A Caribbean Take On Shakespeare's 'Much Ado'

Director Timothy Douglas looked to his Caribbean roots for inspiration for his staging of Much Ado About Nothing. The familiar characters in Douglas's latest production exchange barbs, rumors and lies with island accents in a vibrant alley in modern-day Washington D.C.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Shakespeare's plays had been reinterpreted in countless eras and locales. Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo dueled and wooed in Verona Beach. Cole Porter re-tamed the shrew as a musical. In the most recent adaptation, award-winning director Timothy Douglas sets "Much Ado About Nothing" in a vibrant alley in modern day Washington, D.C., and has the characters declaim their lines in Caribbean accents.

Timothy Douglas' "Much Ado" is running at Washington's Folger Shakespeare Theater, where, as it happens, he made his professional directing debut in 1995. His many credits include the world premiere of August Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf." And he joins us in just a moment.

So, how about you, what's your favorite Shakespeare remake or your favorite reinterpretation disaster? Give us a call. 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Director Timothy Douglas joins us from the studios of member station WHAD in Milwaukee. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. TIMOTHY DOUGLAS (Director, "Much Ado About Nothing"): Great to be here.

CONAN: And what gave you the idea of setting "Much Ado About Nothing" in modern day Washington?

Mr. DOUGLAS: I rely on intuition for everything that happens creatively. And when I was asked to consider "Much Ado" for the Folger, a series of images and impressions came to me and they meshed in this production.

CONAN: And you got the idea, I gather, at least I read in an interview, by looking at a poster for the Caribbean festival.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, first, it started with a conversation with the director of the Folger Theater, Janet Griffin, about what I would do with "Much Ado." And I was really interested in carnival. But I first thought of Brazil. But as I thought about it, all carnival tradition comes out of Trinidad, and that felt more - I felt more home with that. So as I started to pursue that and I went to D.C. to visit, it occurred to me that rarely do reinterpreted classics in D.C. get set in D.C. I've seen a lot of reinterpreted classics. And I thought, well, I'd like to do that.

And there was this dilemma, do I do the Trinidadian carnival? Or do I set it in D.C.? And then I heard the radio advertisement for the D.C. Caribbean Carnival and it all came together in that moment.

CONAN: And it all came - and then you also had to decide, well, how much do I reinterpret? For example, you've already changed the time and the place, did you think about changing the dialogue?

Mr. DOUGLAS: No. And it's the - first and foremost, is Shakespeare's story must be told as I understand it, and I would never change anything about Shakespeare's play to suit my conceits. So finding exact or augmented parallels was the most important thing to do.

CONAN: So as you looked at the play and realized that you were doing it in a resetting, I did notice that there's a character in your play called the DJ. I didn't think Shakespeare wrote for a DJ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, there were four characters who pass information in the play that really in these financial times and for other reasons didn't merit hiring four different actors. So the dialogue became an amalgam into one character. And the DJ idea comes from the Caribbean Carnival. During that parade, which most of us got to go to in June before we started rehearsing, every float had an amazing sound system with a DJ pumping contemporary Caribbean music. And there it was. It was authentic to D.C. and I put it right into the play.

CONAN: And the play is also full of music, funk, reggae, all of it thoroughly modern. We have a clip here from the song called "Pump Me Up" by Trouble Funk.

(Soundbite of song, "Pump Me Up")

TROUBLE FUNK (R&B/Funk Band): Pump, pump, pump, pump me up. Like a man with the (unintelligible), we're going to jump. I'm DJ Funk and I can pass the test, get down (unintelligible) from the east to west. (Unintelligible). It's DJ Funk with the master beat�

CONAN: And speaking of setting it in D.C., that is a typical D.C. style called go-go.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah. And that song was the entrance into the masked ball, which happens fairly early in the play.

CONAN: With the setting, the music, the language, how do you think this production has faired in making Shakespeare more accessible? Was that one of your goals?

Mr. DOUGLAS: My goal is to make sure that it's honest, truthful and authentic. And if it - that then translates into being more accessible, that - I know there's a great interest in that and I'm thrilled. And many people have told me they thought this was very accessible. But again, I was constantly on the lookout for the exact parallels, as I understand them, to Shakespeare's intentions.

CONAN: As you listened to the performers, some of them, particularly the women in the cast, do adopt the Caribbean accents. Some of them, especially the men, do not.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, it breaks down more specifically than that. What I began to realize with Beatrice and Benedict, and - I see that, I put the T at the end, Benedick.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUGLAS: �that they are heavily influenced by those around them as evidenced by the two duping scenes in the play, where they are told believing that they're not noticed that one loves the other, and that completely shifts their drive. So I felt, well, let's take that one step further. And they're absolutely influenced by the Caribbean culture that I've infused into this play, and that they're one generation removed. And so I understand more why they're so willing to trust and go with blind faith as opposed to if they were inherently understanding of the culture more.

