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 #12 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work in New York.
The Lincoln Center Festival hosts Shakespeare's Globe on another visit to Manhattan. The show's Merchant of Venice, and Rachel Pickup plays Portia to Jonathan Pryce's Shylock. She's an English actress who spent a season with the RSC, and several more years around the UK, before she moved to America. Her shrewd Goneril, plus chemistry with her Regan (Bianca Amato), made her stand out in '14's Lear at Theatre for a New Audience. I emailed with Rachel about the complexities and challenges of Portia.
Thanks for talking with me, Rachel. In rehearsing and playing Portia in London and New York, what have you discovered about her?
I confess I had never really thought much about The Merchant of Venice before I came to do it last year, so my preconception about Portia was probably the same as many people’s. I knew she said, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” so I had assumed she herself was full of mercy. If I am honest I think I thought she was pure goodness. Foolish of me, as Shakespeare is never so simplistic, but I thought she was the romantic lovely princess. She is not. She has many of those ‘young lover’ qualities: intelligence, passion, sometimes compassion, selfishness, (often selfishness), but also entitlement, confidence sometimes even bordering on arrogance. That has surprised me.
But the most fascinating thing has been how someone [who] is able to say that speech about mercy can then behave in quite a cruel way. However you justify the cruelty, she is nevertheless distinctly lacking in mercy in the way she treats Shylock and Jessica and two of her suitors. She is certainly not wholly lovely in how she behaves, and that has been a fascinating journey of discovery. I have a whole other play going on in my head when myself and Nerissa return from the court scene to Belmont. But the play ends where it ends so that sequel is for another time.
What are Portia's finest qualities, and her worst ones?
She is super-smart and passionate, and magnificently brave and strong, and ahead of her time, and she has the capacity to learn. But she is capable of cruelty, she is selfish, and, most devastatingly, she is a racist. She is a complex woman. She is a flawed human being. She is a product of her time, her environment, so alas, she is, frankly, racist. It has been hard to embrace that, but it is important to, especially because of these times that we are living in. It is sadly far too current!
What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?
Many! So many little plot details which we as a company had to address when we were first going thru the play. Simple things like, how long have I been going through the casket trial? Do I know which casket contains my picture? When did I meet Bassanio and, if we both fell in love at first sight, why did we not get together when my father was alive? Then of course myself and Nerissa dressing up as men and going to court. How do we do that in the time allotted? And get back to Belmont so fast? How is it that my cousin happens to be the Doctor of Law expected in court, and that I can be instructed in the ways of the law in the short time before travelling to Venice? All of these things and so many more. I could go on and on — and I think you almost always can in Shakespeare. We can find justification for all of the these things though, and it is vital that we as a company come to an agreement on why we do what we do and when.
Do you think an audience gets all that thought you've put in?
Oftentimes an audience won’t even consider these problems. The brilliance of Shakespeare is the way he forces you to jump in and just — believe! It is like how we are when we are children. There is a fairy tale element to this play — to many of his [plays] — and so long as we know why we are doing what we are doing, I think an audience will. Conviction is all!
Merchant addresses religion in volatile ways, and the show’s effect depends heavily on Portia’s argument in court. What are your thoughts on her argument about mercy?
I answered that to some degree in my first question but to further it. She is of course utterly brilliant in what she says. What you realise, when you really listen to the whole trial scene many times, is that the Doge and everyone else keeps saying to Shylock, “have mercy”, “everyone expects mercy”. But it is an assumption we all make, that a person would be merciful — nobody actually stops to say why? Portia is astounded by the fact that Shylock has to actually ask the question, “On what compulsion must I [be merciful], tell me that?” Of course one should not have to ask, but he does, so she simply answers. It starts as a simple answer, but Shylock does not respond nor does he seem convinced, so she is forced to qualify her initial simple answer and expand on it. And I think the shock of having to explain this basic human concept of mercy allows her to get somewhat carried away — not entirely, she has her feet on the ground — but I think during that speech Portia has a deep, new learning herself. [sic]
What does she learn?
