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?”
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