Thursday, October 12, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Jenny König on Lady Anne

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 third 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.

For New Yorkers, Thomas Ostermeier's regular visits to BAM showcase an especially radical approach to classic drama. His Doll's House in '04 had Nora shoot Torvald down like a horror-movie heroine! At the Berlin Schaubühne, Jenny König has worked on Shakespeare with Ostermeier several times, as Gertrude/Ophelia in Hamlet and Isabelle in Measure for Measure. Now she's visiting NYC in his Richard III, playing Lady Anne. She emailed with me about playing one of Shak's most challenging small roles.


Let’s start with Lady Anne. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Fascinating for me is especially that this woman keeps going. She lost everything. She has no real opportunity for social acceptance or security and yet she talks to this man, the murderer of her husband, her father and her father-in-law, so in short the lone reason for her misery. And in the end she even gets engaged [to] him.

That conflict is exciting, but of course it is also a conflict that I also have to manage, playing this scene.

And then again it’s quite reasonable. Lady Anne is a woman living in times of great uncertainty, so the most important thing was to stay in a position of power. I think any man in her position wouldn’t have had the same difficulties, or at least not to this degree, because a man living in this times would always have had the possibility to live alone, start over or to switch sides. None of those things, a woman could have done by herself. Of course there are exceptions, like Queen Elizabeth, but they remain exceptions.

In addition to all this political reasoning there is an animalistic quality to the whole scene, even though Richard and Lady Anne are two very aristocratic persons. That’s a very exciting contrast as well.

That scene is a classic and a challenging one. How do you make Anne's about-face plausible to the audience?

In my opinion her main motivation is not love, but political reasoning. For me, the engagement with Richard is above anything else an opportunity. It’s easy to forget what it meant for a woman to loose every man of her house, when all the words you have are those of a mourning widow calling upon the ghost of her ancestors, begging for revenge.

But it is very important to remember, that at the beginning of this scene Lady Anne has no security whatsoever. And even worse, her family fought at the losing side of the war. And now there is this man, how[ever] ugly he might be and how[ever] terrible the crimes he has committed may be, who is part of the winning family. And he comes to Lady Anne and surrenders himself completely to her. Not only emotionally, by saying he loves her and she is the purest most beautiful woman he knows, but also very literally by handing her a sword.

What does Anne find appealing about Richard?

He gives her the thing she misses the most right now: power. That, at least for me is the reason she falls for his lies. And of course he is the forbidden fruit. That helps as well 😀

What challenges have you found working on Shakespeare in translation?

To play a Shakespearean play in any language other than English naturally means to lose parts of the beauty of his writing and structure. But I think Marius von Mayenburg made a wise decision to mostly free himself from the verse-like structure of the language. He sometimes sacrifices the beauty of a well-written poem for the impact of the meaning of Shakespeare’s words.

I sometimes wish we had a translation of a Friedrich Schiller play. Because if the language of a play is so sophisticated and well placed there is always the danger of getting stuck in this golden cage of structured words.

Turning to the play, what elements of Richard III feel urgent and contemporary?

Reading Richard III, you inevitably think about persons of today’s politics. Power and the people who possess power always seem to follow the same basic rules, same now as 400 years ago.

The loudest and most ruthless man claims to be the greatest victim and gets to be king.

Maybe that is why Shakespeare always seems to work.

Thomas Ostermeier’s direction of classics, at least the ones we’ve seen in New York, strikes many audiences as iconoclastic. How does the approach and aesthetic of Richard III fit with other work you've done with him?

One thing that every Ostermeier-production of a Shakespeare-play I know has in common, is that we are very aware of the fact we are playing a theatrical piece, but at the same time, every situation in that theater piece is real. So for instance, the transition from one scene to another is very theatrical, one actor can play more than one part, and the audience gets addressed by the actors. It’s all a play. We know that and the audience is allowed to see it. But the situations these people are living are very real. We always try to make the audience recognize themselves in those situations.

So during the rehearsals for Richard III, we talked a lot about lying and manipulating we have experienced in our own lives, in order to get a better understanding of the scenes and the reasons these people make decisions. And we noticed that our private experiences are still quite close to what Shakespeare has written 400 years ago.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women? Where are his strengths and his weaknesses?