CONAN: So this didn't bother you that it was not consistent throughout?

Mr. DOUGLAS: No. And actually the Caribbean dialect really further helped Shakespeare's language to sing. Shakespeare's language inherently is musical. And what I understood about Caribbean culture is that English is received from the British. So there's this innate understanding and connection to Shakespeare's English and putting it in that modern and cultural vernacular, again, it expanded meaning. And what it also does is it makes the audience's ear listen in a different.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DOUGLAS: So even those who know �Much Ado� inside and out was able to have a different experience and not just, you know, following along in the script, if those do that.

CONAN: Well, we know a certain 15-year-old who went with his parents to the show last night. And they planned to walk out after the first act because they had some other things to do. But he said, no, no, no, no, we're staying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: That's wonderful.

CONAN: That might make you feel pretty good.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah.

CONAN: As you - as the play has gone on through its run - and it's almost over, I hate to say - but have you learned anything?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I've learned many things, but for me personally the most profound thing is my style as a director is shifting. I have such reverence for the writing of Shakespeare. And as the play, the production was progressing, I was getting concerned that I was perhaps pulling Shakespeare down to realize a contemporary idea. But I couldn't tell. And there were times where I wanted to give an actor a note but I honestly couldn't tell if it was something to work on or if something new was happening. And it was too early to know. And so I chose to put my pen down for a couple of preview performances to see what would happen, and I'm so glad I followed that instinct�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUGLAS: �particularly with the characters of Beatrice and Benedick. And those actors are Rachel Leslie and Howard D. Overshown, who are extraordinary in this production.

CONAN: And Beatrice, you have to say, is just one of the best parts in Shakespeare.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah. You had to think for a moment, though, that this is reinterpreting Shakespeare. Well, it's like that old line from the Bonzo Dog Band: Jazz, Disgusting - Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold - it can be great, it can be a complete disaster, too.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Mm-hmm. Yes, it can be. I don't think this one is.

CONAN: No, I understand. But there had to have been that moment, say, oh, I don't know.

Mr. DOUGLAS: There were lots of little I-don't-know moments, but never one that, you know, made me want to leave the profession or anything like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: I've had those in the past.

CONAN: Yes. Haven't we all, in every profession? We want to get some listeners in on the conversation with their favorite or least favorite adaptation of Shakespeare. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Lisa is on the line, calling from Princeton.

LISA (Caller): Hi there. Our family-favorite adaptation of (unintelligible) - I'm sorry, �Much Ado About Nothing� is actually �Much Apu About Nothing� from �The Simpsons.�

CONAN: �The Simpsons.�

LISA: And we were wondering if you took any inspiration from that production for yours.

Mr. DOUGLAS: I love �The Simpsons� but I have not seen that episode, so I have to say no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll see if we can get you a DVD. Now that�

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay.

LISA: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lisa. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Reba(ph). Reba with us from Lawrence, Kansas.

REBA (Caller): Hi. My favorite Shakespeare play of all is �A Midsummer Night's Dream.� And when I was in college, my university had acquired the Max Reinhardt archives.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

REBA: And apparently when he came - first came to the United States they set him loose on the movie lot and said, cast who you want. So, Mickey Rooney he cast as Puck and I remember Arthur Treacher was the Wall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Before he went into the fish and chips business.

REBA: I guess so. And Joey Brown - I'm blanking on the part, but he was the actor who's�

CONAN: Rubber-faced actor, yes.

REBA: That donkey's head?

CONAN: Yes.

CARLO: Bottom. Yeah. And�

CONAN: No, I don't think that was a, you know, resetting of Shakespeare. That was just an interesting cast.

REBA: Yeah. But it made it memorable to me. I also had seen - I grew up in Connecticut, near the Stratford Shakespeare festival. And as a kid, I got to see some dress rehearsals with (unintelligible) playing the King.

CONAN: A lot of kings in Shakespeare, but�

REBA: On the character's name. This is also �Midsummer Night's Dream.�

CONAN: Oh, all right. All right. Reba, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

REBA: Sure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we have all seen Shakespeare in so many - in fact, at the Folger a few years ago, we saw Patrick Stewart in a version of �Othello� where he played �Othello� and all of the other characters were black.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Right.

CONAN: And that is, again, another way of making you look differently at the play. And I wonder, the Caribbean voices, how does it make you hear Shakespeare differently?

