In 1971, Tina Packer, then a classically trained English actress, persuaded the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to let her direct Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” Then she directed “The Winter’s Tale,” then “Hamlet.”
“All the easy ones,” she laughed.
Ms. Packer kept going, through comedies and histories, tragedies and romances. On Sunday, her production of “Cymbeline” finished its run in Lenox, Mass., at Shakespeare & Company, the troupe she founded in 1978. And with it Ms. Packer, 78, finished her run through the Shakespeare canon, having now directed all 37 plays. (“Two Noble Kinsmen,” a collaboration with John Fletcher, failed to make the cut. “I didn’t find myself interested in it,” she said.)
Ms. Packer, author of the book “Women of Will,” spoke a few hours before the final performance about why she hates “Cardenio” and how Shakespeare’s poetry kept her going. These are excerpts from the conversation.
How did you come to direct Shakespeare?
Well, I loved being a Shakespeare actor, I was passionate about it, but I was always asking questions about the whole play. Now I would say they were feminist questions. All of my directors were men and they were good men, good directors. But I got frustrated. I started thinking there was something wrong with me. And then I thought, “No, this is ridiculous, I just have a different perception and I must try and put my perception into action rather than becoming a grumpy actor.” Once I started directing there was no stopping me.
When did completing the canon become the goal?
I never thought consciously, “Oh, I’m going to do them all.” But I started noticing a progression in his writing of the women. In the beginning they’re either shrews or sweet young things, but by the time he gets to his late plays, he says: “Guys, you have to go with what the women say. Otherwise we’re all lost.” That really made me want to keep going.
Do you have a favorite?
Usually the one I’m working on. I think: “My God, this is brilliant. Why didn’t I see how brilliant this was?” “Cymbeline” is a case in point. It is such a deep play, but I couldn’t see it on the page. It’s about what we can’t see, what’s unconscious, what’s hidden. All the hidden things start coming out in the course of the play and eventually tie up together to make the whole story.
Do you feel a sense of completion?
What I feel more than anything is a satisfaction about absorbing the whole canon. That doesn’t count “Two Noble Kinsmen” or “Edward III” or “Cardenio” or any of those other plays that may or may not be Shakespeare’s. “Cardenio” I found absolutely irritating. I will bet my bottom dollar that’s not Shakespeare. I do love that fragment of “Thomas More”; that feels so absolutely Shakespeare to me. But none of the others have really attracted me.
Has this work shaped your life?
Oh, God. Obviously. Profoundly. I wanted to set up a company that could be like Shakespeare’s company. When we began, we did the young plays. Now we’re doing the old plays because we’re older. We would be terribly poor, we would run out of money. We kept working anyway. Shakespeare is so full of insight and so full of glorious poetry that we were inspired by him. So it never occurred to us close down the company.
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