One thing you can never change is that Shakespeare lived 400 years ago. So all the latest developments like feminism, emancipation, sexual revolution and the fight against the common reception of what it means to be beautiful, all this he never experienced. And so neither can the women that he wrote experience those things. But of course you try to tell the story of a “strong, modern woman”, a story that, sadly, is not written down in the play. How am I supposed to show Ophelia as a strong and independent woman, when she keeps repeating the words “I shall obey”? It sometimes feels like the more I try to think of her as a modern woman, the more I fight against the play and by doing so, I can’t really work as an actress.

A friend of mine, a male actor, once had to play a woman in a Shakespearean play. He came to me with the words “Holy shit, I never had to listen to directing instructions like this! How do you manage to play stuff like this?”
in Measure for Measure
But I think there also can be a strength in showing women the way Shakespeare saw them, because you sometimes get incredible reactions to this depicting of weakness. For instance, we played in Iran once, and after the show many women came to me asking why we had shown Ophelia as such a weak woman. "Why didn’t you show her the way we want to see her?" To which I could only reply: “Read the play, we only did what Shakespeare wrote down.” And like this we started to talk about women and the issues we face today. And that is, what for me theater is about: communication.

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?

Joan la Pucelle from Henry VI is one special character I‘m longing to play. Shakespeare has written her as witch, not as a fantastical, beautiful, evil woman. In his writing you can see his political issues with her. It’s not about her being female [as much as] which side she belongs to.

And of course every male main character is fascinating, but if I had to choose one of them I would go for King Lear. His philosophical thought, about mankind being “only” animals, I could imagine this is fun to play.


Richard III plays from Oct 12 to Oct 14 at BAM Harvey Theater in Fort Greene. Tickets are $35-115!

headshot  Franzisca Sinn
photos  Arno Declair

Monday, October 9, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Helen Cespedes on Rosalind

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 third 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.

This autumn, director Jessica Bauman explores what As You Like It says about exile and refugees, in her retitled Arden/EverywhereI'll have an interview with her next week, but meanwhile, I emailed with the production's Rosalind, Helen Cespedes. Ms. Cespedes, a recent Juilliard grad, played a delightful Lady Teazle in Red Bull's School for Scandal last season, holding her own opposite veterans Dana Ivey and Frances Barber.


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

I should start by saying that I somehow managed to go through drama school and my professional career so far never seeing or really reading As You Like It. I know! Crazy! But kind of an amazing treat to approach such an iconic role/play without the baggage of other performances and productions in my head. So, as I began reading and investigating the role and the story, I was struck by Rosalind’s aggressiveness. She goes from the heartbreak and paralysis of her father’s banishment and then her own to becoming really activated, once in man’s clothing.

Then I wondered: why does she do what she does? Why doesn’t she go find her father as soon as she gets to Arden? Why does she manipulate Orlando for three quarters of the play? And, when she does find her father (she mentions “I met with the Duke yesterday and had much question with him”) why does she not reveal herself to both him and Orlando? These are questions I imagine every production of this play has wrestled with.

How did you and Jessica answer those questions?

In some ways, our lens into the play (imagining Arden as the land of displaced people where exiles and refugees find shelter) helps. The stakes of banishment are real. She truly does think she will be safer disguised as a man. There are actual accounts of refugee women disguising themselves as men in order to be safer from sexual assault. Furthermore, her father left her behind. Perhaps she has conflicted feelings about him. Perhaps she feels abandoned by him, or that he put his cause before his family. This would complicate an easy reunion. It can also explain the need to hide behind her disguise with Orlando and put his devotion to the test. She is looking for someone she can rely on. Of course, the one person she can truly rely on has been there the whole time: Celia, her cousin and best friend through it all.

How does she view and deal with the world that Shakespeare imagines her into?

When she decides to disguise herself as a man, Rosalind says,

“…and in my heart,
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will,
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside.”
I see this as a sort of hardening of her character. She is going to cover up what is vulnerable in herself in order to survive. But with this comes empowerment. As a man in this society, she gets to hold forth a lot more and act as an authority on other people’s business.

The stress of Rosalind’s situation also leads her to be quite prickly and hypocritical. I love this about her. It feels very human that she is flawed and lashes out and tests the boundaries of how insufferable she can be before people won’t put up with it anymore. For example, she berates Phoebe for not immediately accepting Silvius’ love, but then uses some of Phoebe’s own tactics/arguments on Orlando, testing the boundaries of his affection.

