Reporting from San Diego — — If it weren't for Adrian Noble's poor eyesight, Southern Californians might not be gaining new insights into William Shakespeare this summer.
As a lad growing up in Chichester, England, Noble, the future artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was afflicted with myopia. One day when his optician was "poking about in my eye," he told Noble about his improbable plan to start a world-class theater festival right there in Chichester, featuring some of Britain's best actors.
It sounded a bit barmy. But a few years later, in 1962, the Chichester Festival was born, and Noble was among the first audiences to see a who's who of England's stage royalty taking on multiple roles in a variety of plays, Shakespearean and otherwise.
"I don't think he realized quite what he'd done, actually," Noble said recently of the now legendary impresario-optician, Leslie Evershed-Martin. " Laurence Olivier. Ralph Richardson. Edith Evans was there. Michael Redgrave. Maggie Smith. I mean, it was just astonishing."
From that youthful exposure, Noble began to develop a lasting appreciation for the concept of a theater company that could tackle several plays at once in rotating repertory and in which there were no small parts, only small actors. (For the record, Noble counts many very big actors among his friends and colleagues, including the Oscar winner he refers to as "Danny Day-Lewis.")
Now he's bringing that time-honored idea to San Diego's Old Globe, where he's serving as artistic director of the venue's annual summer play festival. This year's lineup consists of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and "King Lear," along with Alan Bennett's 1991 "The Madness of George III," a fictionalized biographical drama about the 18th century British monarch whose autocratic hubris sparked the American Revolution. Ron Daniels directs "Shrew" and Noble the other two plays, all performed through September in the outdoor amphitheater at the Old Globe's picturesque campus in San Diego's Balboa Park.
Repertory theater is a way of performing, and experiencing, plays that's regrettably rare in the United States, mostly because of the difficulty and prohibitive cost of getting several dozen actors, designers and technicians to sign on to a months-long commitment. Noble, whose recent directing credits include opera productions in Paris and at New York's Metropolitan Opera as well as the hit musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" in London's West End, believes that the rewards of repertory festivals are as great for audiences as for actors.
"It gives an audience a chance to get to know a company of players. That's the nice thing," he said. "And sometimes there's a dialogue between the plays, so there's a dialogue between 'King Lear' and 'The Madness of [George III].' And there's a dialogue in a way between 'King Lear,' one of the great middle to late tragedies, and 'The Taming of the Shrew,' one of the early lighter comedies. It gives an audience a bit of a sense of occasion."
To heighten that dialogue, Noble is setting "Lear" in 1776 rather than its usual much older milieu. As the production advances the setting gradually will update to around the time between the 20th century's two world wars, offering a sub-textual commentary on how concepts of monarchy and leadership have evolved through the ages.
Widely regarded as a meticulous student of Elizabethan verse, Noble, 59, has made Shakespeare's works as well as his approach to ensemble-building a cornerstone of his career.
That's hardly surprising for a man who devoted 13 years of his life to running the world's premier Shakespeare company (controversially, at times), who knows the author's oeuvre inside-out, and who last year published a book, "How to Do Shakespeare," that fuses personal anecdotes with practical, hands-on knowledge and astute line readings that illuminate Shakespeare's technique.
But Noble's reverence for the Bard's humanistic universality goes even deeper.
"I think Shakespeare is one of the great civilizing influences in the world. I think he's one of the great unifiers of mankind," said Noble, who once directed "Twelfth Night" in Japan at a time when there were more Shakespeare productions in Tokyo than in London.
"They [the Japanese] just love him. So I think having Shakespeare in a life is a very, very important element."
Noble credits Shakespeare with inventing the structure of the modern repertory company. By writing plays for his own troupe (known as the King's Men, after their patron, King James I), Shakespeare allowed a specific group of actors to mature and take on more ambitious roles over time, Noble said, while the playwright himself grew more artful and sophisticated in his plotting and poetry.