of Sander. I’m just about to do a production of La Bohème and I will not have people wearing berets and smocks standing elegantly against what they believe to be artists' easels.  And I've based it entirely on those wonderful pictures of Paris that Cartier-Bresson has of Paris in 1930. Cartier-Bresson, Kertész and Brassaï.  Well, I don’t know of a critic who has ever heard of those.

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: Globe Theatre, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, King Lear, 1910, Austria, Vienna, La Bohème, 1930, Paris, William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, August Sander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, André Kertész

Duration: 4 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008