Mr. DOUGLAS: As I said earlier, the music - the inherent musicality in the Caribbean dialect speaking the King's English is so seductive. And with very intelligent actors, which I have in this production, you know, they are not undermining the complexity of the words or the given circumstances. And the combination, it's - you're dealing with some very difficult matters in this play, particularly the wedding, when Hero is basically called a whore at her wedding�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUGLAS: �in public. And I chose not to undercut the intensity of that. And then on top of that - and some of your listeners will know what I'm talking about - if that happened at a black wedding - total chaos and pandemonium. What's wonderful about Shakespeare's language, though, is that he can contain even the extremity of those emotional reactions. So, the combination of the lilt of the dialect with those given circumstances makes it palatable without backing off of the intensity of the situations.

CONAN: We're talking with director Timothy Douglas, who directed "Much Ado About Nothing," currently running at the Folger Shakespeare Theater here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Paul on the line. Paul calling from St. Louis.

PAUL (Caller): Hi, guys.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Hi.

PAUL: My favorite remake is Shakespeare's "The Tempest" done with Robby the Robot playing the Ariel character in "Forbidden Planet."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Monsters from the id.

PAUL: Absolutely. Just an absolutely fantastic movie. They got on the edge of campy and very serious. It was a whole lot of fun. And it took sci-fi to a new level for the time.

CONAN: All right. Paul, thanks very much.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Fantastic.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email from Daniel in Portland: my 14-year-old daughter just realized this weekend that Disney's movie "The Lion King" is in many ways a retelling of Hamlet. Uncle kills father, son visited by ghost of dad, son seeks to reclaim kingdom. Not all the parallels are there, less death in the Disney version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: I actually assisted on a stage version of Disney's musical "Hunchback of Notre Dame." And during the rehearsal process, the Disney executives insisted that Esmeralda live.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: And so, I've seen a version where Esmeralda lived. But even they realized, no, they - we had to let her go.

CONAN: Right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's talk with Lisa. Lisa calling from Phoenix.

LISA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LISA: Hello?

CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air.

LISA: Hi. Yes, I don't have a favorite, per se. I have always enjoyed "West Side Story,� which was a take off of "Romeo and Juliet."

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yes.

LISA: But I really have a (unintelligible) to know if there will be encore performances or if the production will be traveling. I just heard about it now. I keep my radio tuned to NPR, so I - that's how I get my information about what's going on, on the other side of the country here. But I'd love to see your performance. Don't think I can get to D.C. anytime soon, wanting to know if it'll be traveling.

Mr. DOUGLAS: At this point, there are no plans for its future. It ends this Sunday. But I have great hope that I'll get to do another version of it somewhere else. And, also, if you ever get to D.C., this production has been archived. And through the�

LISA: Oh, wonderful.

Mr. DOUGLAS: �Folger Shakespeare Library, I believe you can arrange to see it, if you wish.

LISA: Oh, great. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, Lisa. We will welcome you on your next trip to Washington, then.

LISA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Diana. Diana with us from San Anselmo in California.

DIANA (Caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DIANA: I have a least favorite adaptation. I saw the "Midsummer Night's Dream" in Chicago at the Goodman, in - it must have been 1991 or '92. And they had done it very punk.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DIANA: Like, the director was into the darker, steamy side of the sexuality in "Midsummer Night's Dream," which I had never really been aware of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANA: You know, and so, Puck came out, his first opening scene, he had the Mohawk and he had a can of spray paint and he wrote - well, I can't say it on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANA: But he wrote his name minus the line in the P, and then went back and connected it to make it a Puck.

CONAN: I see.

DIANA: And I have to say, my father was with me and he hadn't seen very much Shakespeare. And halfway through, he turned to me and said, is it usually like this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, you know, I didn't get to see that production. But - and I - by your description, one thing I can say in defense of it is that the beginning of "Midsummer Night's Dream" with Theseus and Hippolyta, Hippolyta is a prisoner of war. And there are some very deep sexual politics going on there. And it's rarely brought up, because we only like to think of "Midsummer Night's Dream" as the romance between the lovers and the fun times with the fairies.

But things like "Midsummer," and also "Pericles," which is not often done, which is also considered one of the romances, the opening is about incest. But we conveniently want to go by that because it's unpleasant in the same way that it - you know, we want Esmeralda to live in "Hunchback of Notre Dame." So, again, I can't defend the production itself, but I understand the take on it�

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DOUGLAS: �trying to give an American audience an equivalent impact of what the Elizabethans understood about these plays.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Diana.

DIANA: Thank you.

CONAN: And we hope you got your money back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email from John in Minneapolis. I saw a great high school production of "Twelfth Night" recently, set in post-war, pre-revolutionary Cuba, and it worked great. Viola and Sebastian were sibling movie stars whose plane had crashed there. Olivia and Orsino would break into Spanish occasionally, quite an impression for high school. I'm not sure�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: �if that worked. But apparently, it worked well for that writer. Thank you very much, Timothy Douglas. And good luck.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Timothy Douglas' currently production is "Much Ado About Nothing." It's running at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington through November 29th. And he joined us today from member station WHAD in Milwaukee.

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