Monday, November 9, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Clare Dunne as Prince Hal

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

Women on Shakespeare: Christina Pumariega as Adriana

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 #2 in my new interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

Christina Pumariega has been on an all-boro tour with the Mobile Shakespeare Unit and The Comedy of Errors. The MSU is part of the Public Theater, bringing free plays to prisons, shelters, and other community centers across NYC. Coming off the road, Pumariega emailed with me about Adriana, the "skyrocket" of Shak's comedy.

I’m a big fan of the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s mission. How does its primary audience of non-traditional theatergoers affect the company’s approach to this Comedy of Errors?

"Accessibility" was the word that continually came up in rehearsals. Our director prioritized it, our company mined for it, our designers translated it, our producers advocated for it, again and again and again. Everything we've made in our Comedy of Errors has been in pursuit of inviting audiences to step into a world that's relatable, familiar, funny, and true. Even though the events that transpire are ridiculously heightened, as a team we worked towards meeting the truth in every scene, often confronting audience members with our jokes and insults and ideas face-to-face. And I think every member of our cast can attest to these "non-traditional theatergoers" as hands down the best audiences in the five boroughs.

What sort of aesthetic does Kwame Kewi-Armah bring to Comedy?

Kwame's concept for this Comedy brings us to the ultimate American border town, where Ephesus and Syracuse parallel South Texas and Mexico, a region that historically, depending on who you talk to from that area, cannot simply be divided by one single line or mandate. This grey zone is far more dangerous for some than others, and Kwame really sought to explore how political corruption, capitalism, and currency dictate the value of human life in a rich country shoulder-to-shoulder with a poor one. These are extreme people living extremely now, and Kwame encouraged us towards the reality of what it means to be "other" in corrupt, materialistic Ephesus. What's incredible about this play is everyone at some point or another feels the sting of this indictment.

Have you seen or performed in Comedy before?

I've never seen or performed in The Comedy of Errors prior to our Mobile Shakespeare Unit production. I actually think it's lucky that such an old play has been a brand new one for me. It's enormously freeing.

What have you discovered about the play? or about Shakespeare in general?

Every day we find dozens of new discoveries. And that's largely due to our audience. Touring has reminded me never to take for granted how completely different every audience is, simply in playing one different environment after another. The moment you assume how the story will unfold in front of people you rob them of all the discovery that lies in you as a storyteller.

What’s surprised you about Adriana? What’s the most difficult facet of the role?

Before we started rehearsing, a director friend gave me some advice about her. She emphasized how Adriana does everything out of love. I thought, “Oh yeah of course. That's a given. I love my husband. Sure.” But in skyrocketing from one tactic to the next, one emotion to another, I found conveying real love to be quite difficult.

It's the seesaw I ride every time we play. How to navigate someone powerful and sensual who knows her mind, but is shaped by fear. Every day she looks and feels more and more familiar. And every day I try to love with more bravery, less abandon.

Have you acted in Shakespeare or other classics before this?

I've acted in a good deal of Shakespeare and Jacobean plays, yes. Inevitably there are always very few women in the room, which honestly just makes things dull and dusty. That isn't the case with our production, I'm very proud to say.

Do you believe training is necessary?

I don't think formal training is necessary. Often I think rigid approaches to text work get in the way and keep me from trying new things on my feet. Still, for me classical plays require access to lots of breath and tons of curiosity. And these things aren't mutually exclusive.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

Few of the women's roles are on my list, because I've seen a lot of killer Rosalinds and Lady Macbeths and Imogens and Cleopatras. I'm very interested in playing some of those men's roles: Mercutio, Cassisus, Iago, Hamlet.

Shakespeare writes complex women, but he often begins with negative types. In Comedy, for instance, he plays with audience expectations of a shrewish wife and her good-girl sister. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?

I reconcile it probably the same way most actresses do, by trying to make these bottomless needs real. The size and scope of that desire often seems towering on the page, but Adriana's fear or jealousy or love is just as real as any other human at the end of their rope. She is mouthy and muscular and that reminds me of women I know, especially the Italian and Cuban women who raised me. They make a lot of uncomfortable noise, but they fight for love ferociously, and in doing so they demand to be heard.


The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Comedy of Errors runs from Nov 1 to 22 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $20.


photos  Joan Marcus