Into the Dark: playing Desdemona

My most recent project saw me treading the boards on the London fringe once again, this time in an adaptation of Othello at the Drayton Arms,  called Into the Dark. Directed by Polly Heinkel, training on the directing course at East 15, the show focused on the story of Shakespeare’s play through Iago’s eyes, or rather through his memory of the events.

As soon as I got back from Sicily I was straight into rehearsals, which had already begun for the other cast members a week or two before. I’d learnt most of my lines while I was away so could get stuck in straight away. I played Desdemona, a young woman I’ve always struggled to understand, but through a mixture of the original Shakespeare text and new writing by Polly, I came to share her story with the audience.

I think the aspect of Desdemona I struggled with the most at first was her supposed goodness – how she is perceived as the ultimate symbol of virtue and a good soul. A friend helpfully pointed out that her decision to go against her father’s wishes and marry Othello was in fact anything but ‘good’ in Brabantio’s mind, and shows a great inner strength and courage. The more I dug into the original text and applied my discoveries to the new writing (which was a monologue), the richer a picture I uncovered of a complex and at times contradictory individual.

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Yours truly as Desdemona

She is strong and brave enough to disobey her father in a time when the father was lord and master, yet her conversation with Emilia shows a naivety when it comes to her perception of the behaviour of women. However, despite this apparent naivety, she is playful and matches her wit against Iago when he teases her and Emilia.

We set the production in 1950s Mississippi, at a time when black people were regularly persecuted for the colour of their skin, and lynching was a very real threat. This allowed us to play with the setting of the play without diminishing the relevance. As our research showed, my first sentence there is sadly a rather naïve way of putting it, as black people are still being persecuted because of the colour of their skin, and we discovered several distressing cases of modern lynchings. Perhaps by setting the play in a more recent time period, our director hoped to show the audience how the themes it deals with were not just confined to several hundred years ago.

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Othello looks down on the man he once considered a friend

On a purely fickle note, one advantage of setting it in the 1950s was that Kelly (who played Emilia) and I got to wear beautiful 1950s-style dresses with petticoats underneath. I felt rather girly for once! As we set the action in Mississippi, American accents were required of the cast (apart from Othello, to make him seem even more of an outsider). While fellow cast member Toby gave Iago a southern drawl, Polly asked me to focus on what is termed ‘General American’, suggesting Desdemona is not originally from Mississippi. Although I haven’t spent much time on this accent before I enjoyed working with it and seemed to do rather well! It’s definitely one I would like to work on further.

Othello is possibly my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays – the language is beautiful, witty, dark, clever, the characters a joy to behold with their many layers, the story devastating as we see the characters’ worlds torn apart by hatred, jealousy and ambition. To work on an adaptation of this mighty play with such a talented director, assistant director and cast of fellow East 15ers was a pleasure. Plus I got to work in the lovely Drayton Arms, which does the most delicious chocolate brownies!

Take a look at some pics of the show below, courtesy of our assistant director and photographer extraordinaire, Alex Romberg. They’re in reverse order from near the end of the play to the start – I somehow managed to upload them in the wrong order then didn’t have the patience to reorder them one-by-one. Enjoy!

For it is a truth universally acknowledged…

And so another show comes to an end, and we are once again in that awful space of nothingness that follows.

The post-show blues is indeed a truth universally acknowledged (well, in the acting world), and everyone knows that the best way to cope is to get started on the next project as soon as possible. But before I start making preparations for my next venture – directing a three-hander by Michael Frayn called Here – let’s look back on what a wonderful journey this has been through the world of Pride and Prejudice.

Lizzie and Jane

We had a longer rehearsal period than I’m used to, starting with the read-through back in November. Back then, March and show week seemed a long way off, but here I am now, having to pinch myself to realise that it’s all over.

