Why Shakespeare is Julie Taymor’s Superhero

For the renowned director of the screen and stage, the Bard is a fantasy and a nightmare

(Marco Grob / Trunk Archive)
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“This character [who turns out to be Puck, the chief instigator of mischief among the lovers in the play] is sleeping in a bed and from out of the earth trees push the mattress up and it floats, and then the bedsheets get attached and the mechanicals—the real mechanicals, my workmen—pull out the sheet and it becomes a canopy which becomes the sky. What I’m trying to do is what I think the play does so brilliantly—it goes from the poetic to the mundane, from the magical to the banal, kind of gossamer and intangible to the concrete and, you know, gaudy and real.”

She speaks almost as if possessed.

“It’s earthiness and concrete,” she goes on, “it’s there, you can touch it. A person sleeping in a bed dreams...trees grow, the bed floats, then these kind of New York guys come out and attach a hook and you see them pulling a light circuit, they pull the bedsheet up and it’s a sky! It’s a sky!”

The bedsheet/sky she says is her “ideograph” for this production, a word she uses for an emblematic design element—the play is about love and sex, after all—and everything else in her visual scheme grows out of it. Taymor started off as a theater set designer and she’s always found her way into a play through visual concepts. (Her ideograph for The Lion King, she says, was the wheel, from the Circle of Life to the bicycles the antelopes rode.)

“So from the bed, they start to make the trestle table for the wedding,” she says. “They do what I feel we as humans do—we take nature, we take a tree, and we make chairs, we make tables, we make concrete things out of natural ones. So we’re constantly reforming and reshaping what is nature into something practical, mechanical, useful. Weddings, marriages are useful because they control our inner natures. They put boundaries and handcuffs on our natural instincts.”

She speaks about the spirituality she finds in her productions.

“There’s a certain point of divine spirit that is inexplicable. You either feel it or you don’t. It takes you to another level. It happened in The Lion King—people don’t know why they cry. They don’t know! Something in the art of it touched them in a deep DNA way. And I’ve been able to be involved in productions that have had that effect on me, on the performers, on the audience....”

She takes a breath.

“That’s what I strive for.”

And she finds it over and over again in Shakespeare. For instance, the eternal question of love at first sight, the bewitching focus of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “What does the play do with that? What do we learn?”


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