I have written the narrative of the women of Shakespeare’s plays. It is a fairly straight forward account which allows us to see how Shakespeare thought about women over a 25 year period – how they change, deepen, grow, become more and more powerful in the imagination of the playwright and in the action of his plays.
However as the player of those women, I have a different story to tell. Obviously the women in the plays do not actually come alive until they are embodied on stage, and so Shakespeare’s women must aforce have a real life person to tell their story. How Shakespeare’s words affect an actor means that there are many personal stories behind each interpretation – from the first boy who told the story in Shakespeare’s day, to the actresses who played the parts 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, and down through the ages until, from my point of view, those parts hit me here and now in the 21st century in Lenox, Massachusetts. In one way it’s the same story, inasmuch as I am using the same words as my predecessors, but in many other ways it is a radically different story because of the age, circumstance, personality, political climate, environment of the actor. I say this because I want to be clear that this is my story – and I do not want to lay claim to a universal experience or a “right” way of doing things – the power of the theatre is that it taps into the flow of human energy and, like life, it is never ever the same, from one moment to the next. Hallelujah!
Personally I see more and more clearly why Dionysus is the God of theatre. Dionysus is the god of wine, the god of ecstasy, the god who cannot be controlled. He is the god who breaks through the barriers of human experience and takes us to a place which allows us to know all the depths of human experience, the tearing apart, the coming together, the sexual, the embodied, the mystical, the deep connection between human beings, He is a dangerous god – if we do not revere him he will tear us apart, just as Pentheus was torn apart. And even if we revere him he may tear us apart anyway.
The gods in Homer (probably the first gods any of us have any familiarity with) are the Greek gods of the Heroes – they make the motives, triumphs and humiliations of the heroes understandable – Paris is in love with Helen, but it was Aphrodite who made him feel that way – so its not Paris’ fault that the Greeks and Trojans are using the seduction of Helen as an excuse to wage a war that drags on for a nearly a decade and thousands of people go to their deaths (including women and children) over those many years. The Gods of the Iliad are rather boring and predictable gods – they give the humans they champion the reason (and it’s usually a pretty petty reason) for the way they are acting or feeling. There is no personal responsibility or questioning in this world.
Dionysus is not part of this pantheon. He comes from outside, probably from Thrace, and for years the ruling classes of the Greeks resisted his incorporation into Greek life. But in the end they couldn’t resist him anymore, because the need for his presence was too powerful in the daily life of the people of Greece. Especially among those who did not have a voice in the society. The women would disappear into the mountains and follow him, dancing in wild ecstasy (beyond any pleasure their husbands could give them – if indeed their husbands even bothered to give them any pleasure, for women were for child rearing, boys were for pleasure). So gradually, through linking Dionysus to Apollo, Dionysus came into Greece and theatre came to Greece (these two things are not unrelated) and they made him the god of theatre. Why? Why the god of theatre?
Well the whole point of Dionysus is that he leads us to a place we yearn for, a place beyond the norm of human every day experience. Through wine, through dancing, breaking down the constraints of human decorum, into a state of merging and ecstasy where the wholeness of all beings can be experienced, to the point where an animal’s flesh is torn and eaten, and the universal energy of the world is experienced. In theatre, actors use and go beyond their human experience.
Now addictions – drug, alcohol, food, porn, sex, and now I suppose the internet too – they are all desires for the same experience; and they can also destroy, in the same way Dionysus can destroy up there on the mountain – though in ordinary life death by drugs, drink, et al, will probably not be an ecstatic death, but a miserable, dull death.
But if you are an actor you are playing in the theatre – and I like the idea that the word theatre could mean the place where god is seen or heard – you are in fact taking on the emotions and feelings of the character you are playing. And usually the character you are playing lives at far more extremes than you ever do in life (not always but usually) which means you are giving yourself permission to expand your understanding of yourself and go further than you have in life.
However for those actors who in real life have lived through the kind of violence their characters experience, there is another layer, for it is not just their imagination at work, but actual body memory, (usually well suppressed in order to live) which brings up information that can be terrible to hold. So often their journey is more painful than an actor who uses his imagination only. But it also has extraordinary resonances.
