Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Poppy Liu on Double Falsehood

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

In March, a Brooklyn company revives Double Falsehood. This drama first showed up in 1727, when the first serious Shakespearean editor mounted it in London as a 'rediscovered' play by his hero. The current consensus is that he adapted it from an original play by Shak and John Fletcher. Also known as Cardenio, the plot's lifted from an episode in Don Quixote, of all things! In a Spanish court, a rake betrays his pal, and a rape victim dresses up as a boy.

Poppy Liu plays this last character, Violante, in the current production by Letter of MarqueShe's been working with the socially-conscious company on the play for over a year. I corresponded with Poppy about the show and feminism.

Let’s start with Double Falsehood, a play by Shakespeare — sort of. Could you briefly summarize the play?

Double Falsehood is the story of two sets of "lovers" and the constraints they are subject to. Henriquez is the most privileged — the (second) son of a Duke, enough said. Julio is next in line - he is probably upper middle class, and he is a man so there is that going for him. Leonora comes next — a higher class than Julio but a woman so that knocks her down a billion tiers in terms of privilege and agency. And then Violante, the lowest on the totem pole — a woman and lower class. It is the story of how the social conditions of these people inform the decisions we make. It is the story of how we hurt one another, intentionally and not. It is the story of how families and legacies reinforce power and privilege.

What about your character's arc?

Violante's entire journey through the play is essentially a pursuit of the man who raped her in order to regain the integrity, the honor and the humanity that was taken from her.

As an actor, can you speak to what makes Violante a full-dimensioned woman?

I have a lot of love for Violante. She is smart, outspoken and uncompromising in her sense of justice. She is constantly asking herself "what can I do about this" and, especially in the face of adversity, she is always finding where her agency lives. Violante is a warm-blooded full-spirited woman.

Your director, Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, has said “Violante and Leonora have a depth of wisdom & intelligence about the dreadful double-standards young women face.” How is this play a feminist play?

At its core the word 'feminism' to me means being heard. Violante and Leonora are two women who are bound by their social sphere who are, within the limited amount of agency they are given, fighting to be heard. What they go through is both infuriating and empowering. Their world is one in which the men make the choices and the women have to deal with the consequences. What is remarkable about these two young women is that they do not complacently deal and they show the men to themselves.

What’s your background in Shakespearean acting?

I was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. On top of classical acting and text work we also worked extensively with Elizabethan song and dance, stage combat and clowning.

Can you tell me a little about the work you did with Drunk Shakespeare?

I have a lot of love for the folks of Drunk Shakespeare but I have to say it is definitely 2 parts Shakespeare and 5 parts drunken debauchery… which perhaps one could argue hearkens to the atmosphere of the Bard's original audience. I played Lady M and I drank probably my body weight in whiskey over the course of ten months. On the nights that I was drunk, I would do "out damned spot" in Mandarin Chinese.

Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?

I would substitute the word "excavating" for the word "training". Shakespeare is such a master of language and emotional journeys and the human body. His words are laden with clues for the exact journey a body goes through as it experiences a set of circumstances. The most valuable "training" I have had in the realm of Shakespeare is how to allow the words to do the work and how to allow my body to go along for the ride. It takes a tremendous amount of specificity and surrender.

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

I actually get cast as men quite often! Beatrice is my favorite lady-character, duh. Rosalind is also feisty, fun and has the inner spirit of a young boy (perhaps a distant cousin of Violante in some sense). She resonates with the Mongolian Goat Boy side of me. But as for men... I would love to play Richard III. One day!

Speaking more generally, some of Shakespeare’s plays have… let’s say ‘problematic’ views for modern women. What’s your perspective on his female roles?
I think what's "problematic" about Shakespeare's women through a modern lens is that, while they creatively work around the bindings of their social world, none of them succeed in transforming the institutional structures around them. They illuminate the inconsistencies of the social world around them, yes. They expose the problems of patriarchy, true. They speculate about how messed up the world is the way that it is and how few options they seem to have, often. And this is huge! But I feel what we need o n top of this is now how to now transform these old systems that do not serve us. Shakespeare's women are great at seeing how they are limited and now in 2016 the question we are faced with is: knowing this, what are we going to do about it?


Letter of Marque's Double Falsehood runs from March 5 to April 9 at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene.

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