Rosalind is one of a type—Shakespeare’s adventurous, crossdressing ingénues. What sets her apart from her sisters in Shakespeare?

As I said, I wasn’t that familiar with this play until working on this production—maybe because I’m not tall (we’ve cut Rosalind’s “I am more than uncommon tall”) I didn’t think I’d play the role and didn’t look at it that closely — but, I have played Viola, another great “pants” role. These two women undergo similar trials — geographical displacement that leads them to dress as men to protect themselves — but they handle this transformation very differently. Viola moves through Illyria like a raw nerve; she is in love with Orsino and Olivia is in love with her, and Viola in turn is wholly reactive to these eccentric outside forces.

Meanwhile, Rosalind seems to me to be totally activated by her transformation. As Ganymede, she starts to call all the shots: purchasing food and shelter for herself, Celia, and Touchstone in Arden, manipulating Orlando, micromanaging Phebe and Silvius.… She is acting on the forces around her rather than reacting to them.

What does she share with roles like Portia, Viola, and Imogen?

I think, in both Viola and Rosalind (and probably in Portia too, not so much in Imogen), presenting themselves to the world as a man allows them special access to society. Suddenly, people listen to them more and care what they have to say. In Rosalind’s case, she is all too happy to impart her wit and wisdom.

Especially in the comedies, an actor gets to play with Elizabethan wit, love poetry and even clowning. How do you handle that range of styles onstage?

Yes, Rosalind does get to show all of these colors and it is glorious… actually, it’s just human and how human beings behave (perhaps not quite as articulately). Often, roles for women can be reduced to archetypes: the virgin and the funny one (or some variation on that). But human beings are clowns, lovers, intellectuals, heros, and villains all at once. I feel like Shakespeare has realized this scope and breadth more in Rosalind than any of his other female characters.

As an actor, I am a kid in a candy store (to use an archetype). Scripts that require all of my brain and all of my heart are exactly what I trained for. Shakespeare’s characters use wit as their currency. It is how they challenge each other, seduce each other, fall in love with each other etc. I had one teacher at Juilliard describe a battle of wits as a card game: if your scene partner uses one word, they have played that card, now you match that card and play another, and so on and so on as you top each other and see who wins. It’s a lot of fun. If only I could be half as clever as any of Shakespeare’s characters in my own life!

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

Overall, I think Shakespeare wrote women better than most contemporary plays do. We don’t allow female characters to be as contradictory as we used to. Even the screwball comedies of the '30s allowed women to turn from tragedy to comedy on a dime. That said, Shakespeare’s women are operating in societies where the constraints on women are much more obvious and visible. But Shakespeare has them pushing up against these boundaries.

There is strength and intellect in many of the female Shakespeare characters who are often depicted as wilting flowers. For example, I recently auditioned to play Ophelia. I had never really investigated that role before, and at first I thought, “ugh what a thankless role: you cry, you sing sad songs while vaguely twitching with madness, and then you die.”

But then I dug into the text… no, no, she is brilliant and activated. She is constrained by the rules of society and the men who get to make choices in her life, but she navigates that with great vitality. I think many directors/actors read the “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown speech” and just play the “woe is me” part, as opposed to investing in the comparison she is making between Hamlet before and Hamlet now. Her best friend and boyfriend has transformed from a poised, brilliant young prince into a rambling, self-destructive, recluse. I didn’t get the part, but I’d love to play it one day!

Overall, I would say that Shakespeare usually gives his female characters the moral high ground, which, one could argue, is a form of misogyny. Don’t make us saints, make us human beings! I suppose that’s one of the reasons I like Rosalind so much. She is not a saint.

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’d love to play Henry V, and go one that journey from frat boy to leader. To add the list of morally flawed women: I’d love to play Queen Margaret and/or Lady M. I played the Nurse in Drama School, but I’d love to play Juliet (if it’s not too late!). Gosh, all of them. There is so much to be mined in all of them.

Any Shakespeare coming up?

I’m going to play Viola again this spring in a production at Theater For a New Audience directed by Maria Aitken. It will be a wonderful to play both cross-dressing heroines in the matter of a few months.

Arden/Everywhere plays from Oct 8 to Oct 28 at Baruch College in Gramercy Park. Student tickets are $16, general admission $36!

headshot  Ted Ely
photos  Russ Rowland