Interviews - Prof. Ladan Niayesh - Part III
Prof. Ladan Niayesh
What would you say is the overreaching difference between this adaptation and Shakespeare's original play? And how would you evaluate this evolution of script?
The first obvious difference is the change of medium. Shakespeare & Co wrote their play texts – or “scripts”, as you have spontaneously called them – at a time when cinema was not an option. Even if the circular form of an early modern stage offers more changes of perspectives than a frontal opera stage, we come nowhere near the multifocal options of a modern camera, its movements, the cuts, the angles, etc. The cinematic medium by essence invites successive takes and multiplicity of perspective, so the revised text might as well follow and adjust to that, with multiple hands and voices contributing tonal changes: some more philosophical and others more poetic, some ancient Greek, others early modern and others original and atemporal. Yet the ensemble keeps its thematic unity, orchestrated and led by the conductor that Maximianno is by training and background. Overall, I think this version works more in a dialogic, or even symphonic, way across periods and genres, which is a great way of revisiting multiple legacies, not just transposing them in awe and reverence, but writing back to them and continuing the conversations they started.
Do you think using texts and sonnets from Shakespeare's vast body of work is an effective way of adapting and evolving his plays into something even more modern and empowering?
Absolutely. Shakespeare’s oeuvre itself is such an echo-chamber of pre-existing legacies, from classical references to humanist rhetoric and moral adages. He and his contemporaries mixed and matched these constantly in their “commonplace books” (personal notebooks), which they would carry about to take notes on a daily basis and later use to compose their correspondence, poems, plays and other writings. When attending a performance, the trained ears of early modern audiences used to wait for those purple-patches and fashionable quotes to turn up and make connoisseur jokes here and there. Our postmodern culture of collage and bricolage and our social media from Twitter to Instagram encourage a similar logic of fragmenting and recomposing existing materials and trends. We are used to tonal changes, and maybe our shorter attention spans actually welcome them as a way to jerk us back to our multiple reference points and add to our pleasure by striking new connections between them.
This production, adapted by Maximianno Cobra, has used not only Shakespearean text and sonnets; but drawn from philosophical texts like Plato's Symposium to dramatical theory such as Nietzsche's "the Birth of Tragedy". Does Shakespeare's varied use of prose and verse, poetry and staccato lend itself to embracing and consuming other lyrical work into his stories?
Certainly. As I said in earlier parts of this interview, the practice of collaboration between dramatists with different styles and idiosyncrasies was common in the period, and so were changes from prose to verse and its varieties (blank verse most of the time, but also songs, sonnets, doggerel, etc.). Maximianno’s adapted passages and additions do not force the new material into iambic pentameters, but simply iron out the edges by keeping a certain harmony and fluidity in the rhythm, with a couple of archaisms here and there for stylistic coherence. He scrupulously checked every single one of them with the early modernist that I am, and his overall policy was one of minimal retouching when enlisting a non-Shakespearean material. The ruling principle throughout was to sound things out aloud and also listen to how they worked with an actor. The rule of thumb is not necessarily there for the meter, but the overall music and flow certainly are. The finished film is not there yet, but when it is, I am confident the audience will hear no jarring notes when transitioning between the different texts and legacies.
Looking at specific changes in this adaptation, probably the most significant is that of Alcibiades. Can you talk us through how the character has been developed in this film?
At the time of this interview, the film is still in the making, so it is hard to talk about the final product by basing myself mostly on the script. But what I particularly like so far is the way this version renders justice to the bicephalous tragedy of two men, and not just that of one hero as the title of the play would have it. Shakespeare’s original puts in parallel the fates of two differently equipped protagonists, the rich man and the captain, in the face of a similar experience of injustice and rejection. The man of action and youth, Alcibiades, temporarily loses his social position, but none of his intrinsic qualities which allow him to return as a revenger and reassert his own. This option balances things out to some extent compared to the trajectory of the older man, Timon, who loses all, once and for all, and will not come back. The perspective of Shakespeare’s play is more that of the older man, watching the younger one from the side. But in Maximianno’s version, the “what if…?” option explored here, we stick more with the younger man, and watch the other from that angle.
Staying with Alcibiades, the film uses an interlude from Plato's Symposium (depicting the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades). What does this, in turn, tell us about the relationship between Timon and Alcibiades?
Socrates and Plato are the great “absent/present” couple and background presiding over the development of this adaptation. By cross-coupling Alcibiades with the philosopher Socrates, this version gives us a very interesting touchstone to measure the rest of the plot by, and also to further humanize Alcibiades. Here, Socrates the man of experience and lover is the missing link explaining the full character of Alcibiades, who in the original version gradually gets closer to that other killing-machine character, Coriolanus, in Shakespeare’s last Roman tragedy of the same name. This version gives potential to Alcibiades to develop as a more nuanced character underneath his armour, more fully human, capable of being humbled and touched by an admirable father/lover-figure like Socrates, and not just stay the honourable captain pitted against the state which has failed and banished him. The back story of Alcibiades and Socrates provided by this scenario is, I think, an intelligent way of both keeping the Shakespearean original as it stands, and doubling it to enrich the perspective in new directions, increasing our potential for empathy towards Alcibiades. The method itself is fully Shakespearean, as he and his contemporaries were quite used to resorting to multiple, interconnected plots in their plays for tonal effects and additional angles on a topic or character.
The 3 Councillors (originally Senators in Shakespeare's play) and their grand "agon" (or debate) with Alcibiades has been heightened in this film; what has that done to concentrate the political themes of the story?
