The New York Times theater section has a neat post about a new production of “Hamlet,” focusing on what happens when you hear new readings of familiar lines. For the comment section (Yes! It’s a worthwhile comment section!) , writer Ben Brantley asks, “Have there have been instances where you feel as if you’ve heard for the first time a familiar line or phrase or even single word, thanks to a performer’s unexpected interpretation?” There are some neat entires there, including a few people who expand the analogy to covers of songs, which, as a cover fan, I approve of.

I’m not sure I have a precise example that I can think of about a single reading that changed the meaning of a familiar line to me. I mean, every time I see a production of a play that I’ve read, I discover new dimensions to it. Parts I may have skimmed on the page are suddenly there, being acted out. I’m thinking less, even, of particular Shakespeare lines than of Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee Younger in “Raisin in the Sun” (from the Lorainne Hansberry play) or Julianne Moore playing Yelena in “Vanya on 42nd Street” (from “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov). Those performances are striking for different reasons — Poitier created the role of Walter on stage and so gives a lot of insight into how the character was first depicted; Moore interpreted a character from a play that was almost a century old in a way that went against the grain of the common interpretation but made it impossible for me to read the play without her interpretation in mind. I can’t come up with specific line for either performance, which means I should watch these films again. These might,
incidentally, be my two favorite film performances (certainly my favorite stage-to-film), which speaks to the power of what Brantley is talking about.

Thinking more specifically about Shakespeare, there’s a segment in Al Pacino’s film Looking for Richard where he talks about the famous opening that starts with, “Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son or sun; it’s either and both] of York.” What a thing, Pacino says, to start a play with “Now”! (Also? I *know* there is another Shakespeare play that starts with “Now” but can’t for the life of me think of what it is.)

I also remember a production of “Macbeth,” which did a great job with the play’s one comic interlude, with the character of the Porter. The scene is in this vein:

PORTER:
‘Faith sir, we were carousing till the
second cock: and drink, sir, is a great
provoker of three things.
MACDUFF:
What three things does drink especially provoke?
PORTER:
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. . .

Et cetera. It’s pretty typical Shakespearean humor, and mostly stands out for being the only overtly comic scene in the play. What struck me in that production, though, was not so much the Porter’s delivery of the jokes but Macduff’s response. I remember the actor really drawing out ‘What threeee things — does drink — especially — provoke?” with the result being that the ‘straight’ line got a better laugh than the ‘funny’ lines. I’ve seen plenty of “Macbeth”s since then, and I’ve never seen another Macduff do much of anything with that line. But that delivery was a real revelation to me about how well stage comedy can work when everybody in the scene is involved in it. There’s a risk that the complex verbal humor in Shakespeare can sail over an audience’s head, particularly if the other actors on stage are just standing there. But in this case, the reading emphasizes that Macduff finds the Porter tedious and having Macduff react to him in the way you probably would react to somebody who opened the door in the middle of the night and kept throwing dirty wordplay at you when you just wanted to go to bed. Basically, it’s the same principle at work anytime Margaret Dumont shares a stage with the Marx Brothers. It makes the whole thing funnier.

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