Rob Clare, a director, actor and Shakespeare guru, watches David Huynh and Christopher Kelly rehearse a sword fight in Cymbeline. Iachimo (Kelly) has disarmed Posthumus (Huynh) and stands over him, preparing to drive his blade into his former friend's chest. He hesitates just long enough for Posthumus to kick his legs from under him and regain his weapon.
"I quite like stage combat," says Clare, who notes that he carried a lot of spears in his early days at Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company.
Clare has built a career around his love of Shakespeare, including attaining a doctorate from Oxford University, and his second stint (not on staff) at Royal Shakespeare was as a consulting text coach. Clare also worked at Britain's National Theatre, but he has spent the last five years living in New York with his wife, actress Reiko Aylesworth (24, Lost) and directing Shakespeare productions around the U.S. With Shakespeare's language, stage combat and acting, Clare takes the same approach to directing.
"I like having actors give a scene shape," he says. "I like to respond. I liked it that way when I was an actor — I don't like to be moved around like a chess piece."
In an evening of rehearsal for the opening show in the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University's 2015 season, Clare pushes actors to revel in uncertainty, acknowledging their characters' predicaments and choices — and the possibility of different outcomes.
"It's starting to feel like the scene is happening by accident rather than by design," he says at one point to Erin Cessna, who plays Cymbeline's central character, Imogen, and John R. Lewis, who as Pisanio is tasked with killing her. "That's a good thing."
This is Tulane Shakespeare's first production of Cymbeline, and Clare has long wanted to direct it. The play is not frequently mounted, Clare says, because it defies easy characterization as comedy or tragedy.
"It's challenging and rich," he says. "But it's not easy to pigeonhole. ... We'll get laughs. We'll get gasps of shock. We'll get gasps of recognition."
Cymbeline is named for one of its characters, an ancient British king. His daughter Imogen has secretly wed her love, Posthumus, which makes him heir to the throne. Cymbeline feels tricked by the concealment, and Posthumus must flee, separating from Imogen. Many people are colluding to choose the future king, including Cymbeline's new wife, who wants her son to rule the land, possibly by having him wed Imogen. At the same time, Roman leaders are displeased with their vassel king, Cymbeline, and preparing to crush his rule, further complicating the intrigue in his court. The work focuses on fidelity among spouses, family members, friends, rulers and their servants.
The play is one of Shakespeare's later works, and Clare believes he was at the height of his career when he wrote it. He also believes he's at a good point in his career to appreciate the work.
"I'm kind of into a zone in my life as he was then," Clare says. "I've seen so much of life's journey. But just when you think you know something, life can be so humbling and exhilarating. Every time I start a project, I feel a lack of knowledge — [Shakespeare is] so open to interpretation and [there are] so many layers of possibility. ... Shakespeare was ahead of his time — Shakespeare was ahead of our time."