Thursday, May 26, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Anwen Darcy as Beatrice & Mercutio

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

Nearly out on the streets a few years ago, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has instead expanded to a 'second stage' in midtown, with Bryant Park Presents. The company has recast Anwen Darcy as Beatrice in its Much Ado About Nothing, after her acclaimed turn as Mercutio last summer. I emailed with Anwen about these two essentially Shakespearean characters.

Let’s start with your role in Much Ado. What makes Beatrice such a fully-realized character onstage?

Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's great women due to the fact that she's flawed. It's what makes her impossibly complicated and wonderful to play. She is, of course, witty and rambunctious and full of life. But she also has this corrosive edge to her, particularly in regards to Benedick. Add to that some of the best dialogue Shakespeare has ever written, and you have a woman who is more modern than most female parts written in the last 20 years.

Corrosive how?

You look at their first scene together, when he arrives back from the war, and she absolutely cannot sit on her disdain and pain at seeing him again. Of course, she also can't not talk to him, partly because she wants to humiliate him and partly because she wants his attention. That push and pull is fascinating, and it lends itself to be played thousands of different ways. You add in that she is hiding (very poorly, as the play lets you discover) a broken heart that still can't shake the breaker, and it all adds up to a fascinating starting place. Beatrice starts the show quite frosty, and I've found more you lean into how hard she is in the beginning, the more payoff you get at the end of the show.

I cannot tell you how satisfying that is, to just be allowed to be pissed off onstage without trying to qualify it. So often people try to soften women's anger onstage, to try and make sure you stay pretty and soft, and Beatrice is none of those things in the beginning of the show. She's just fine alone, but she knows she deserves more, and deserves to be loved for who she is without being changed. She's also had her heart stomped on (whether intentionally or not) by the only person she's ever deigned to show interest in, and Shakespeare lets her carry that. It doesn't go away once Benedick tells her he loves her—she distrusts him up until their final scene alone, when he tells her that he did challenge Claudio, and that he is actively choosing her over anyone else.

You've worked with your Benedick, McKey Carpenter, before. How does that help the onstage chemistry?

I'm exceptionally lucky in that not only have I worked with my Benedick before (this is our fifth show together) but I've also tackled Shakespearean barbs with him. McKey was the Tybalt to my Mercutio, so we have lots of practice hissing and spitting at each other. The difference is that this time we can let our affection and history with each other shine through.

I also think trust is a huge part of the wordplay of this show—because you have just have to unleash these torrents of dialogue at each other, you have to know that the other person is going to be there for you, both in scenes where you hate each other and the scenes where you love each other. The end of the wedding scene is a great example of this—Beatrice is finally fully unleashed, and she just has this righteous furious scream of mourning dialogue for Hero, for the death of men, for her inability to be of any help. Benedick has maybe five interjections in two pages, but he has to be there, in the scene, as fully committed as if the dialogue was bouncing back and forth. McKey's always there. You can't do one half of this show without the other.

McKay Carpenter & Anwen Darcy
as Benedick & Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
What strategies do you have for the wordplay?

One of the tactics we have in our arsenal for the warm up is a speed-through of all our scenes together. A lot of what makes Benedick and Beatrice so delightful is the speed at which they think up these terrible and hilarious insults. So we make sure that we are sharp on our cues and know precisely when to come in, where to cut a glance to the audience, when to move. We've also been known to run lines jumping up and down or mock punching each other, but that's mostly just because we both enjoy hitting things.

I can tell you that the best way to nail the wordplay is a vocal warm-up (which is important) or bouncing a tennis ball back and forth while we run lines to keep up a pace (very much not important or particularly helpful). But at the end of the day you need just need the right partner, otherwise you can never let go and just let the words guide you. 

Let’s talk about Beatrice & Hero. What have you discovered about their relationship?

