All the World's a Stage

Theater expert and lecturer Richard Digby Day talks about what he knows best

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, British stage director and international professor/lecturer Richard Digby Day led a master class, “Richard Digby Day in a Discussion on The Two Elizabeths,” at the UCLA Faculty Center. The lecture followed his two-day stint teaching Department of Theater Chair Michael Hackett’s graduate Shakespeare acting class. Digby Day, who is particularly well known for his work in classical theater and is considered to have a special penchant for the plays of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, has been the Artistic Director of six major regional theaters in the UK, including Shakespeare in the Park. Taking a break after the lecture, Digby Day spoke with TFT’s Noela Hueso about the playwrights, the two Elizabeths, and a couple of guys named Fiennes and Grant.

Why did you start lecturing on British history?
Richard Digby Day:
I’ve always liked history. In the past two years, I’ve started talking about history and the various royal houses of England.

What’s the most interesting thing about these two monarchs?
Digby Day:
Elizabeth the First is, inevitably, a much more interesting person but then, we don’t know everything about the Queen yet. The Queen keeps a diary of every day of her life and, of course, nobody sees it. Nobody is going to see it until she's probably been dead for at least 50 years. Elizabeth the First was a ruler in the practical sense. She saw herself absolutely wedded to England. Elizabeth the Second is restrained by all the constitutional elements that have crept in the 400 years since. Elizabeth the First was able to express all of her opinions with an astonishing degree of directness. For the Queen to do that it would be considered to be inappropriate.

Where are the similarities between them?
Digby Day:
The only real similarity is the fact that they both never expected to be the sovereign — and the fact that they both came to throne at exactly the same age, 25, which was pure chance.

Where does your love of Shakespeare come from?
Digby Day:
I’m not entirely certain except that I always loved words from the time I was a little boy. From the very first time I was taken to the theater when I was four, I wanted to be an actor. It was only later when I was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) I discovered that I wanted to be a director. Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” (1944) made an enormous impression on me. It was extraordinary meeting him much later. Now I’m actually working with Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, on a stage project about her life.

When did you decide to become a director?
Digby Day:
It was half decided for me. When I was at RADA where I had won the Leverhulme Scholarship as a promising young actor, I began to realize about halfway through the program that probably I ought to be a director. I asked the principal at the end of the first year [if I could direct a play]. He said, “Yes, why not.” It was quite a big success. I did one more term as an actor and then he sent for me and he said, “You know, we really feel you ought to be director. There’s no directing program here at RADA but we will try and invent one for you. You will have to go speak to various members of the faculty and ask ways in which they can assist you.” That’s entirely what happened.

Did you ever teach at RADA in the program they created for you?
Digby Day:
I finished in June 1963 and less than two years later I was teaching at RADA. I’ve taught there on a number of occasions since. As you get older it’s very important to pass on what you know. It’s only by joining up the past and the present that you can make any sort of theater for the future. Telling students what you know is vital if you've got something interesting to say.

Is it true that you discovered Ralph Fiennes and Hugh Grant?
Digby Day:
I’m afraid it is. Ralph was just leaving RADA and we needed an assistant stage manager for a production of Twelfth Night. He was also going to play a small part in it. I cast somebody to play the duke, Orsino, and Ralph played one of his attendants. He had only about six lines. I knew from the moment we started rehearsals that Ralph should have been playing the duke and the other person should have been playing the attendant.

Hugh Grant wrote to me from Oxford University when I was running Nottingham Playhouse (20 years after getting my start there). I decided I would see him audition. When he came in, he was rather like what subsequently turned out to be his character in a lot of movies — flustered, insecure, uncertain but charming. I asked him, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I am going to do a speech from Hamlet.” He started on it and got himself into a terrible muddle. Then I did something I very rarely do: I said, “Look, you seem very nervous. Why don't you go away and come back in half an hour calmed down and do the speech again?” So he did and I gave him a job, which turned out to be the only time he has ever appeared on the stage.

What cinematic presentations of Shakespeare stand in your mind?
Digby Day:
The Russian 1964 film of “Hamlet,” which has music by Shostakovich: The quality of the acting, in spite of the fact that it’s in Russian, is something absolutely extraordinary; Orson Welles’ “Othello,” which he made partially penniless while he was in Venice and Morocco. They couldn’t afford the costume hire so one of the scenes had to be done in a Turkish bath with them wearing towels. You’d think under those circumstances it would be ghastly but it is, in fact, extremely interesting. Of recent things, I've enormously enjoyed the American version of “Much Ado About Nothing” that came out last year made in about 10 days in somebody's house in Santa Monica.

What is it about Shakespeare that has endured for so many generations?
Digby Day:
That’s such a question. The stories that Shakespeare tells, looked at very flatly, are often not very interesting. They’re stories that are told by other people better. But it is Shakespeare’s extraordinary power of expression and his fantastic observation of the huge range of human nature that seem to be it.

Is there any truth to the Christopher Marlowe theory?
Digby Day:
I would say very simply that the evidence points strongly to Shakespeare the grammar school boy from Stratford-upon-Avon being the author of these plays. The people who don't want to believe that Shakespeare wrote it are really snobs because they can't bear to believe that somebody with such little education could have done such a tremendous thing.

What can you tell me about Shaw?
Digby Day:
In terms of the amount of high quality work that he did, he's the only dramatist besides Shakespeare who wrote a large number of plays in English that are still regularly performed.

The sort of theater that Shaw was attempting to create was, of course, much more related to the sort of theater that Ibsen had created, which was a theater that was going to address the major questions of the age. Shaw’s plays all addressed major social issues, many of which remain major social issues 100 years after they were written.

Such as?
Digby Day:
The problems of prostitution, which are addressed by Shaw in Mrs. Warren’s Profession; the problems of slum landlordism, which are addressed in his first play, Widowers’ Houses; our relationship with doctors in The Doctor’s Dilemma, which addresses the absurdly false faith that sometimes we are inclined to put in doctors equally the need to put that faith in…all sorts of things to do with politics, with the sciences of life.

Shaw wrote wonderful parts for women. The other thing I love about Shaw is that he’s always prepared to give the devil his due: He makes absolutely certain that the alternative arguments are very well presented. He also realized that English and American audiences, which were going to be his big audiences, were not going to listen to polemical plays unless they were also spiced with a strong sense of humor.

Shaw was Irish and remained an outsider [in England]. He was able to write with a great deal of wit about the absurdities of English behavior.

Posted: March 10, 2014