So you can see, if actors really take on their parts – and that is our sacred act, to take on those parts – then we are going into the world of Dionysus, which lives beyond the norm of human experience and yet is human experience.
Which is why I say to be really truthful, I must tell you my story and how playing these women have affected me. My life has been forever changed through playing these women. And different women have revealed things to me, things I never knew I was capable of, or were a part of me – and often it has taken me all my courage to stay with them. But just as I know that Shakespeare had to galvanize all his courage to write such things and then put them out in public; and that he had to stretch his imagination to the limits in order to do it truthfully (and he did do it truthfully, no titillation of violence for him, the whole thing or nothing at all); so his writing demands, if we are really honest in his presence, that we let ourselves go where he went and where we would never go in ordinary life. And once we go there these things become real. Real in mind and body. And then the question comes up: is that really me?
None of us ever acts in a vacuum. (Even if the actor is on stage alone, in a soliloquy, the audience is also right there – in fact that is a very naked time for an actor, to be herself with the audience.) I say: the interaction between actors on stage is the most intimate, most compelling, most challenging relationship on God’s earth. Especially in Shakespeare’s plays. And especially if you are working your way through the whole cannon.
So I come to my relationship with my acting partner in Women of Will, Nigel Gore. I have had other actors work with me on Women of Will, making generous contributions, allowing me to find out many things about the piece experientially. After I received a Guggenheim to develop the piece, in the middle 90’s, I spent two summers working on versions all of which contributed to the final version. But it was working with Nigel in 2006 in Hamlet, then Antony and Cleopatra a year later, that shifted my thinking about myself, my desire to understand myself as an artist, and ignited my hunger to put myself through as many of the women’s parts (and a few men’s) that Shakespeare wrote. I had directed most of the plays. I knew the plays. I knew the dramatic action, I knew much of the psychology and politics, I had explored the battles, the comic tricks, the world that stretched between heaven and hell. What I had not done was embodied those women, embodying those women in relationship to the men around them.
What happened to me when I worked with Nige (as he is known to the world) was that I started to find myself again. In Hamlet, I was playing Gertrude, he was playing Claudius, Jason my son was playing Hamlet, Dennis my husband was playing Polonius (and Eleanor Holdridge was directing). It was a family affair, you might say. Playing mother to my son was terrific – we could use all kinds of shorthand, and it was obvious to us both when we were using our own relationship and when we were not, it was fun, relaxing and actually we related more easily on stage than we had in life in years! I didn’t have too much to do with Dennis, but he made me laugh a lot and of course he was killed in my closet (though I was far more concerned at that moment for my son, than Polonius being dead). But it was with Nige that personally the ground started to shift underneath me.
First of all the chemistry really worked. Chemistry on stage is gold – it creates an alchemy which takes you to unexpected places, releasing the creative imagination spontaneously. It can happen between two men, two women, a man and a woman, sometimes between a whole company – where the joy of playing with each other, the spontaneous knowing of each other, takes the psyche and body to into a collective realm which both includes the individuals and taps into an exchange of inarticulate power. This gift is from the god and must be used with respect. Over the years Nige and I know we hold this for each other – though we have not always taken care of it, usually with painful repercussions.
But the second reason that the relationship with Nige really worked was our common background. I had got so used to the role of artistic leader of the company, lived in America for so long, that I had become dull to my roots, and I took it as a matter of course, that no-one would really recognize who I was before now, where I came from and what the influences were that had shaped me. That changed with Nigel’s presence. He spoke the aggressive, working class Brit slang that my parents preferred me not to speak. He was lyrical in his epithets, he had gone through the same education system, he spoke of the same soccer clubs, he had the same I-am-not-going-to-let-the-buggers-put-me-down attitude that had fueled so much of my early life. I not only recognized him, I felt seen; my inner self woke up and I remembered not only where I came from but that I was an actor, first and foremost: that my whole journey had begun when I was an actor and I wanted to work in a certain kind of way. And nobody was working that way, so I had to create the kind of theatre company that I wanted. And this seemed like an inconceivable thing to do, from my background, not going to university, added to which I was female. It is hard to describe exactly why his seeing me was so powerful for me (he didn’t have to do much, just be there); but I wanted to know all about where he lived (on a council estate – I lived in a semi detached, one step up), what his parents did, especially during the war, how he got to drama school, which pubs he hung out at, which pop concerts he went to, and so on. My imagination was sparked by the cross-overs in our lives, the effects of the World Wars upon our forebears, growing up under the benign socialism of Harold Wilson, the fine gradations of the English class system. I found myself claiming myself again. I found myself seeing me as the whole of my life again and then some.