She grows up somewhat in the mercy speech. She herself has not always been merciful, she has not always been kind, she has never been outside of her cloistered and “golden” palace of Belmont and has not known the world. Now here she is in the ugly real world of Venice and it is a coming-of-age.
What about her ‘winning’ argument about flesh but no blood?
The most brilliant move a lawyer could come up with - and she does so in the moment — in our production anyway! It is genius and spot on! I love her for it! I love it!
By contrast, the casket scenes make Portia silent, but she still controls the situation. How do you animate her silence and formal responses to her suitors?
I am interested that you think she controls the situation. In our production she does not. We felt that it was more dramatic for us not to know which casket contained which “prize” so we are at the ‘mercy’ of fate in those scenes and she does not control it. She prays to the Gods! And she wishes she could “teach Bassanio how to choose right” but alas she is one who also obeys the law and her father’s will so she will not ever cheat or lie or “be foresworn”!
I just need to listen to the others on stage. Morocco and Aragon, our actors, are so brilliant and so 'in' it that I don’t need to think about how I animate anything. I listen to what they are saying and I react accordingly, as do Nerissa and Balthazar. You should never really have to think about how you are animating a scene if you are listening — words or no words.
How does she make her choice (for Bassanio)?
We discussed Bassanio’s and my backstory and decided we had met a few months ago at one of Belmont’s many balls—we had barely spoken but we fell in love. Again, there are fairy tale elements but you can fall in love at first sight, people do all the time so… it was not a choice is what I am saying, we were ‘meant to be’! I like to believe in that!
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?
There are not enough of them, that is for sure. He writes many wonderful women though, and I love that for the most part they are strong. They are often the ones who sort out the problems, or take the risks. Juliet is way more interesting than Romeo, Portia is braver than Bassanio, Rosalind intensely more fabulous than Orlando, etc. etc. But, obvious to say, they are often second fiddle to the men. Where in Shakespeare are the Hamlets, the Lears, the many Richards or Henry’s or Iagos for the women? They are just so few and far between, however wonderful those that are there are! Having said that, the ones that are brilliant are truly majestically so, and I feel incredibly lucky to have played so many of them.
Are there any you don't like?
The only female semi-leading role that I find a little limp is Hero in Much Ado. She is a bit insipid, I am glad I was never offered that part.
|Pickup as Goneril opposite Michael Pennington's Lear|
at Theatre for a New Audience, 2014
Interesting, never thought of it in that way? “salvaging”?!!? I don’t think so, no — not that I know every single play intimately, by any means. But he is so brilliant that even in some of the more flawed plays there are always moments/speeches that take your breath away. I think any good director who is excited by any given play will then do something with it to make it ‘salvageable’ as you say — or they will cut any of the dross — not a bad thing to do sometimes!
I mean anything that can never work onstage, no matter how ironically it's played.
I am not a fan of all the “Poor Tom” stuff in King Lear — it goes on for far too long. Many don’t agree with me of course, but I think it is impossible to sustain that for quite as long as Shakespeare writes it. I am afraid I tend to tune out! If I direct Lear, I will cut a lot of that!
Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d still love to play? Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
So many! All the obvious ones and sure — I always wanted to play Richard the 2nd and Hamlet and King Lear and Edmund and all those meaty parts. But as I get older I do tend to think let the men play the men and the women the women… perhaps that is very boring of me. If I were offered King Lear I would say yes in a heartbeat!
Shakespeare's Globe and Lincoln Center Festival's The Merchant of Venice runs from July 20 to 24 in Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tickets are $45-150.
headshot Scott Marshall
photos #2 & 3 Manuel Harlan
photo #4 Carol Rosegg
photos #2 & 3 Manuel Harlan
photo #4 Carol Rosegg