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 in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.
Anwen Darcy impressed me a great deal last summer, first in our conversation about Beatrice and then in performance in Much Ado About Nothing. Evidently she's also impressed the Drilling Company, since this is her third season with that prolific outdoor troupe. Directed by Karla Hendrick (who spoke with me on Monday), Anwen plays Helena, the heroine of All's Well That Ends Well, and I'm thrilled to talk with her again.
Let’s start with Helena. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?
One of the most fascinating things about playing her is her constant hopefulness — the sheer joy and belief she has in her relationship with Bertram and the fact that they are meant to be together. There is a very strong religious streak in Helena, and her relationship to God is the foundation of all her plans. She believes He has put her on Earth to be with Bertram, and every time a plot of hers fails, she goes back to her faith, and that's been a lifesaver to have, really.
In what way?
When dealing with a situation like the bed trick, you can't frame it in a modern viewpoint. It's only really the past thirty years when that's become an unacceptable plot device (they use it in Revenge of the Nerds, for goodness sake). But giving her a moral reason for doing something unseemly really helped that moment take root in my mind. She's a little like Joan of Arc, in some ways. She has been given a mission and she will not fail.
Which scenes are the most challenging?
I think the hardest scene, for me, is such a little one but it's so important — it's the scene after the wedding, where she asks Bertram to kiss her, and he rejects her. It's a tiny tiny scene — it's maybe two or three pages — but it's humiliating. It's a lot of things — the fact that she can't talk to Bertram alone (Parolles stays onstage, and in our version is silently communicating with Bertram), that she's finally plucking up the courage to ask for something she's wanted for years on top of apologizing to him for surprising him with the wedding — it's just hard. It's a terrible mix of hope and utter ruin. Every night I secretly hope that Bertram isn't going to let her down, and every night he does. I've found that being exposed onstage is hideously uncomfortable for me (as it should be!) but that scene sends chills down my spine every night.
What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?
The biggest knot, I think to modern audiences, is the bed trick. How do you get around the lack of consent? Helena certainly has a lot of mental gymnastics in defining it to herself — her justification is that, because she is preventing him from sinning with Diana, and he is instead consummating his marriage to her, it's not a sin at all:
… wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful fact,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.
So working the audience through something that would very rightly be called rape, and having you come out on Helena's side, has been difficult.
How do you feel about the choices she makes in the play?
The choice to love Bertram, above all, is I think the choice Helena is actively making the entire show. She never stops loving him — even after she gives him up, even after she finds out he's wooing someone else, even after he shows no real remorse she is dead. She is constantly choosing love and devotion, and I think that is what her heart is truly made of. She wants what's best for everyone — herself included, of course, but you see in the show that her happiness above all others is no happiness at all to her. She wants the world to be settled and happy.
How do you see Helena's role in the play’s action?
What is interesting about Helena is how proactive she is without driving the scenes in the first half of the show. Helena never drives a scene until she confesses who she is to the Widow in Act 3, Sc. 7. Before that, she is very much an outsider allowing people to talk around her, before confessing her feelings to the audience in soliloquy. But you see, in the first scene, that nothing gets past her. She's sobbing because Bertram's leaving and is adrift in her own misery, but she's still listening, still hears LaFew talk about the King's disease, and by the end of scene 1 in the show, she's figured out a plan. She's going to go to the King, and solve his problem, and in her words, "Who ever strove to show her merit that did miss her love?" It's a really beautiful plan, in a lot of ways, because it very neatly solves her status issues, which she believes are the only thing getting in the way of her being with Bertram.
What about subsequently?
Throughout the show, you see Helena setting up dominoes to fall, cutting paths to lead herself to Bertram, and finding out it's more difficult than she believes. So she is the engine of the whole show, but again, doesn't drive the action until the back half — it's the Countess and the King and Bertram who make decisions for her in the beginning. The Countess agrees to let her go to Paris, The King agrees to let her try her physic and gives her leave to marry Bertram. Bertram leaves instead of staying and working on the marriage. Acts 1-3 are really constant up and down that is simultaneously Helena's doing (she engineered all the situations) and her reacting to the decisions of those higher up (the King, Bertram, the Countess). It's only when she leaves France, when she leaves her marriage and agrees to lose everything, that we see her come into her own.
Last summer, you remarked that Shakespeare’s biggest flaw regarding female roles is that “once an intelligent, complicated woman has served her purpose, she stops talking.” Does Helena fit that dramaturgical pattern?
Helena does fit into that pattern. The more she becomes self-actualized, the less we see of her. We don't really know how she feels after that night with Bertram. She never tells us. The soliloquies inviting us into her headspace are gone. She's silent on what it felt like to have the man you've adored since childhood finally come to you as a husband but think you are someone else. She's totally silent on her humiliation of his love of Diana — and it had to be humiliating, to stay at the Widow and Diana's house, and see the musicians that Bertram has sent for someone else. Helena's scenes are much more blunt and to the point in Act 4 and 5 — much shorter, and her long, rambling speech pattern of earlier is gone. Some of that is to do with the fact that she's grown up — and I think some of it is to do with the fact that Shakespeare found her less interesting when she isn't mired in misery.