I would like to say that I did the same for him but I don’t think that is really true. What I do think I did for him was recognize the range of his talent and keep on demanding that he play with me. Then he started making the same demand of me and so we did lots of work together before going into Women of Will. I do not know if this will be the last piece of work we will do together – it has become the material that has plunged us into realms of extremes, all the while trying to share with the audience what is going on with us and what we think was going on with William Shakespeare as he wrote these plays and lived his life in the theatre. It is an intellectual and emotional marathon. As I write this, we are still at the beginning of the journey (though we have been on it nearly two years) and if we know anything, it is how volatile and changeable, as well as profound and illuminating, this journey with Shakespeare’s women is.
It was through Nige that I met Eric Tucker, the director of Women of Will. Eric now has influenced the development of the five parts – he is the right director for the project because he makes very exciting, simple choices about storytelling which have dramatic results – for instance I use a chair for the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, which I cart around with me. It sounds silly – but it works really well, in any theatre or environment that we play it. And he creates very different energies for each of the 5 parts. He understands us both so well, though sometimes gets fed up with being referee, and he has been brilliant is juxtaposing the scenes and connecting the dramatic action.
I do ask myself why I chose two men to work with – why not at least have a woman director? I think it has something to do with balance. Because the emphasis of the story is on the women, and because I am a woman to be reckoned with, Nige and Eric balance me and them out. I also see myself more clearly in these women roles, bouncing off these two men. We end up with a ying yang harmony and disharmony; and because in the end the Women of Will really states that the world is not going to work until men and women do find a way to deeply connect to each other, share the power equally, and through that energy bring the world back to sanity, it seems important to work through it too in our creative life together.
It is a Dionysian journey. Sometimes Nige himself feels like Dionysus (this was very useful when he was playing Antony because Antony is the human form of Dionysus) – but mostly it has been the unpredictability of where we are going, where he is, the merging and then the anger, the soaring language which takes us to the most essential parts of ourselves, the ecstasy of the poetry, and the frightening not-knowing: am I really capable of chopping someone’s head off, gouging out his eyes, loving him so much I will kill myself to be with him, mourning her for fifteen years? Is this really me? Is that really him? Do we mean something to each other or are we just ciphers for each other?
So as I tell the story of Shakespeare’s women, I will also tell the story of what it feels like to play these women with one particular man. No one has explored Shakespeare’s relationship with Richard Burbage – but that must have been the most important relationship of Shakespeare’s life, the man who played the central parts. Burbage was born in Stratford too, 3 years after Shakespeare, and he died in 1619, three years after Shakespeare. Were they at school together? Did Shakespeare tutor Burbage at school? Was there chemistry between them that informed all the plays? (There MUST have been!) How much did the plays come out of who Burbage was as a human being? When Shakespeare died in Stratford, he had a Stratford funeral. When Burbage died in London, he had thousands of mourners from every walk of life, following his cortege – that was when Hamlet, Lear, Richard lll, Othello, Coriolanus, Prospero were mourned – for people associated the man playing the parts with the parts themselves – far more than with the man who wrote the parts. (Everyone associates Anthony Hopkins with Hannibal Lector – does anyone have any idea who wrote the part for Hopkins?) Of course, 400 years after the deaths of Burbage and Shakespeare we are very aware who sourced the parts – but in 1619, the life, the chemistry, the alchemy of those plays that changed the world, all that was associated with Richard Burbage, actor. I would like someone who is not only a scholar, but who also knows what it is like to be an actor, to tell that story. That is not me. But I can tell my story – and maybe Nige will sometimes tell his. In any case, the roles live through the people who play them……and so…… I rest my case.