Monday, October 31, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Janni Goslinga on Margaret

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

I'm thrilled to email with Janni Goslinga, the leading lady in Ivo van Hove's production of Kings of War. The six-hour epic, playing at BAM this weekend, adapts Henry V, Henry VI 1-3, and Richard III into a single drama. Van Hove’s direction of classics, especially his recent Broadway mountings of Arthur Miller, has struck some as iconoclastic (as if that's a flaw). Goslinga has worked with van Hove many times, and now plays his Margaret, the original template for Shakespeare's 'powerful queen' roles.

Thanks for talking with me, Janni. What have you discovered about Margaret that you find fascinating?

Margaret is a survivor. She is ruthless to others and herself. She sees what is necessary and what must be done to rise to power and stay in power. Which is exactly what she wants. She is married off to the King of England as part of a deal negotiated between France and England, and leaves her whole world behind to become Queen. When she discovers that Henry is weak and unfit to be a king, she decides to assume control. Margaret is too strong-willed, has too much ambition and too much talent to play the dutiful little wife: ‘…is it okay for Henry to act like nothing more than a school boy? Am I a queen in nothing but title and really secondary to a Duke?’

Which scenes are the most challenging?

The scene in which she loses control, when Henry gets a nervous breakdown, is definitely the most challenging to play. Henry hears of the death of his good friend Gloucester, begins to suspect Margaret’s lover Suffolk and starts praying obsessively. Margaret tries desperately to stay in control, but plotting to murder Gloucester has sent adrenaline rushing through her system. She struggles to suppress feelings of deep resentment and anger towards her weak husband. Finally she explodes: ‘I have done everything for you! Look at me! Do something!’ Margaret’s survival instinct tells her to fight, but Henry’s response in the face of danger is flight. This scene has to be rough, frantic, irrational. We act it out differently every night.

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

In the following scene for instance, […] when Suffolk is unmasked and banished for his crime, the lovers say a passionate farewell. We rehearsed that scene several times and tried to inject strong sexual tension into it. At a certain point Ivo [van Hove] proposed to cut out all the romantic ‘…I’m lost without you…’ phrases from Margaret. Suffolk gets an emotional outburst. Margaret only replies: ‘The King is coming. Go. Take my heart with you.’

Goslinga (l) with Eelco Smits as Henry VI
When that mind switch became clear to me, I knew how to play this role. This is a woman who is able to see the future — and put her son’s interests first. What is left to save? She kicks her lover to the curb and refuses to feel the pain this causes her. She won’t allow it. All she gives herself is that one little sentence that she barks at him on his way out: ‘and take my heart with you.’

She is a survivor.

Margaret was the first of Shakespeare’s powerful queen roles, and, across three plays, it’s the largest part in his complete works. How does Kings of War present her, as compared with the strong men and weak kings?

Richard III is the only play regularly performed in the Netherlands. Dutch audiences generally view Margaret as ‘that crazy woman who swears like a sailor’. They are never quite sure what her reasons for swearing are and who she is really cursing. Performing Henry VI and Richard III allows us to show her forcefulness. When she is crowned Queen of England, she has high expectations. She is bitterly disappointed when it becomes clear that her husband has no actual power and that the court nobility is really in charge. Margaret becomes a true Iron Lady: ‘Lords, hard politics freeze up my Henry.’

Margaret is dominant, unwilling to compromise in negotiations and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. She is hard on herself and has great contempt for men who show weakness. Attack is her best line of defense. She calls Henry ‘a walking disaster’ and tells Suffolk he’s a ‘sorry excuse for a man, a spineless crybaby.’ The only person she has a soft spot for is her son. When Henry offers York the rights to the throne and betrays their son, she leaves him, raises an army with her son and goes to battle. When, much later, she returns to curse Richard III — the man responsible for killing her husband and son — she is totally fearless. She is like a terrorist with nothing left to lose. She has returned for one reason only: to wreak havoc and bring about destruction. Destruction through precision bombing in words. Ivo rightly calls her ‘a ticking time bomb’ in this scene.

How does van Hove's creative aesthetic fit with the Shakespeare you’ve done together?