What about the final stage of her journey? Where does Helena end the play?
Act 5 is interesting, because it's a lot of people talking around problems that Helena could solve. So instead of getting Helena and Bertram having a satisfying resolution to talk about their problems, Helena just wanders in on the last page, pregnant, and they embrace. He says if she can prove it was her in Florence, he'll love her dearly. She says if he can't see it clearly by now, they should divorce. Everyone laughs. End play — and it's terrible. I have no idea why he felt the need to have Parolles talk in circles about the Diana/Bertram situation for three pages when the audience is already ahead of you, and not let the central romance breathe and solidify.
What does Helena share with Shakespeare’s other adventurous, crossdressing ingénues — roles like Rosalind, Portia, and Viola?
Well, it's interesting, because the crossdressing is so incidental to the show. It's not vitally important as in As You Like It, or Merchant or Twelfth Night, because it's really just a scene. What it does represent within the show is Helena at her lowest — she's failed as a woman, in her eyes. She was given everything she wanted, and her husband rejected her. She humiliated him, she humiliated the king, the Countess — Helena takes the failure of her marriage to Bertram extremely personally, and by sending herself off on a pilgrimage so he can come home, she is literally exchanging herself in the eyes of God, which is where the cross-dress comes in. She needs to be an equal sacrifice.
But I think the spirit of fearlessness is alive and well in all four of these women — they are all women who will lay themselves on the line for others and to get things accomplished. They are all doers, and self-made women, even in times when that wasn't necessarily socially acceptable. I think people tend to think of Helena as a bit of a doormat for Bertram, and she certainly takes licks that the three ladies mentioned would not, and I think that's where she differs. You see Helena grow into her strength — you see her form before your eyes. Whereas someone like Portia is already a formidable wit and self possessed women, this is Helena's journey to get there.
Turning to the play, what does All’s Well offer audiences that Shakespeare’s more famous plays don’t?
I'd been begging to do this show for years, actually. I've always loved Helena, but it's a hard show to do because everyone has to have a specific skill set. You have to have a Bertram that's charming enough [that] you love him but you also believe him doing terrible things. You have to have a Parolles that seems harmless enough to stay with Bertram but has a dark edge when alone, a Countess who is strong but indulgent. Luckily for us, we actually had the right people for the task this year and the show leapt forward.
What do you love about All's Well?
One of the things I love about this play is that it's really about communication, more than anything. It's about actually listening, and solving problems. So many of the problems in this show — Bertram and Helena's relationship, Bertram's friendship with Parolles, Bertram running away, Helena running away — could be solved by actually talking things out. Everyone takes the most difficult path to get to a certain point. And I think that it's a great tale of love overcoming our own idiocy.
We live in a period where there is a lot of talking and not a lot of listening, particularly if we don't like what's being said. So instead of problem-solving in the beginning (when it's hard and awful) we wait, and tune out, and hope someone else fixes the problem. And no one does, and problems get worse, and things spiral out of control. That's what happens here.
Of course, we have a happy ending in this show — all's well that end's well, after all — but what makes this show interesting is that we are on the knife's edge of a tragedy. The only way that this show ends happily is if everything goes exactly as it does. The end of the show always reminds me a bit of Titus, without the body count. So much information being given, and so much of it could be received badly. I think that's interesting for the audience, who likely haven't seen this show before. How will it end? What's going to happen? I would actually love to do a dark, dark version of this show — it's very Gone Girl, in a lot of respects — if Helena's actions aren't fundamentally good, then the foundation and world of the show become very, very different. And that's why I love about this show — it's an enigma that can be played a thousand different ways.
We talked last summer about other roles in Shakespeare they’d love to play, male or female. This summer I’d like to ask about your most formative shows have been, Shakespeare-wise.
My first Shakespeare was playing Hermia, at a place called Monomoy Theatre, and it was just absolute perfection. It was a full scale, old Greek romantic mounting of the show, and I had the best other lovers to work with, the best director. I just remember that entire show being a joy. So it was love at first production, really.
Do you have any idols or strong influences in your approach to Shakespeare?
I think in terms of idols, I remember watching Kate Winslet in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and just being riveted by how conversational her Ophelia was, the hidden strength and humanity in her gentleness. That's something I keep coming back to for Helena. How do you keep the core of steel but still be gentle, still be unscarred by the world?
What about performances outside of Shakespeare?
I've weirdly watched a lot of early Judy Garland for Helena — that doe-eyed, firm feeling of "I can do this even though I'm scared." I can't neglect to mention that Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina was a huge influence on how I played Helena. Sabrina and David's relationship in the beginning of the film is close kin to Helena and Bertram — Sabrina even bemoans that she is reaching for the moon, similar to Helena's first monologue citing Bertram as a star, he's so far above her.
Thank you for taking the time to chat!
The Drilling Company's All's Well That Ends Well plays from Jul 6 to Jul 22 at the Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk, on the LES. Tickets are free!
headshot Jody Christopherson
photos Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation