Thursday, November 3, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Lisa Harrow on Volumnia

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 fall, the Red Bull mounts a modern-dress Coriolanus with Lisa Harrow as the redoubtable Volumnia, mother to the titular general. A native New Zealander, Harrow has worked extensively around the world for almost five decades. Her Olivia fell in love with Judi Dench's Viola in a legendary Twelfth Night at the RSC in 1969. Six years later, she played Juliet to John Hurt's Romeo when both were in their thirties. Though it doesn't come up in our email conversation, Harrow is also an environmental activist who wrote What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living.

Let’s start with Volumnia. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?

My thoughts about Volumnia evolved as the production took shape. I am the mother of a solo child, a son, who started life without a father in the home. So I was particularly interested in the dynamic of Volumnia and Coriolanus, given the fact that there is no mention of his father anywhere in the text. I strove to find a gentler, nurturing side of her, which was the kind of mother I hope I was with my boy. But in the end, I realized I had to bow to Shakespeare’s writing and embody his vision of Volumnia as a powerfully ambitious woman who molded her boy to her vision of what a man should be: a great soldier and a powerful political leader.

The placing of the play in a contemporary American context added an extra complexity to the question of who Volumnia is, especially considering that Coriolanus is played by the wonderful Trinidadian Canadian actor, Dion Johnstone. So it’s clear that Coriolanus’s father was not a white patrician. I decided that Volumnia, an independent woman not interested in marriage but wanting a son to mould into a leader, chose to find a specific sperm donor to give her that son. Of course, this has no expression in the play, but I needed to find a back-story that made sense to me.

Which of her scenes are the most challenging?

I find her first scene (1.3) the most challenging because the stark bareness of the stage provides no domestic setting which is implicit in the writing. But once that scene is over, the rest of her story is clear and wonderful to play. Shakespeare leaves no knots to untangle. The play ends in the inevitable death of Coriolanus and Volumnia is left with the tragic knowledge that her fierce framing of her son’s character results in life without that beloved son.

Harrow with Dion Johnstone as Coriolanus
Volumnia is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful women, socially as well as psychologically. How does the play present that power, as compared with Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Lear’s daughters?

This is a complicated question that I’m not sure I can answer easily. Volumnia is indeed powerful, but only to her son. She holds no political power, which is probably why she’s driven her son to a military career. Or did she? Perhaps he was a born soldier and her desire to gain social standing drives her to capitalize on his military success and push him into seeking political power so she could bask in reflected glory. There’s no answer in the text to either of those questions, just her words and actions, which all point to her ambition that is at odds with his, and his inability to strongly oppose her. He could have left home years ago and made his own way, but he hasn’t.

Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Lear’s daughters are all members of a ruling class in no uncertain terms. Cleopatra’s power over Antony is sexual; Lady Macbeth’s power is that of a woman wanting her husband to be king and who will sacrifice her female nature (i.e. compassion and nurture) to help him achieve that and is driven mad by the consequences of that wish, so her power wanes quickly; and Lear’s daughters are the product of an abusive father and their power is driven by the anger engendered by that abuse.

She’s the only mother on that list — how does that figure in?
I have no answer to that except to say that clearly Shakespeare is interested in the psychology of this particular son/mother relationship. How far can an ambitious, smart mother, who has no opportunity in her world to realize her own ambitions, so influence and frame her son that he provides her with the satisfaction of her own success through his triumphs?

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, in your career you’ve played a variety of parts. What’s your perspective on his roles for women?

When I was at high school in New Zealand, I played all the boy’s parts. It’s one of the joys of going to an all-girls’ school, the ones with the loudest voices get all the juicy swashbuckling parts to play, and my two special ones were King Lear and Henry V. I still yearn to have another go at Henry, but the attempt at Lear gave me the nearest thing to a nervous breakdown I’ve ever had.

Harrow's Ophelia with Judi Dench as Viola
RSC 1969, director John Barton
What did you learn by playing those parts?

