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 #6 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.
As part of the 400th anniversary of Shak's death, the Filter Theatre brings their Twelfth Night (originally co-produced by the RSC) to NYC this month. The company has a reputation for stripped stagings and vivid soundscapes, a punk-inspired aesthetic they apply to both classics and new plays. One member of the English company is Sandy Foster, who plays a pair of roles, Maria and Feste. Sandy took a break from the show's American tour to answer a few questions via email.
Let’s start with the role of Maria. As an actor, can you speak to what makes her a full-dimensioned woman?
Maria is a total dream to play because she is a fantastic example of how brilliant Shakespeare's writing was for women. I’m inclined to suggest he was ahead of his time with his treatment of women, compared to his contemporaries, but actually nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to see a woman on TV/film who doesn’t at some point end up in her bra and knickers. I don’t think Shakespeare ever wrote a scene that demanded that, and surely that suggests we’ve just gone backwards rather than he being ahead.
That's true, but his ratio of men to women is tilted heavily.
Yes, there weren’t many [women] comparatively, but those he did write were, in my opinion, strong and independently-minded. Maria is easily the most intelligent of the party of three who are plotting their revenge on Malvolio, and the driving force behind his eventual demise. There’s a beautiful scene in which she lays out her plan for the men to hear, and she clearly has the full measure of Malvolio. She understands his weaknesses, his desires, his ambition, even seemingly his secrets, and she knows with absolute confidence that she can destroy him. Not only is she a woman, but she’s also a servant, and yet she’s able to use her intellect and strength of conviction to defy what might otherwise be perceived as weaknesses. What’s weak about that? She’s utterly fierce and I love playing her.
What about playing Feste? Do you play the fool as male, female, or is gender not addressed?
Strangely, I have always thought about my Feste as a man. We haven’t changed the text so he continues to be referred to as male, and yet, due to the nature of our particular production (no real costume), there is no getting away from the fact that physically, I am a woman. The audience will make their own decision about whether to ignore my physical attributes or to believe Feste is female or indeed androgynous. I’m not sure it really matters.
Do you have any strategies for the Elizabethan wordplay or the ‘clowning’ aspects of the role?
I always love to play the clowns. They’re the characters I most relate to and there’s something so thrilling about playing the one character in the play who sees it all for what it really is. They’re strangely omnipotent. The language can be tricky, and a lot of the humor references old jokes that people would have understand at the time. But you just have to play them with an open heart, and find the paradox between their clowning and truth-telling. It’s a powerful moment when a clown starts to cry. They are always tipping the edge of melancholy and hilarity. They’re Shakespeare's finest characters, in my opinion.
For me, the clowns in Shakespeare's plays are the truth-tellers. They are entirely open-hearted and always tell the truth. They hold a mirror up to all the other characters and force them to confront themselves, but in such a way that none of them know it's happening to them until they’ve learnt their own truth. I find it fascinating that the clown in Hamlet, Yorick, is dead. The truth, the openness, the honesty and indeed the humour in that play are absent. Like the clown.
Have you performed in Twelfth Night before?
This is the only production of Twelfth Night I have ever been in. It’s one of his best comedies, I think. A play where everyone wants something or someone that they can’t have. It’s utterly painful.
How about other productions?
I saw a great production performed by the year above me at my drama school (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) which captured Olivia’s grief beautifully, but I’ve never seen a production that did a better party scene than the one in this version. I saw this production before I was in it, and I just fell in love with the anarchy. I think Shakespeare would have loved it.
Do you believe training is necessary to play Shakespeare?
I think training is important full stop. There’s something integral in the daily practice of strengthening your voice, body, and mind that stands you in great stead when you get out there in the real world. Acting is a craft that requires hard work, energy, and discipline, but with current trends in youth, beauty, and a desire to be famous, it’s very easy for that to be forgotten.
What are some of the keys to Shakespearean acting?
The language of Shakespeare is incredibly dense and poetic, and you absolutely have to understand what it is you’re saying if you want the audience to understand. There are so many rules and academic opinions about Shakespeare, which makes it potentially terrifying. But I really approach it in the same way I would approach any script, and my training is what gives me the knowledge, confidence, and technical skills needed to do that.
What other Shakespeare have you done?