Dramatic intensity and character development for Alcibiades are the first benefits of those welcome additions, and yes, of course, further underlining the political dimension, the hypocrisy of the state’s voice pretending to speak for the majority and to work for the greater good. Maximianno’s enlisting other voices and moments of political manipulation from elsewhere in Shakespeare was a great idea in this respect. One example is Mark Antony’s harangue to the populace from which he has borrowed the well-remembered opening, slightly retouching it as “Friends, Grecians, countrymen…”, suggesting a good communication ploy can be transposed wherever men remain men.
Along with Alcibiades, the Councillors and the Soldiers, Maximianno has greatly expanded the female roles from the original text (creating the role of Praxilla of Sicyon; as well as developing the characters of Phrynia and Timandra). Can you talk us through how this changes the dynamic of the piece?
Female parts are clearly under-developed in the original Timon, where they are at best remembrances of lost female agency in the masque of the Amazons at Timon’s party, and at worst common prostitutes following the train of Alcibiades and his soldiers. Maximianno’s version has tried to restore, if not gender balance (which would be hard without writing altogether a different story), at least gender representation and visibility, notably by introducing very early on the speaking part of the poetess Praxilla, a rare genuinely friendly figure to Timon. Here, female characters – whether an added one like Praxilla or originally there but significantly expanded ones like Timandra and Phrynia – are not mere utilities or vociferous nuisances, but fully articulate parties in the debate on humanity and philosophical positions in that debate. This version of Misanthropos is definitely not a Misogynos!
Further to that question, Shakespeare wrote so many incredible roles for female characters (though played by men in his time period), why do you think women play such a minor role in the original "Timon of Athens"? And do you think it's important more adaptations seek to address the imbalance of gender roles, as this one has?
For better or worse, we have to face the reality that Shakespeare was writing for an all-male theatrical company, with female roles and young boy roles conceived and doubled as two parts of the expressive palette of the same boy actor. Timon does not make much of the male/female angles on the issues it tackles, but goes instead for the old/young angles, while possibly using the same boy actors who would hold female parts in other plays staged alongside this one. The early stage history of the play is mostly speculative, and we have no details about the boy actors available or actually playing in the original staging. This is of course frustrating for the scholar, yet it is blissfully liberating for the modern adapter and director, who have fully free hands for correcting such things as the gender imbalance according to the expectations of their own time and place, without the constraining burden of repertory habits harking back to an original tradition.
One of my favourites changes is, of course, my role of Lucilius. By combining so many of the minor servants into one role, Maximianno has created this fully realized character who has his own arc from naive lover to destroyed pessimist. How does seeing the story from the point of view (not just of the elite, but) of the servants help the audience relate to Timon's plight?
Shakespeare’s theatre from the outset was a theatre catering to both elite and popular audiences within the same space, from gentlemen’s galleries to the yard where the groundlings would stand. Seldom in his or his contemporaries’ plays do we see plots which do not open up a large social spectrum, involving master perspectives and servant perspectives in complementarity. This mixture is part and parcel of the programme of a theatre which called itself “the Globe”, with the ambition of reflecting humanity in all its diversity. Skipping or reducing the servants’ roles and perspectives in an adaptation would lose half the picture of humanity as painted in Shakespeare’s plays. In the case of Timon’s adaptation by Maximianno, making the servants’ parts coalesce around the rich and multifaceted figure of Lucilius was an excellent idea to boost the expressivity of that group in this universal plot. The story of Lucilius here is the story of a common man’s initiation to the way of the world, from innocence to experience. He is probably the character with whom the audience would identify most spontaneously, besides the choric function he also has for us in commenting the downfall of his master.
And lastly, what do you take away from the story of "Timon of Athens"?
For a story that advertises itself as one of “misanthropy”, perhaps the most paradoxical characteristic of Timon the play and Timon the man is their deep humanity. This is not the solitary story of one who merely turns his back on fellow men, but a polyphony of characters deeply united in their human predicament and sharing their experience with us, their offstage or off-screen fellow humans. The lesson may be on loss, but it is not a lost lesson, up to the epitaph through which Timon still tries to communicate with others and share his dearly acquired, disillusioned wisdom. Humility and humanity are what I take away from this story, and yes, paradoxically a sense of community around those notions, as I guess you as a team working on this long-term project also did. Kudos to you for having abided this long by Timon, and best of success to your collective work on this not-that-man-hating-after-all hero!
Ladan Niayesh is Professor of English Studies at the University of Paris Diderot - Paris 7. She is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay -St Cloud. Her PhD was on the representations of cannibalism on the early modern English stage, and her Habilitation was about the representations of strangeness and strangerness in early modern English literature. Her current research interests are in editing travel drama and travel writings in that period, with a particular interest in travels to Persia and Muscovy.
Education and Academic Positions:
1990, Ecole Normale Supérieure
1993, Agrégation d’anglais
2000, PhD, University of Montpellier 3. Dissertation title: Aux frontières de l’humain: Figures du cannibalisme dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
2010, Habilitation à diriger des recherches, University of Montpellier 3. Title: Etrangeté et étrangèreté dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
1995-2000: Allocataire Monitrice Normalienne and ATER at the University of Montpellier
2000-2012, Maître de conferences (Senior Lecturer), Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
2012-present, Professor, Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
Board Member, Conseil Scientifique, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris Saclay (Cachan)
Member of the Hakluyt Society Council
Associate editor, Cahiers Elisabéthains
Member of editorial board, Renaissance Studies
British Literature and history of ideas, 16th-17th centuries
Early Modern theatre (Shakespeare and his contemporaries) and its modern adaptations
Travel literature, particularly in connection with Persia and the Ottoman empire in the early modern period