Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #4 in my new interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.
Phyllida Lloyd's all-female company of Shakespeareans returns to the Donmar and St. Ann's with a Henry 4 set in a women's prison. Like the same team's Julius Caesar (St. Ann's, '13), it gives great female actors the chance to play great male roles, led by Harriet Walter. Clare Dunne returns with the company this month as Prince Hal to Walter's Henry IV. And she takes the time to email about the work.
Let’s start with Henry 4 and your work on it! It’s rare to see an all-female cast in Shakespeare, but not an all-male one. What facets of the play and playwright did this break with convention reveal to you?
A) That women and men are actually very similar. We can all identify with Hal's struggle to transform, please his parent, and grow up.
B) The term Woman was derogatory back then, and the treatment of hostess sometimes is very unfair. We capitalised on moments like that.
C) The scene of Hotspur and Lady Percy has so many layers when performed by two women. It unlocked the scene in a great way. You understand both sides of the marriage and eventually see Hotspur's tough mask drop. There is genuine love between them.
With the setting of a women’s prison, Ms. Lloyd doesn’t simply ignore her actors’ gender or ask you to play the roles ‘as men’. How does this complex approach to gender and sexuality affect your performance?
Actually, I first just aim to be physically more like a boy and to speak with lower resonance.
The prisoner as the basis of who I am lets me just make decisions quickly from a gut feeling and not worry about right or wrong. Because that's what the prisoners would do. I think the prisoner sets the actor free. Ironic.
What can you tell readers about Hal? What’s the most difficult part of the role?
Difficult to think of myself as Royal—I'm Irish for god's sake!
Then what’s surprised you about him?
Surprised me? The sheer scope of journey. What he thinks he knows versus what he learns by experience.
Is there a choice he makes, or a speech he gives, that’s helped you find your way into the role?
The speech "Do not think so. You shall not find it so" is a good turning point, plus, underneath it all, he just wants his dad to love him. Also here he realises he now has to do what he promised. Before this he was all talk and no action.
Have you seen the play before? Have you played any of its other roles?
No. I saw a TV version but it didn't affect my playing. I saw Druid do it this summer but I had already played Hal before by then, so for me it was actually lively to just look at him from the outside in!
In a few interviews online, you’ve mentioned Harriet Walter’s influence on your career. Now you’ve played her wife & rival in J. Caesar and her son in Henry 4. What have you picked up from her, acting-wise?
A lot about using the words and trusting to follow through on a thought or a line. It does the acting for you! She's generally so nice to work with. Very generous.
What’s your background in Shakespeare and other classics? Do you think training is necessary to play Shakespeare?
Background: a couple of projects in drama school. I've read about verse-speaking, picked up tips, etc.
But no: training is not necessary to enjoy speaking this language. It's in us. It's instinct and words and you are expressing something to another human being. Are you human? Can you read? Do you ever try getting something across to someone? Yes, every day. Then you can for his.
Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
Macbeth maybe. Falstaff! Cleopatra.
In Henry 4, Shakespeare pointedly excludes women in the political arena, in the scene with Lady Hotspur. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century views of women with your 21st-century ones?
Basically we just follow our guts and play the scenes human to human. I think context and direction help underlay political themes or views. I think just seeing us play all the roles says a lot in itself.
Don't really understand this question sorry!
The Donmar Warehouse's Henry IV runs from Nov 6 to Dec 6 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo.
photos Helen Maybanks
photo 1 Clare Dunne
photo 2 Clare Dunne, top, with Jade Anouka