Goslinga (l.) in Roman Tragedies
With Roman Tragedies the concept was a big political conference, one that we were all part of, both the audience and the actors. The news ticker and the television screens all flashed the same announcement: in ten minutes you will witness the murder of Julius Caesar. We moved through the audience. This gave the whole performance an intensity and a level of tension I had never seen before. The audience literally sits next to us as we fight, make love, invent conspiracies and die.

In Kings of War, with its War Rooms and secret passages, we also play to the camera and the audience at the same time. It’s an acting style that we have developed together and I personally love it.

In Othello, created by Jan [Versweyveld, set & light designer] over a decade ago, a glass house that served as a warship and a bedroom at the same time moved slowly towards the front of the stage. The play started out as theater and ended in a close-up like in a Hitchcock movie, next to Othello and Desdemona’s bed. Audience members later told us that they wanted to run up on stage and stop Othello when he gets ready to kill her.

I have also starred in a Romeo and Juliet production in which Julia’s whole family was made up of tango dancers. This resulted in a few very unique scenes, but I did not feel that the concept was able to carry the whole play.

Can you tell me more about van Hove's and Jan Versweyveld's aesthetic vision, and how it shapes your performance?

Ivo and Jan always have a fresh and compelling view of the pieces they want to do. Their approach is indeed ‘un-holy’, or maybe I should say nothing is holy in the process of rehearsals, as long as it is in line with the concept. The concept is always very well thought-out. The space that Jan has developed and the situations Ivo describes to us actors, always offer a lot of inspiration that we can use in our portrayal of the scenes. Most of the time, things fall into place naturally from that concept and the choices Ivo makes are a natural, organic result.

Ivo and Jan’s immeasurable talents lie in the creation of concepts that really capture the essence of a piece and they’re never dogmatic. It’s fun for them to watch what happens with their ideas on stage.

In your career you’ve worked on several of Shakespeare's plays. What’s your perspective on his roles for women?

Goslinga (l.) as Emilia in Othello (2012)
For me, it’s mostly a shame that they usually don’t have as many lines as the male characters do. Or the fact that they are given fewer opportunities to be philosophical, contemplate matters, express doubts or offer arguments. Because, really, I think it’s exquisite when they do. I had the honor of playing Emilia in Othello and her monologue is second to none, not even Shylock’s: ‘Let men know that women have senses too: we can see and smell and we have a palate that knows sweet and sour just like a man’s does…’ Her development in this play is amazing; from an insecure woman trapped in an abusive marriage with husband Iago who despises her and constantly spews racist and sexist remarks (even Donald Trump pales in comparison), to a confident human being who, as the stars align against her, finally sees clearly for the first time when it’s too late and raises her voice to the heavens in agony.

How does his perspective on a woman’s age affect his portrait of her?

How he does that is his gift, I suppose. I played Julia back when I was a theater student in college and now I’m playing Margaret — who’s absolutely ancient by the time she returns in Richard III. The rhythm of a character’s language, the way their minds work, their choice of words, but also the way they view the world — you get to use all of this to show a character’s age. It gives you the hormones and crazy, overwhelming infatuation of teenager Julia, and the centuries of wrath and war and the hate-filled nature of Margaret. A dinosaur who survives everything.

What about your dual roles in Roman Tragedies, with its take on modern politics?

In Roman Tragedies I play ‘the wife’ — the woman behind the successful man. I play both Coriolanus’s silent lady and Julius Caesar’s better half Calpurnia, who foresees his fate but is powerless to stop it from coming to pass as he refuses to listen to her and leaves for the Senate anyway.

I recently read somewhere that, in a lot of descriptions of Hillary Clinton, she is first referred to as Bill Clinton’s wife. Clearly ‘wife of’ is still a position that people would like to see women in today. The fact that these characters play subordinate roles does not mean that you have to portray them as submissive types. In our show, by putting me on stage repeatedly, Ivo shows how the silent woman cries angry tears on the couch at home when she sees Coriolanus getting himself banished by being stubborn. When she later goes to beg him to do something, she shows a stubbornness equal to that of her husband.

