The old fashioned theatre critics hated him. I imagine that the Quentin Letts of this world still do. It isn’t “Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet” they snarled, “It’s SHAKESPEARE’S Hamlet.” They even invented a snarl word, “producer’s opera”, to describe what he was doing.
Miller had an answer for them. I heard him lecture several times at Sussex, when I was doing English and he was doing brain surgery. There is no such thing as a production without production ideas, he said; all there can be is a production which copies the ideas of the last production, and the production before that. For years, Chekov had a reputation for being stodgy and boring because the Moscow State Theatre held the copyright, and endlessly reproduced the same play, with the same sets and the same costumes and the same out-dated acting styles which had been prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The works had, as he put it, become mummified. “The D’Oyly Carte did much the same thing to Gilbert and Sullivan” he added “But in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn’t matter one way or the other.”
In 1987 he produced the Mikado for the English National Opera. Everyone knows what he did: reimagined the play on a 1920s film set, with largely black and white costumes, all the characters wearing smart suits and cocktail dresses and speaking with clipped English accents. “But the Mikado isn’t set in England!” cried people who hadn’t seen it. Maybe not: but I doubt that there were too many second trombones performing English sea shanties in feudal Japan. However you stage it, the play is about English people playing at being Japanese. Yum-Yum is an English school girl, so why not accentuate the gag by putting her in an English school uniform as opposed to a kimono. “But I do love you, in my simple Japanese way...”
And then of course there were the changes to the script. “And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing...oh bugger the flowers that bloom in the spring...”. The production has been revived fourteen times. It arguably saved the company.
Moving classical works from one time frame to another is what we all associate with Miller. I think his Rigoletto (or, if you insist, Verdi’s) was the first live opera I ever saw. The setting has moved from Italy to “Little Italy”; the Duke is now “Da Duke” and Sparafucile is a “hit man” rather than a “murderer for hire”. “But I didn’t think they had court jesters in 1930s New York” complained by traditionalist Grandfather. No: but with a little judicious jiggling of the libretto (the E.N.O always work in translation) the story of the hunchbacked bar-tender and his tragic daughter made complete sense. Miller said that audiences who didn't think they would like opera responded to this. (“Oh, it’s just like a musical” he said in his Pythonesque normal chap accent.) Possibly this was why the old guard couldn’t accept him: audiences liked what he was doing.
My own acting career began and ended with a walk-on part as “third servant on the left” in a student production of Twelfth Night, and Dr Miller sat in on one of our rehearsals and made some suggestions to the producer. (This was a nice thing to do: an amdram show couldn’t have been very interesting to him; but it did mean we got to put his name in the programme.) He said that contrary to popular belief he didn't think there was any point in "updating" Shakespeare: making it "relevant" made about as much sense as going to Spain and refusing to eat anything except fish and chips. On the other hand, most modern actors look incredibly awkward in doublets and togas. The thing to do, he said, was to treat it as an uncostumed production, but to choose clothes which might suggest to the audience what character types we were portraying. Avoid at all costs allowing Andrew Aguecheek to become a falsetto ninny, he said. That was, of course, exactly how our guy had been playing him. Ever since, in every production of Shakespeare I have seen, I have waited for the arrival of the Falsetto Ninny and rarely been disappointed.
I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile. Hamlet checking his make-up in a looking glass and noting that the point of theatre is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.
Not all the ideas worked. There is some truth in the accusation that he took other people’s texts and filled them with his own ideas. (“I think that the blackness of Othello has been over-emphasized” he once wrote. “Presumably by Shakespeare” retorted Private Eye.) His BBC King Lear strayed into ludicrousness. Spotting that Edgar descends into a kind of hell at the beginning of the play and then rises again in the final act, he made the poor actor deliver all the mad scenes in a full crown-of-thorns and stigmata. Considering Ibsen’s Ghosts, he pointed out that that is just not how syphilis works. You can’t go from being fine and lucid to crazy and blind in one afternoon. So he invented a parallel play in which Osvald only thinks he has inherited the disease from his dissolute father; briefly suffers from hysterical blindness and is presumably euthanized by his mother while in perfectly good health. But no-one who has survived an unexpurgated Long Days Journey Into Night (which doesn’t clock in at less than five hours) can have had the slightest objection to Miller’s legendary production, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, in which the big idea was that all the characters talk at once.
This is the main thing which seems to have interested him: in opera, theatre and science: how communication works; how people talk; their gestures; their body language; where they position themselves in the discourse. What if you took Eugene O'Neill's words and made the actors say them as if they were part of a normal conversation, overlaps and interruptions and all? What if Violetta behaved like a terminally ill patient with the symptoms of tuberculosis? What if Alice in Wonderland was not a whacky panto but a disturbing Kafkaesque dream-world populated, not by mad comical hatters, but frighteningly insane people who serve you empty cups of tea and threaten to cut your head off and won’t tell you why. What if? You can only know by trying it out; it doesn’t matter if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think that is the most important thing he taught us. Texts are unstable. There is no true version of Twelfth Night. Each production is a conjecture. In the theatre, anything goes.
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