I just closed "Much Ado About Nothing." I directed it and played several parts. Now that the smoke has cleared, I realize that I learned something really great from this production: as usual, I didn't make any cuts before rehearsals started. During the rehearsal process I made minor cuts to help deal with logistical problems ( e.g. making sure an actor who is playing multiple roles doesn't "meet himself" on stage), but these were just a few lines here and there -- never a whole scene or even a major chunk of a scene. This is just business as usual at Folding Chair Classical Theatre. I'm actually not opposed to cutting. I love Shakespeare, but I'm not religious about him. I just want to tell stories, and sometimes cutting helps do that. (I'm not trying to tell Shakespeare's story; I'm trying to tell my story -- using Shakespeare's words. I can't really tell anyone's story except mine, because I only have access to my own head.)
But I generally discover the story during the rehearsal process. In other words, I read a play, and I get a vague sense that I can "tell my story" with it. But I'm not sure, when I start, how the play's story interacts with mine. I just feel that, somehow, it does. It's during rehearsals that I learn get to know the play deeply. So it doesn't make sense to cut before they start.
This generally results in minimal (or no) cuts. Scenes that seem pointless at first become important once I explore them. And, of course, Shakespeare was such a damn good writer that he rarely includes moments that are gratuitous. If a moment seems pointless, I probably haven't studied it enough yet. In any case, I made few cuts -- not for any grand reason, but just because that's my working method. In the end, the play was 2 hours and 45 minutes long.
We got the usual gratifying comments: "It flew by!", "I can't believe that was uncut!", "I never understand Shakespeare, but I understood everything!" (I love that one, because I don't let actors use gestures or any other 'hints' to help the audience.) But the most interesting comment was, "I've seen this play before, but somehow I never knew it was so serious. I mean, it's comic, too, but there are really serious, weighty parts." Many people said this. The general feeling was that my production was more "profound" than the typical "Much Ado."
Since I didn't try to create a profound production, I started wondering what I had done -- by accident -- to achieve this effect. Having thought about it, I'm pretty sure it happened by not cutting. In the second half of the play, there are some LONG serious (anguished) speeches by Leonato and the Friar (scroll halfway down the page). I played the Friar, and I used to warm up, before performances, by going through those speeches at double the speed I actually played them during the show. Even at double speed, they still seemed very long. And the actor who played Leonato begged me (unsuccessfully) to cut some of his three-page-long speeches.
In the end, I think we delivered these speeches well -- so that they were exciting and not boring. But I do think one's initial reaction, when reading them, is that they can be pruned way back without a problem. And so that's exactly what happens in most productions (since most directors cut before rehearsals start). So the play becomes 80% comic and 20% serious -- instead of what it is on paper (and in our version), about a 50 - 50 split between comedy and drama. The sheer length of those speeches -- if they aren't cut -- adds gravitas to the story. I really think it's as simple as that.
People remember the play as being a light romp about Beatrice and Benedick. Lisa, who played Beatrice, pointed out that she had one of the smallest roles in the play. It's clearly a pivotal role -- and a memorable one -- but she actually doesn't have much stage time. In fact, the whole Beatrice/Benedick story is a sub-plot. It's a big sub-plot (and it threatens to upstage the main plot), but it's still a subplot.
Again, I'm not anti-cutting. I pro-storytelling. And when you tell a story, you should really TELL it. Which means that you delve into every nook and cranny of it. Sometimes you have to cut, because the play contains gratuitous elements. By "gratuitous elements", I mean events or speeches that don't move the story forward. These elements DON'T help tell the story, so they need to go. On the other hand, if you cut an element that DOES move the story forward, then you're short-changing the story.
Sometimes external forces compel you to cut: producers refuse to let your play extend over two hours; you've only rented the theatre for certain span of hours each night; etc. Each director needs to find his own path through such swamps. But it's worth remembering that there's no law requiring you to tell certain stories. Given a choice between a cut "King Lear" and no "King Lear" at all, the latter is always a possibility. There will be other opportunities to produce the play in the future. And even if there isn't (for you), would you rather honor the story by not telling it in a bastardized form -- or wound it by stripping it of much of its richness?