Beatrice and Hero's relationship is the engine of the play. To me, Hero is Beatrice's heart—there is nothing in the world she wants more than Hero's happiness. You see it when Claudio and Hero get engaged—Beatrice is so excited she is answering for them, because she fully believes that her beloved cousin got her happy ending, and that's enough for her. She says "Good Lord for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry, 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" which on its surface, seems a little bit like Beatrice is trying to steer the conversation back to herself. To me, this highlights not just how at ease Beatrice is with her lack of a husband, but how she views Hero. Hero is everyone in the world to her, and now that her world is safely in the hands of her beloved, thus can Beatrice return to her happy corner of the world, unworried by men or love.

It's one of the few female relationships in Shakespeare unfettered by any sort of jealousy. Hero genuinely wants Beatrice to get together with Benedick, Beatrice genuinely wants Hero to marry Claudio, and both women want that because that is what they know lies in the heart of the other woman. They are both driven by love, and that's fascinatingly rare—there are no ugly ulterior motives in the relationship.

Did you draw (or reject) from other Beatrices you've seen?

Carpenter & Darcy in Much Ado
I tried to watch as many versions of the show as possible once I knew I was cast and had strong ideas of my own but well before we started rehearsal. So my Christmas was spent watching other Beatrices and seeing what I thought worked, what I thought didn't, what cuts I thought were completely egregious. What struck me most was how a lot of versions I watched couldn't decide on what the show was, exactly. I think a lot of people have an abstract idea that "Oh, Beatrice is the funny one and everything should be played for a laugh." I know I made a very conscious decision not to try to be funny—which sounds ridiculous! It's a comedy! But this is a show where the comedy needs to be weightless and top itself, and the more comedic business you add on each line, the more stakes you add to that line, until suddenly you are watching all these Beatrices' trying to hit a home-run belly-laugh on every single line. And it is not only exhausting, but when you are fighting for a laugh, it obscures a fair amount of the beautiful language.

What about the movies?

I was, for many many years, entirely obsessed with Emma Thompson's Beatrice, and Emma Thompson herself. I am sure I have probably stolen more than I realize from her, but quite honestly, if you are going to accidentally be a poor copy of someone, at least be Emma Thompson.

I know many many people loved Joss Whedon's version, but I have yet to sit through it without screaming—it epitomized (to me) what happens when you remove the musicality and formality of the show, and it seemed to rob anyone (but particularly Beatrice, unconstrained by society or outside judgement) of specific stakes. I'm currently trying to find a video of the Janet McTeer/Mark Rylance Much Ado [London, 1993] as a closing night present to myself. I want to weep at their utter perfection when I no longer have to attempt to even use the same yardstick as them.

I’m interested in gender-bent casting, so I’d love to hear more about your Mercutio last summer. How did you address the gender swap onstage or in rehearsal?

Mercutio is a part that pretty much does all of your work for you, if you let it. He has surprisingly few scenes—I think there are maybe three major ones (four if you break the beginning of Act Three into two scenes), plus a cameo appearance at the ball. But I have never had people react to a character just walking onstage they way people do when Merc comes on. The audience is ready. They want you to be outrageous, they want to laugh.

How did you approach the role?

Anwen Darcy as Mercutio
in Romeo & Juliet (2015)
I remember when I got the offer to do Mercutio, the brief was just "Tank Girl in Verona". So I built on that, and very gradually it became apparent to me that Mercutio was male, regardless of what my sex was. Merc is a boy. So Romeo and Benvolio treated me like a man—I don't think we even wound up swapping pronouns in their lines because I was absolutely 100 percent male to them. So to us, it was still three boys against the world. It wound up affecting Tybalt more, I think—he was the only one who ever referred to me as female onstage, and it was only during the fight, so he was using it as weapon of sorts. So to the actors, we had a very specific roadmap of negotiating the sex change.

