If you ask Leon Rubin the last thing he directed before Shakespeare's Henry VI, which opened last week at the Stratford Festival, he will begin talking about elephants. There were 24 of them in all, together with a shockingly large budget. "Also water buffaloes and birds and 150 performers."
This was in Thailand two years ago. He had been hired "to create a Las Vegas-style Thai show. Among other things, the script required me to make an elephant disappear. But I think the most remarkable thing about the show is that they floated it on the Thai stock exchange."
He recounts this with the bright-eyed amiability of a rural English schoolteacher who is quite pleased with this year's Christmas pantomime. And Rubin is in some sense a schoolteacher who has gone global. From his home base in England's Middlesex University, where he teaches drama and researches Asian theatre, he frequently flies off to direct plays in other countries.
In the past decade he has worked in Chile ( Romeo and Juliet), Japan (Feydeau's farce Le Dindon), Greece (Durrenmatt's The Visit), the United States ( Romeo and Juliet,at the Lincoln Centre in New York), in Thailand, and now in Canada.
There was little hint in Rubin's early career that he would go down this exotic and peripatetic road. He was invited to Ontario's Stratford Festival once before, in 1984, when he was a young director starting to climb the ladder of the British theatre establishment. He'd been an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979, within months of leaving theatre school. He was one of the three directors of the epic 11-hour Nicholas Nickleby in 1981, which made the cover of Time magazine. Then he ran the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, putting on a highly political Julius Caesar with an IRA allegory that brought him notoriety and an apparent clear path to the top.
But it never happened. After that summer of 1984 at the Stratford Festival, he did not direct another Shakespeare (apart from Romeo and Juliet) until his return to Stratford this spring, 18 years later.
"I was already being pulled away by something else," he says. "I'd begun travelling by then."
Rubin had developed a passion for world theatre, much of which it was possible to see without leaving London: the Rustaveli theatre from Georgia in the Soviet Union doing Richard III, or a kabuki version of Macbeth from Tokyo. But it bothered him that the exchange seemed to be one-way: The world was bringing its version of Western classics to London, but London was not much interested in the indigenous drama of these cultures. Rubin was.
"I had become irritated by Western theatre that just borrows the trappings of Japanese theatre, or whatever," Rubin says. "There has to be an exchange. And that meant going out into the world and seeing what was there."
He began travelling in the mid-eighties. What he found, wherever he went, was traditional theatres struggling with the sudden impact of Western television and movies. In addition, local theatre styles that traditionally had kept aloof from each other were now cross-fertilizing and trading ideas at a prodigious rate.
In Thailand, a country that soon became important to him, he went to see the Mor-Lam storytelling theatre. He had studied it academically, along with the Likay style of theatre from southern Thailand. But nothing prepared him for what he actually found.
"By that time, the Mor-Lam performers were wearing costumes from the Likay theatre -- and using electric guitars. Not to mention musical instruments they had borrowed from Laos. It looked nothing like the Mor-Lam I had studied."
Rubin spent a while wringing his hands, as Westerners do, about the imminent death of these ancient, exotic art forms. But then he noticed "that the performers weren't worried at all. They didn't need to be traditional any more. They had sensed that something was happening, and pretty soon that became exciting for me as well."
He had also noticed that, while ancient theatre forms may look fascinating to Westerners, they are often calcified and can't respond to the rapid modernization of their societies. He wanted to get involved, "to see how technology and Western approaches could help these theatres to modernize and become relevant again."
For an outsider unable to speak local languages, there was only one way to get involved. In 1986, Rubin went to Tokyo where, working with an interpreter, he directed a company of Japanese actors performing Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. The Japanese were obsessed with Western theatre but had no idea how to stage it, given the cultural distance. "We all know what a cultural difference is," Rubin says, "but with Japan it's absolutely huge."
He had thought, naively, that he could show cross-cultural sympathy by getting Stoppard to write some additional jokes for the play's new Tokyo setting. But the text really wasn't the problem. The problem, he soon discovered, was that the actors would not sit on the stage furniture. "They'd sit on the floor beside the sofa. So I'd get them onto the furniture but they didn't look comfortable there."
Rubin sensed a disaster. How to produce an English play in Tokyo if the local actors could not move like Westerners or even manage to sit on the furniture? After some internal struggle, he realized that he had to let them do it their way. "I said to them, please do whatever you think necessary to tell your audience that this is a Western play."
Over the next few years, he worked in Singapore, Athens, Dublin, New York. But Bangkok, where he first directed a play in 1993, became an important part of his life. He married a Thai actress, Jum, who also wished to direct, and began to learn the language. He also began to believe that traditional theatre forms could be modernized with large doses of technology and inventiveness.
He had directed a couple of British plays in the Thai language, but that wasn't doing much for ancient forms of Thai theatre, which were disappearing even during the brief few years he had known the country.
In the late nineties, he got to know a wealthy Thai family -- "they're in the wildlife-park business" -- that wanted to build a showcase theatre for Thai culture. The idea was to build it in the sprawling resort of Phuket, and it had to be commercial but use elements of the traditional culture.
Rubin found this intriguing. "After all, I'd been going around saying they had to modernize their theatre to save it. Now I had to figure out what on earth that meant."
His financial backers had a simple idea that they would somehow present traditional Thai theatre in a megawatt, Las Vegas-type format. Maybe the puppets could be made of plastic instead of water-buffalo leather.
Rubin was having none of that. He meant to scour the country and locate the few surviving craftsmen who knew how to make leather puppets, especially the ones for the Nangyai shadow-puppet theatre that are as large as a man. This would be very, very costly. "But it was also very interesting," he adds, "and you can't preserve culture unless you employ the people who make it."
Today he lives part of each year in Bangkok, where his three-year-old daughter Jasmine "corrects my Thai and says she won't speak it with me unless I improve."
When he and his family are back at Middlesex University, he runs a training program for professional directors from around the world. "Artistically it's a way for them to get off the treadmill and learn to love theatre again. But for those who come from far away, like a Chinese woman who took the course recently, it's also a way to learn how to run a modern theatre."
Cultural exchange is now much more "intense," he says, than it was 20 years ago, and economic globalization can be a disaster. Talented artists from poor countries become too expensive for their home markets, which lose them.
And local cultures, he adds, can become little more than kitschy feedstock for an undiscriminating global market, "unless good people are involved."
Rubin has become enough of an authority to write the Asian entry in the current Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, and his list of lectureships is nearly as long as his list of productions. But in the past two years, he says, "I started to have a longing to do Shakespeare again, to get back to language. Richard Monette [of the Stratford Festival]called me at just the right time, because I'd also been thinking of how to put into Shakespeare the sensual, visual stuff I've learned in the Far East."
He has no illusions about the Henry VI trilogy, likely Shakespeare's first theatre piece. "Some of it is not well written," he says, making a scissors motion with one hand. "Too heroic and patriotic, a lot of writing for the crowd."
He decided to overcome the bad patches by using a "fast and physical" style of acting. And instead of having the warring families holding up red and white roses, their respective emblems, "I used an Oriental kind of device where a snowy landscape stands in for the white roses, and for the death of Henry, you get a storm of red roses raining down on the snow. It's visual in a way I wouldn't have done 10 years ago."
Stratford itself is bigger and more prosperous, if less adventuresome, than it was when he was last there nearly two decades ago.
"But theatre goes in cycles," he says. "Stratford is on a wave of success, and now is when it can extend itself artistically. You can't do that when your audience is shaky, as it was before," he says. "So it's doubly brave of Richard Monette to do Henry VI, which has never been popular, and to ask me to do it. Because I certainly won't do something conventional."