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.
Joy Richardson has worked for over two decades in London's theater. Her big break, at the National, was in a controversial Pericles under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd. Since then, she's played many classic and modern roles, at the National, Shakespeare's Globe, on the West End, and in global tours. Now she's visiting NYC with Cheek by Jowl's Winter's Tale. She's cast as Paulina for the second time, having once played the part at the Globe's inaugural season in 1997. Ms. Richardson emailed with me about the role and other Shakespearean parts for women.
Let’s start with Paulina. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?
Paulina is a fascinating character to play. She goes on a huge learning curve throughout the play. When we first meet Paulina, she appears out of nowhere, at a time of great crisis in the kingdom. In trying to make things better, she challenges the most powerful authorities in the land: the King and all his nobles. As terrifying as the consequences might be, she risks her life to do what she believes is right and just. Justice is at the core of her values, and what gives her the strength of her convictions, while others falter.
Which scenes are the most challenging?
Paulina's scenes are all challenging to play, in different ways. She is an isolated figure most of the time. It is often her against the world. Her weapons are words, and her ability to constantly adapt, and so survive. All the while being constantly forced to justify her actions. She has to persuade the men, that she, a woman, knows best, and that good will come of all the years of suffering she puts the King through.
What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?
Richardson as Paulina
in Cheek by Jowl's Winter's Tale
The tricky thing for me is that we know very little about Paulina's past life. Even her present personal life is a mystery. But as an actor you cannot leave that aspect of her blank. The little scraps of detail have to be used as the foundation to create a fully rounded human being. Someone with hopes, fears and a detailed history. Otherwise you can so easily make her a mouthy, two dimensional know-it-all. Paulina's is so much more than that. It is a challenge, but fun having that much scope for invention.
Many of Shakespeare’s strong women are a political type—Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Margaret, Lear’s daughters. How does Paulina fit with those characters?
Paulina is a very political animal. She sees the politics in everything. And is brave enough to be visible, even in the face of great danger to herself and her family. In her society, men rule women. It is the men who are appointed to positions of power. And it is with great political skill that she navigates this. It requires great political skill on her part to gain the influence she does, and maintain that power and influence in the face of constant criticism and attempts to undermine her.
Where does her power lie?
This production explores the psychology of power. Power misused and the different ways people respond to the horrendous choices facing them. The struggle with their own values. 'What are you willing to sacrifice for your beliefs?' is the question running throughout the play. Paulina's power lies in the strength of her belief in a better future. She has hope in the future. And she believes she has a crucial role to play to make it happen. Her conviction and self-belief allows her to take a leap of faith, and forces others to do the same.
On an intersecting subject, how does Shakespeare's perspective on Paulina's age affect his portrait of her?
One thing about Paulina is that her beauty and sexuality are not an issue in the play. It is what she says and does that carry weight. This is very unusual in a major female character in a Shakespeare play. When we first meet Paulina, she asks questions, speaks her mind, and publicly condemns all those who do not meet her moral standards. But as the years pass, she is less confrontational and more passive aggressive. She speaks less, but is just as effective. Her determination is still there, and her power has grown. Physically she is weaker, as the years have taken their toll. She has sacrificed everything for what she believes. Age has imbued her with a different kind of energy and determination. She is older, wiser, and has an iron will.
You’ve played Paulina before, at Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997. How has your perspective on the role changed in twenty years?
Richardson as Paulina
at Shakespeare's Globe, 1997
The Paulina I played twenty years ago was completely different to the Paulina I play now. This has largely to do with the company I am working with now, but also because the world is a very different place. Extraordinary events have happened that have left their trace. The certainty I had then seems so naive now. I am twenty years older and I have a whole bundle of new questions to throw at Paulina, along with the previous questions. This Paulina has a tougher job to do in facing down her own demons, before she can deal with other people's demons. But she also has many more strings to her bow. She feels the weight of responsibility for consequences of her actions, but going backwards is not an option. Many things can, and do go wrong, and she is more aware of the possibility of failure.
How does the approach and aesthetic of Cheek by Jowl fit with other Shakespeare you’ve worked on, at Shakespeare’s Globe and elsewhere?
Working for Cheek by Jowl is an education. An opportunity to learn and break old habits. To step outside your comfort zone. It is an amazing company of hugely talented individuals who bring their unique skills and passion to enable actors to tell a story so that it matters. The actor is put at the very centre of every production. And as storytellers, we are continually stretched in new and interesting ways. Focus is also placed on the dynamics of space and time. The space must live, so the word, and the story can be born. Rehearsals continue throughout the run of the show. This is a luxury. With other companies rehearsals end once a show has officially opened. This opportunity to continuously explore the text and make new choices is a rare thing in the world of theatre.
Talking about Shakespeare more generally, in your career you’ve played a variety of his roles, male and female. What’s your perspective on his parts for women?
One exciting aspect of doing a Shakespeare play is his understanding of humanity. Strengths and weaknesses. His characters are multilayered, with endless possibilities for interpretation. Both male and female. The difference between them is the different rules and expectations imposed on them by society. The men are often the protagonists. The movers and shakers. While the women must find endless ways of challenging the restrictions put on them. Sometimes they succeed in their aims and other times, they do not. But there is a whole world that lies in between.
Where are his strengths in depicting them and where are his weaknesses?
Richardson (second from right) with the women
of Cheek by Jowl's Winter's Tale
Shakespeare gives a voice to those facing the injustices of the world. He also gives a voice to the perpetrators of injustice. The argument is never simplistic. So, for an actor, there is a danger in wanting the women to be heroines of our times. Wanting them to be good role models and expecting them to display the values we admire. That is why a play like The Taming of the Shrew is often seen as a “problem play”. At the end of the play, our “heroine” delivers a speech that embraces the very values that enslaves women. This is unpalatable for modern audiences, yet it is a reality that exists now. The spirit of the downtrodden are sometimes broken. After a long battle, her spirit appears to be broken. The play explores uncomfortable truths, using humour. When we laugh we feel complicit. The easy way out is to deliver her final speech ironically. As is often done. Racism, sexism and antisemitism are expressed by characters in the play, but I cannot recall anything in Shakespeare's plays that are beyond salvaging. That perspective misses the point. Exploring these themes is an opportunity to find the depth of what it is to be human.
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 have always wanted to play Lady Macbeth and Juliet. They do say that by the time you are experienced enough to play Juliet, you are far too old for the part. But why give up on dreams? Prospero and Richard III are also characters I would love to play.
Cheek by Jowl's The Winter's Tale runs from December 6 to 11 at the BAM Harvey Theater in Fort Greene. Tickets are $25-$110.
headshot Ric Bacon
Cheek by Jowl photos Johan Persson
Globe '97 photo UPPA/Photoshot