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