Professionally I’ve only done one other Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, in which I played the clown Dogberry. That particular role is almost always played by older men, so I was over the moon when I was asked to do it. We came across lots of challenges, but it was a role that just kept giving, and I relished every moment. People were very divided about whether a woman should ever be allowed to play such a part. Not everyone thinks women should be funny or unattractive and my Dogberry was both those things. During training I also played the clown Costard in Love's Labour's Lost and Claudius in Hamlet. I’ve played more of Shakespeare's male roles than female which makes me feel extremely lucky. You can learn a great deal from seeing the world through such different eyes.
Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?
So, so many. However, the tragedies in particular appeal to me hugely. My favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus. It’s all death and destruction, a proper Greek tragedy. I’m fascinated by muteness so would love to play Lavinia whilst I’m still the right age. I’m also desperate to play Lady Macbeth because there is another fine example of Shakespeare writing women who could run the world.
What about other male roles?
In terms of male parts, the possibilities are endless. Hamlet would be a great one to have a crack at, as would Lear. We’ve had some great women in the UK play these parts — most recently Maxine Peake played Hamlet and a while back Katherine Hunter was Lear. My dream would be to have played all the clowns eventually. They’re difficult and take a lot of work but when you find them, they are delicious.
The Filter Theatre’s approach to Twelfth Night gets described as ‘radical’ and ‘rock & roll’. What are the advantages to modern, non-traditional approaches to Shakespeare?
I think that traditional costume can hugely alienate an audience subconsciously. It’s a dangerous thing because the language, the content and the mere fact that it is a Shakespeare play can frighten an audience into thinking it’s not for them before the first word of the play is even uttered, and a Shakespearean costume can add a whole extra layer. In terms of everything else that might define this production as radical, i.e. no real set, rock music, audience participation, I genuinely don’t think we’re doing anything that Shakespeare didn’t do. The man was almost certainly a rebel and a rock star.
Have you found any drawbacks?
The only drawbacks I can see is that it’s not for everyone. But then that to me is the definition of real art.
Circling back to Shakespeare's women, do you find anything old-fashioned about his views, or beyond salvaging?
Funnily enough, I think Shakespeare wrote women pretty well. His plays are full of women ready to risk everything for love, kill for ambition and lead armies. They’re usually fiercely intelligent, brave and stronger than their male counterparts. We talk of his plays being difficult or old fashioned, but I think we’d be better off taking a closer look at our contemporaries and ask the same questions. Most plays still revolve around men and feature more male characters whilst the women are reduced to merely mothers, lovers, daughters and servants. Plays that do revolve around women (and there aren’t nearly enough) follow themes like childbirth, marriage and family, despite the fact that we know women today can and do run entire countries. This is the problem. We think we’ve come past all that. We haven’t. We just aren’t forced to wear corsets anymore.
You mentioned depictions of women onstage earlier as well. What about feminism backstage, or outside theater & film?
There’s a real buzz about female equality over in the UK at the moment. I am a member of the Women's Equality Party which is Britain's fastest growing political party, set up in light of that fact that we are so underrepresented in parliament. It’s a battle backed, supported, and led by both women and men, which for me is key. Equality is better for everyone, and so we need everyone to be a part of it. I am also involved in a campaign called 50:50 by 2018 set up by Polly Kemp and Elizabeth Berrington, which promotes more roles for women and equal pay, amongst other issues. The clear fact is that we make up over 50% of the population, and yet less than a third of speaking roles in films are women. How are young girls and women expected to believe they can achieve anything and be anything, if they’re only seeing women in the media almost mute and semi-clad? There are an amazing amount of people (male and female) that think we’ve moved on. But I know of several stories where women are being paid less than men on the same job simply because of their gender. That’s just not right.
What are some of the goals of the campaigns you're working on?
One small thing that we’re starting with is reclaiming the word ‘actress’. It's become unfashionable in the UK because of its historical connotations and so many people call themselves actors, but it’s small things like this that imply that being a woman is just not good enough. We have to take responsibility for making these changes ourselves and being mindful of what we put out there. As women and men, we need to write plays that represent all of us in our complicated, multifaceted roles as human beings. I have just completed writing my first play, which I hope will be a step towards readdressing this imbalance. Things are looking up though — I have recently lost out on a couple of jobs in favour of an older actress. If people are finally seeing the value of older women, I don’t mind missing out on those jobs at all. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be female. And an artist.
The Filter Theatre/RSC's Twelfth Night runs from Feb 16 to 20 at the NYU Skirball Center in Greenwich Village.
photos Robert Day