You know Sebastian Stan in the Captain America movies? Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier was the endgame, physically, for Mercutio. We just wanted there to be so much going on—hair, eye makeup, sais hanging off my hips, scuffed-up combat boots and jacket—that it hid any kind of distinct femininity and just switched into an aggressive sexuality. 

Did your gender alter the dynamic with your Romeo?

Romeo and Juliet has a very pronounced and vocal community of Romeo/Mercutio/Benvolio shippers (people who think that those characters are romantically involved, and in any and all ways that triangle would allow it to happen) so it was interesting to see how that affected people's perception. I certainly wasn't playing any romantic interest in Romeo, but lots of people commented on how they saw the romantic longing there in our scenes together. Whether or not that was because I was female or whether it's just because it's a very popular subtext in Romeo and Juliet commentary right now, I don't know.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

I think one of Shakespeare's great strengths in writing women is that he lets them be flawed, he lets them be whole messy people with internal engines and agendas. I think the problem you run into is that then he doesn't know how to reconcile that with the endings of his shows, a lot of times.

What do you mean?

Anwen Darcy as Beatrice
Look at Much Ado. Beatrice pretty much talks her way through every single scene she is in, regardless of the sex of the other people on stage with her. Then you hit the wedding. Beatrice has five lines in the wedding, three of which are some variation on "Hero, why are you falling down? Hero??" She briefly defends her cousin's honor, but it's one of the few times you see her immediately back down when confronted. Why isn't she talking? We know she has a lot of opinions and feelings about the situation—her explosion at Benedict in the next scene confirms that. But after the wedding, after the humiliation of Hero, Beatrice stops talking out of turn. She stops driving scenes. She surrenders the narrative entirely to Benedick, issuing him an ultimatum and then leaving. It's horrible! It's infuriating, because Beatrice is more than capable of cutting Claudio and Don Pedro down to size. But she doesn't—she defers to Benedick. So as a modern woman, that's infuriating. Beatrice has so much going for her, and it's dropped at the end of the show because she's in love and no longer needs to be complicated.

I see!

And that, to me, is the biggest flaws of Shakespeare's shows—once an intelligent and complicated woman has served her purpose, she stops talking. In Lady Macbeth's case, she dies offstage. OFFSTAGE!! She gets a couple of lines explaining her death, and that's it. So it's a challenge to motivate the sudden drop in your lines—why is Beatrice, a woman who talks so much that she is compared to a parrot—suddenly silent? I'm still a little mad at Will at that one. I don't think any of his plays are beyond salvaging, but I do think being mindful of the way women-of-agency are treated is very important.

Are there any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to play?

Of course I have a Shakespeare bucket list. I've been very, very lucky because I've knocked a couple of dream roles—Hermia, Princess of France, Mercutio and now Beatrice—off very early in my career. I'd love to come back to Beatrice, maybe in ten years, just to see how differently I see her then. Cleopatra is next on my list—it's such a complicated play, and Shakespeare's Cleo is such a weird mix of romantic and deeply pragmatic that I really want to tackle it and just drive myself crazy. Titus is another one—I've wanted to play Lavinia for ages, because she's so important to the show and yet is completely silent for most of her stage time. As someone who is normally given pages upon pages of dialogue, I would really love the challenge of playing someone who is primarily onstage to project her internal life, and who can only communicate in limited physical movement. And I think Kate in Shrew has got to be on anyone's list. Just a chance to tackle that final monologue, to try and wrangle that beast into submission, is a challenge I think pretty much all classical actors have spent time thinking about.

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

In terms of gender bending—I am deeply jealous of any man who has ever gotten to be Henry V. I love that show, I love Henry, I love the whole leadup to his journey in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. I would probably do a lot of terrible, terrible things if you promised me that I could be Prince Hal.


Bryant Park Presents and The Drilling Company's Much Ado About Nothing runs from May 19 to June 4 in Bryant Park. Tickets are free.


headshot  Laura Rose
photos #2,3, & 5  Remy
photo #4  Josef Pinlac