Goslinga (l.) as Virgilia
in Roman Tragedies (2012)
These are important choices to make, to allow these characters their fair share of stage time. To take every character seriously, always, without any moral judgment.

Is there anything in Shakespeare's plays that’s beyond salvaging?

I wouldn’t say there’s anything beyond salvaging. But in order to successfully portray the change in Lady Anne’s character in Richard III, or to deliver a strong closing monologue as Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew, you need an exciting and fitting angle. Exciting for both men and women of the 21st century.

Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I would love to play Lady Macbeth. Recently at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, male dream-roles also have been played by women by the way: Octavius Caesar is played by a woman in our Roman Tragedies. And we have performed Queen Lear and Hamlet vs Hamlet, both with a female title role.


Toneelgroup Amsterdam and BAM's Kings of War runs from November 3 to 6 at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Tickets start at $30.


photos  Jan Versweyveld

Monday, October 17, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Mairin Lee on She Stoops to Conquer

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

This autumn, the Actor's Company Theatre (TACT) revives She Stoops to Conquer. Written in 1771, Oliver Goldsmith's comedy has Kate Hardcastle impersonate a servant to learn the true personality of her beloved. Mairin Lee, an actor whose classical resume includes ACT and the McCarter, takes the title role in TACT's staging. I emailed with Ms. Lee about Kate, the play, and its relationship to Shakespeare.

Let’s start with Goldsmith and She Stoops to Conquer. What do you love in this play?

I love this play because it’s tremendously fun. The characters do outrageous things to get what they want, but their deepest hopes are real and recognizable. Kate dreams of true love. She commits whole-heartedly to that journey and takes incredible risks along the way. Each character has funny whims and eccentricities, and they’re all genuinely fighting for something.

Why it’s worth reviving in 2016?

Aside from the fact that it’s super funny, it’s stayed relevant. Goldsmith wrote it hundreds of years ago, but it feels very modern. There’s something recognizable in the familial dynamics of the Hardcastles; the troubles of wooing a mate; dissembling to further your cause. These are eternal questions: how do I find love? how do I balance loyalty to my family but also exercise my own freedom? how do I overcome obstacles?

What have you discovered about Kate Hardcastle?

Kate is wonderfully plucky, brave, funny, and sweet. She’s intuitive and smart and she cares deeply for her family. Even when she expresses uncertainty, Scott has encouraged me to find a positive spin. I love that approach because it shows how game she is; how much delight she finds in challenges. I think Kate’s an avid reader; she absolutely devours romance novels. And she is the heroine in her own story. Every obstacle is an opportunity for something extraordinary to happen.

What are the challenges in bringing her to life?

The biggest challenge has been finding Kate in our particular style. There are many ways this play can be presented. It could support very broad comedy, but we wanted to keep the characters as real as possible. And yet Kate makes some wild decisions. So I’ve been discovering how to balance that; how to stay grounded and real while also committing to the play’s crazy twists and turns.

What does her choice of disguises say about her and her assumptions about servants?

We have to remember that it’s not exactly her idea. Mr. Marlow gets so nervous around upper-class women that he can barely speak. He's more forward with women of a lower class. The first time they meet, he can't even look her in the face! Then, when she changes from her finery into a plainer dress, he doesn't recognize her and asks if she's a barmaid. She takes the idea and runs with it, because it’s the only way she’s going to get to know him better.

So it’s more about Marlow’s assumptions of lower class women. Kate is essentially herself, just in a different dress and using a different dialect. This perhaps gives her permission to flirt with him a little more than she normally would, but she doesn’t act wholly out of character. I actually think she’s quite egalitarian and feminist.

What links have you found between Kate Hardcastle and Shakespeare’s romantic heroines?

There are lots of parallels to be drawn here! Kate has some power at the top of the play — her father says, “I will never control your choice” — but she creates even more agency for herself. Her father facilitates the introduction with Marlow, but she takes the courtship into her own hands. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines have — or devise — agency in their lives and romantic endeavors. We see characters like Juliet and Desdemona explicitly go against their fathers' wishes. In the tragedies, of course, that doesn’t always work out well. But we do get happy endings for others, like Rosalind and Viola.

