On an inconspicuous side street not far from the River Thames, a slight man in jeans and sweat shirt is talking and gesturing intensely, his face within inches of another man's, who is leaning back against a parked car. A London street brawl in the making?
Not quite. The lean frame belongs to Dustin Hoffman, and the vehement words are Shakespeare's.
Inside a nearby building, a rehearsal for British director Peter Hall's production of ``The Merchant of Venice'' was in progress. The production played a sold-out run in London last summer, and now, having crossed the Atlantic, is set to open on Broadway next Tuesday.
Inside the hall at the rehearsal I visited last spring, Sir Peter was running through a scene with other cast members, while Hoffman and the other actor were going over their lines outdoors. Soon it was lunch time, and Hall, arguably Britain's most influential postwar theater director (he headed the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre), took a break over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon to tell me how he and Hoffman managed to team up for one of the most talked-about shows of the year.
``I knew Dustin slightly,'' recalled Sir Peter between mouthfuls. ``He called me up ... and said, `I want to do some Shakespeare; do you think I can?' I said, `It depends what it is, and how you want to begin.' He suggested one or two things that I didn't think were appropriate, particularly to start with. Then I mentioned Shylock to him, because it's a great part, and I think in this day and age it has to be played by a Jew, since the play is about racism. Just as I think Othello has to be played by a black man.''
Hall expands on this point: Today's society is acutely race conscious, he notes. ``Blessedly so,'' he adds; but this has led to certain taboos. ``And one of those taboos,'' he says, ``is one race imitating another. As a consequence, today, for example, I think Jewishness is better expressed by somebody who is Jewish than by somebody pretending to be. I don't insist on it. But I think it's more in tune with the particular times we live in.
But isn't casting a Jew as Shylock also a way of making more acceptable a play that may, to some, appear to feed into centuries old anti-Semitic sentiments?
``I don't think it's an anti-Semitic play,'' says Sir Peter. ``I think it's a play about intolerance, in which the Christians come out rather worse than the Jews. ... One of the things the play is saying is: Whatever the faults of the Jews as a minority, they have been produced by what the Christians have done to them; the `Hath not a Jew eyes,' that great speech, is conveying precisely that.
``I think what's brilliant about it is that Shakespeare wrote the play for an audience that would have been anti-Semitic. Yet he turned it right around and said to them, `Do you realize what you are doing?' ... The central point for me is that Shylock wants to be like the Christians, to some extent. He wants to belong; he wants to join the country club, and they won't let him. ... If the [production] works, your heart breaks for Shylock.''
Intolerance, Hall contends, is the overriding theme of every scene in the play, not only between gentile and Jew, but men and women, old and young, rich and poor, white and black. Each character, through the extremities of their circumstance, tries to achieve some form of maturity; yet, tantalizingly, the final act does not bring a complete resolution.
```The Merchant of Venice' doesn't have an easy, happy ending,'' the director says, ``but has always been so popular that there are ... a lot of clich'es surrounding it. The play is a bit like the `Mona Lisa': Everybody thinks they know it, so they don't really look at it.''
Hall's Broadway production of ``Merchant'' will include Hoffman and 11 others from the British cast; pushing for wholesale transatlantic stage transfers - a difficult business, given the protective nature of both British and American unions - is something Hall feels strongly about. ``We've got two cultures that share so many riches,'' he says. ``I wish we could share our actors more. I think English plays in America done by the English and American plays done here by Americans would have such a wonderful revitalizing effect on our theater and our societies.''
`MERCHANT'' marks the second production of Sir Peter's new organization, the Peter Hall Company; the first was ``Orpheus Descending,'' with the Vanessa Redgrave in the lead.
This is a new direction for Hall after 25 years of running huge, state-subsidized, British stage organizations. He spent 10 years at the helm of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he established, and 15 as artistic chief (following its founder, Laurence Olivier) of the National Theatre. He says going to a smaller company and going commercial are things he has long dreamed of. He plans to mount productions he has wanted to do for years but couldn't, given the size of the companies he was running.
The game plan is to open his shows in London, then take them to New York. If he can, as a byproduct, revive even one of the many theaters now closed on Broadway, Hall says he will be happy. ``Broadway is dead,'' he comments. ``I don't know what it's about now; it's about plastic shows for tourists. You're lucky these days if you can find a play there.''
Hall, who directed the original stage productions of Samuel Beckett's ``Waiting for Godot'' (in English), Harold Pinter's ``The Homecoming,'' and Peter Shaffer's ``Amadeus,'' is perhaps most highly regarded for his pioneering work in the classics. He has worked with the best - Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, and Ashcroft, among them. Coming to directing with a strong academic interest in Elizabethan English, acquired at Cambridge University, he has long made it a personal mission to train actors in their delivery of the Bard's difficult verse; he dispels the notion that British thespians have a built-in facility for it.
``England is full of fine actors who can't play Shakespeare,'' Hall comments. ``There are a few who can. The reason so many can't is because they've either never done Shakespeare, or they haven't done it properly.'' Speaking Shakespearean verse properly is like learning a dance, says Hall: ``It's not normal speech. If you try to make Shakespeare `real,' it gets up and strangles you. You breathe in the wrong places, and then you can't say it, and the audience can't understand it.''
Hall is an avid crusader for what he calls ``militant classicism.'' In practical terms, this means having actors spend at least two weeks just going over every line of the play, learning how each phrase is shaped and formed, how it scans, where to breathe, if the line has an antithesis, what the assonance is - to list just some of the mental hoops his players go through.
``Classicism is the tension between form and anarchy,'' Hall explains. ``Classicism in Shakespeare is suddenly too many words in the line, so that it doesn't quite scan, and you have to know why it doesn't scan - what's the emotional reason. ... If you were speaking the verse sloppily, you wouldn't even notice.''
Hall has one particularly fond ambition which, if all continues to go well with his new transatlantic venture, he hopes to realize: mounting an all-American production of the Bard on Broadway.
``I've always wanted to do a Shakespeare play in America, with American actors,'' he says. ``I think the American accent is more like the Elizabethan accent, and the vowel sounds and the music of American speech are much richer than modern [British] English. It would be, I think, much more resonant and closer to Shakespeare's music. That is, if the aforesaid American actors learn to speak the verse correctly, with a sense of rhythm, and, of course, articulate it properly.''