What I discovered by playing male roles was what I called “male mental space” — that is, that the world of male ideas and the physical world of male characters were so much more thrilling and huge and extraordinary than that of female characters. It was a world that was much more exciting to inhabit if you were a tomboy. But, when I joined the RSC in 1969 to play Olivia in Twelfth Night, I found myself working with John Barton, who is considered to be among the greatest directors to work with on a Shakespearean script and he altered my thinking. Like a true father, he guided me into the world of Shakespearean heroines and taught me to how look at their words and really understand them. Over many years of living with the words of this greatest of humanists, I’ve come to the conclusion (like many, I’m sure) that his women are, on the whole, the teachers of men — they light the way through wit, sexuality, fortitude, common sense and gentleness to a better and more harmonious way of being together.

The current debate that is raging in the world about the status of women in relation to the continuing patriarchal control through religion, violence, political domination, sexual predation and blind inability to accept that all people should be given equal opportunities, is there in Shakespeare’s writing, loud and clear. As a species, we haven’t changed much in 400 years. That is why his plays are still alive and loved in every country in the world. And that is why this particular production of Coriolanus has been so successful in its transfer to present-day America. There are living examples of each of these characters who were alive in 491 BCE, written about by Shakespeare in 1610, and are now voicing their partisan political arguments on America’s streets and in every media outlet possible.

That being said, the last two productions of a Shakespeare play I have had the pleasure to act in were both The Tempest in which I played Prospero each time, as a man, or more specifically, as a male–entity. I loved the opportunity to explore the vast scope of that character from his monumental rage to a sublime realization of the equal power of forgiveness and compassion.

Harrow with Dion Johnston as Coriolanus

On an intersecting subject, Shakespeare wrote many ingĂ©nues, several adult roles, and some aging women. How does his perspective on a woman’s age affect his portrait of her?

I think his perspective on the aging of women is no different than that of his aging men. It depends on the character as much as anything. Justice Shallow is not Queen Margaret in Richard III, yet they both speak from their particular life experience. And a character’s social position also determines what they say. I’m sure, if Juliet’s nurse were not the nurse and subservient to Juliet’s parents, she might have been more supportive of Juliet’s position in that appalling scene where Juliet is viciously berated by her father for refusing to marry Paris.

What else do you think affected the way he wrote women?

I don’t think he writes his women differently from his men. It’s just that there are a lot more male characters because if one is dealing with stories of power, kingdoms, battles, and history, society has given men a more prominent role in those stories. Or, the argument could be made that because only men were allowed to act in those days, it was easier to write mostly male roles.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen Shakespearean staging and acting change?

In 1969 I started out my theatrical career playing in the RSC’s main house in Stratford-upon-Avon which held 1,200 people, and now in 2016, I am playing Volumnia in the 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre in New York’s West Village. So there’s an immediate difference to the demands on an actor’s ability to communicate with every member of the audience, without the help of a mike.

What opportunities have young women gained in classical theater, and what’s been lost?

In 1969, it was very rare for women to play male roles as a matter of course, but in our present production all but one of the women (me) in Coriolanus portray men at some point in the play, most notably Merritt Jansen, who’s visibly pregnant, as the tribune Brutus Sicinius, yet she is still addressed as “Sir” and no one blinks. That’s quite a change. Yet, is it? Sarah Bernhardt was famous for her performance of Hamlet and even made a film of it in 1900, so women have been playing male roles in Shakespeare for a long time. Certainly, the number of young women pouring out of training programs as burningly ambitious actresses with no intention of being held back by convention, has led to a growing trend for Shakespearean productions with all-female casts, which is terrific.

Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to?

Harrow as Prospero
Pop-Up Globe in Auckland NZ, 2016
I would loved to have played Cleopatra but was never asked. And at my age, there aren’t many opportunities to play the great heroines. I have often thought it would be interesting to do Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra with the same actors playing both roles, as an exploration of Shakespeare’s views on youthful and middle-aged passion. But once again, who would contemplate such a project with someone my age? But I do enjoy working on their texts with young actors.

How about roles traditionally played by men?
I wouldn’t mind having another crack at Prospero. He was a kick in the head to play. The internal impact of the emotional depths needed to perform his words in Act 5.1 from the point where he gives up his search for vengeance and opens his heart to the healing power of forgiveness is unlike any other force I have ever encountered in a career playing a huge variety of amazing roles.


Red Bull Theater's Coriolanus runs from October 18 to November 20 in the West Village. Tickets start at $80.


photos  Carol Rosegg

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