‘My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey Through the First Folio’

Greg Doran shares his reflections on his 10 years as artistic director of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company.
‘My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey Through the First Folio’
Gregory Doran in a 2021 rehearsal of a Royal Shakespeare Company production. ( Ellie Kurttz/Royal Shakespeare Company)

That Greg Doran’s page-turning book “My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey Through the First Folio” was published this year is perfectly timed; it is 400 years since the “First Folio” was published. It is a fitting tribute to the world’s most renowned playwright and poet, as well as to Doran’s years when in 2012 he began as the artistic director of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, located at Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England, to when he stepped down in 2022.

When Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, some of them were not published. The great English playwright died in 1616, and in 1623 John Heminge and Henry Condell worried that the Bard would be forgotten, which is why they were determined to publish all his works in a text called the “First Folio.”

Heminge and Condell worked with William Shakespeare (1564–1616) in the King’s Men as actors and company shareholders and had exceptional access to the theater company’s collection of manuscripts. They despaired at how Shakespeare’s plays had been “abused, stolen, and deformed” in previous printed quarto editions and aimed to create a printed memorial of Shakespeare’s plays.

In that “First Folio,” they preserved not only plays that had been published before but also 18 works that had never been printed. It was also the first book to divide Shakespeare’s plays by genre: comedies, histories, and tragedies.

The “First Folio” is important because without it we might never have heard of  “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and “Something wicked this way comes” (“Macbeth”). We might never have known about “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and that “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune” (“Julius Caesar”). And no one would remember that “Our revels are now ended” and that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (“The Tempest”).

Staging 36 Plays

In his riveting book, Doran writes with elegance and palpable emotion as he weaves his personal life with that of his staging of 36 of Shakespeare’s extraordinary dramatic creations in the “First Folio.” For instance, he juxtaposes his mother’s death with his 2005 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As he recalls the difficulty of that period, he mentions that “Shakespeare must surely have been an insomniac because he is so obsessed with sleep.” He confesses that he couldn’t watch or read “King Lear” for years because the play, which is “the portrait of an old man descending into madness, was too close to home.” Doran’s father suffered and died of dementia. Believing that “King Lear” was too important to ignore, though, he forced himself to finally direct it in 2016.

Throughout his compelling narrative, Doran mentions that 80 percent of good directing is due to casting. He gives credit to actors he has worked with and whom he believes had most to do with the success of Royal Shakespeare Company productions. There is David Tennant (“Doctor Who”) as a powerful Hamlet in the play Doran refers to as “a thriller with a murder, a ghost, a revenge plot, a girl driven out of her wits to suicide, and a climactic sword fight.”

He continues with the challenge of casting Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Antony is not a role that actors have high on their list; most actors dismiss the part, saying “It’s her play.” So Doran was delighted when Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek”) agreed to play Mark Antony. At another time, he was delighted when Brian Cox (TV series “Succession”) agreed to play Othello opposite Antony Sher’s (the great Shakespearean actor) Iago.

In this fascinating autobiographical account, Doran offers an aside about Judi Dench (“M” in eight James Bond films) during the time she portrayed the Countess in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” The great English actress showed up for rehearsals when a ring from a mobile phone was heard. Mobile phones aren’t allowed during rehearsals, and Dench ran off so she wouldn’t be seen pulling her phone from her bag. But everyone knew it was her phone because the ringtone was that of the James Bond musical theme.

Doran was so committed to England’s profound poet and captivating dramatist that even his holiday trips involved the Bard of Avon. “Shakespeare knew his audience: the appeal of being transported through time and space, out of themselves and their everyday lives,” he writes. This is why Doran believes the setting of the plays was so important, and why he wanted to experience the atmosphere of those locations. Before mounting “Antony and Cleopatra,” he decided to go to Egypt; while preparing to direct “Much Ado About Nothing, he went to Sicily.” He visited Troy in Turkey, in advance of “Troilus and Cressida,” which Shakespeare set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, and which was immortalized in Homer’s epic “Iliad.”

Although this is mostly a serious book, there is an especially humorous moment in which a real-life nonvenomous snake was given the part of the snake that Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, uses to commit suicide after the death of Antony and the defeat of her forces against Octavian, the future emperor of Rome. The snake was named “Billy Snakespeare” and he was fed with frozen baby mice kept in the freezer. However, some of the theater staff developed ophidiophobia (an overwhelming fear of snakes) and were in a state of revolt. The prop department, however, saved the day when it fashioned something from rubber and a bicycle chain to serve as a substitute for the real serpent.

About the Bard of Avon

For those who love Shakespeare and for those who want to learn why there’s still such a fuss about the most influential writer in the English language four centuries after his death, Doran’s narrative offers insights.

While some have argued that the man called William Shakespeare wasn’t sufficiently educated to have written so many masterpieces, Doran explains how he had all the education he needed.

“Rhetoric, the art of persuading people through language, was an art familiar to Shakespeare because he had been taught at school where the curriculum was essentially the three R’s: reading, writing, and rhetoric. Following his exercises in his Lily’s Latin Grammar, he would have been tasked with writing a speech in Latin in which he had to imagine he was Brutus defending the assassination of Caesar. That would have stood him in very good stead a few years later when writing ‘Julius Caesar.’ He would have known about the three important aspects of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos and Logos.”

When Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson noted that he was “not for an age but for all time.” That encapsulates why the great dramatist is still relevant today. Doran points out that the problems in the society of Shakespeare’s time are similar to those of our own. Indeed, for Doran the COVID pandemic with its theater closures was similar to Shakespeare’s experience in 1604 when a large percentage of London perished during the bubonic plague.

In his time, “the world seemed to have lost its moral absolutes, to have loosed its moorings, and to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty,” Doran writes. “And this prevailing sense of doom, of futility, of apprehension is present in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  And perhaps that is why we recognize our own reflection in his work.”

Greg Doran's 2023 book traces his career as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Greg Doran's 2023 book traces his career as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey through the First Folioby Greg Doran Methuen Drama, April 20, 2023 Hardcover: 376 pages
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As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.
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