Lee (r) with John Rothman
As a woman in 1773, what could Kate do or say that they couldn’t?

1773 was during the birth of the modern marriage. Love was becoming a deciding factor. If Kate didn’t like Marlow, it would have been within her power to turn him down. This reflects a greater cultural shift in the idea of marriage, and is different from some of the ultimatums laid down in Shakespeare’s plays.

Looking more broadly the play, how does Goldsmith portray women in She Stoops, especially with regard to class?

This is interesting, because our production has cut the female servants. We’re doing the play with eight actors, and Scott figured out how to retain the plot without most of the smaller roles. So we only have Kate, Constance, and Mrs. Hardcastle, who are upper class, and Kate’s barmaid character, who is lower class. As I mentioned, Kate becomes the barmaid so that Marlow can act more freely. As the barmaid, she’s not as proper as she usually is, but she doesn’t do anything completely out of character. The differences are that she uses another dialect (“the true bar cant”) and, in our production, a more free physicality.

I think the question we’re getting at here is — why does Marlow act one way around upper-class women and another around lower-class women? What is Goldsmith saying about the fact that Marlow treats Kate differently depending on what she’s wearing and how she’s speaking? I have a sense that he's poking fun at Marlow, and perhaps using him to draw attention to the folly of the class system itself.

The answer will also differ depending on how Marlow’s played. Jeremy Beck is not only one of funniest actors I’ve worked with, but he also gives Marlow moments of such vulnerability and tenderness. I think the audience can really see why Kate falls in love with him.

Looking at your website, you’ve got plenty of experience in classical drama. How do you grapple with the ingrained sexism of those pre-modern plays?

Aha. While it’s no doubt important to look at the greater themes of these plays, my way in is always through the character. My first obligation is to her and to see the world through her eyes. I have some friends who ask, "Why do you want to do Shakespeare? Your characters usually end up in a puddle of tears! The world is so stacked against them!" And to that I say, YES. Look at all the obstacles in her path. Now: how does she handle them? What can we learn from her? How does Ophelia feel about being told what to do by her brother, her father, her king, and her boyfriend? How does each scene push Lady Macbeth closer and closer to madness?

Lee as Ophelia
in PA Shakespeare Company's Hamlet
That’s what’s fun for an actor. To figure out how a particular character overcomes — or doesn’t — what’s laid before her. So in the moment, the question doesn’t feel like how do I, Mairin, deal with the ingrained sexism of a play written three hundred years ago. Playwrights weren’t necessarily imagining a world where everything was fair and equal. They were showing it as it was, and it was often cruel and messy and unfair. There is sexism in the world of these plays because it was a more sexist world back then. That doesn't justify it or make it okay. I believe the best playwrights were able to subvert some of that sexism by endowing their women with enough creativity or bravery to battle it. First and foremost, they see their characters as human. And that's how I want to see them too.

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform?

Juliet has always been at the top of the list. R&J was the first the first play I ever saw, and it blew my world open. Her language is just heavenly. I think she’s one of Shakespeare’s smartest characters. Her heart is so big, and her imagination is astonishing.

I’d love to do Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Or any of the women in Antony and Cleopatra — I played Iras and Octavia in a production at the McCarter a few years ago, and I fell in love with it. Just thinking about all these plays makes me happy and excited!

Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I got to play Mercutio this summer in an Off-Broadway production with the Wheelhouse Theatre, and I loved it. I’d play him again in a heartbeat. He’s amazing. There’s a thousand different ways to go. He’s so many things in one — a braggart, a fighter, a clown, a poet. He could be super-masculine or totally androgynous. At times there’s something almost otherworldly about him. I was heartbroken when we closed; I wanted to keep exploring and playing and finding new things. I’ve thought at various times about other male characters — maybe Hal, maybe Orsino, maybe Horatio — but Mercutio really stole my heart.


TACT's She Stoops to Conquer runs from October 4 to November 5 at Theatre Row. Tickets are $65.


photo #2  Marielle Solan

photo #3  Lee A. Butz