There have been several highlights of the show, including Nick’s hilarious sideburns as Darcy (I’ve forgotten what he looks like without them!), Leigh’s (Jane Bennet) questionable sewing skills, accompanied by exclamations of ‘I’ve got to sort my tapestry out!’ around the 15-minute call before each show, and the hideous centre parting and fringe curls I sported that looked like I’d stuck a bunch of pubes on my head. I can only pray that particular hairstyle never comes back into fashion. After each show I would run upstairs to our two lovely hairdressers in dressing room 12, wailing ‘get rid of them!’, and they would kindly sort me out with a pretty fringe plait so I could leave the theatre without a paper bag over my head.

In the last week of rehearsals I went a bit ‘Method’ and rediscovered how to play the piano, then practised doing this while talking until my neighbours surely thought I was deranged. I’m rather chuffed to say that in the final two performances I didn’t play a single wrong note, or slow the playing down to hurriedly fit in a line between each bit. Not bad considering I hadn’t played in years, and had never played to more than one person!

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There were downs as well as ups, as with any show – forgotten lines, a missed entrance, dance tights several sizes too big that required constant yanking up in the wings to avoid the Nora Batty effect. But, as always, the ups far outnumbered the downs – the backstage banter, the camaraderie, the hilarity fuelled by a constant supply of Haribo in DR4 (dressing room 4). And, of course, the chance to perform on that beautiful stage in the Kings Theatre.

The production, however, was struck with a great sadness when we lost one of our own. Fellow cast member Roger Taylor, the original Uncle Gardiner, passed away during the weeks leading up to the show. The loss was felt by us all, and although I had not known him before the read-through, I’d quickly grown fond of his sense of humour, the familiar combats and Doc Martins combo, and his regular attempts to get out of dancing in the show (including milling around in the background and hoping the director wouldn’t notice!). We dedicated the show to Roger, and I hope we did him proud.

Along with making a bunch of new friends, I have learnt a lot about myself and grown a little bit more, as an actor does with every role. I’ve played an instrument in front of hundreds of people, something I never dreamt I could do. I’ve learnt an insane amount of lines and been line-perfect in all but one performance, something I only ever hoped I could do. And I’ve come out of it even more convinced that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

 

The art of reviewing

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a spot of theatre for free and getting to write about it for the local paper. Still a relative newbie when it comes to reviewing, and acutely aware of the importance of those words from an actor’s point of view, I felt as nervous as if I were the one onstage that evening!

The show in question, 84 Charing Cross Road performed by local company HumDrum Theatre, was brilliant, thus I was able to write a glowing review. However, the process got me thinking about the job of the reviewer, what to look out for when watching the performance, and whether there is indeed an art to good reviewing.

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

I read the local newspaper The News every morning as part of my job in a university press office. The paper often includes several theatre reviews of local shows, professional and amateur, so I have started poring over these in the belief that with each review I read I will absorb the structure, tone and rhythm as if by osmosis.

The work of the reviewer seems to be entirely different to that of both the news reporter and the feature writer. A skill all of its own, the writing of the reviewer has to be truthful, give the writer’s opinion but be balanced and fair, and come from a trusted source.

The title of this post is perhaps a little misleading. Is reviewing really an art, or is it a craft? The best way to get better at reviewing is to work at it. Improve your review writing style by reading and writing as many different theatre reviews as possible.

When I find a reviewer who’s work I particularly admire, I look at how their pieces are constructed, what elements they keep and what they have left out (reviews for The News have a word limit of 200 words). Crucially, I also notice how they manage to remain balanced and fair, regardless of the quality of the show they are reviewing.

Whether it is an art or in fact a craft, the writing of reviews is an influential element in the theatre-making process. As an actor, these words can hold great satisfaction or great disappointment. As a writer, I hope I can do my fellow actors justice, and perform the task entrusted to me with the integrity it calls for.

Viola

We are now well into rehearsals for Twelfth Night with the SSA (Southsea Shakespeare Actors), and I am finally starting to sense Viola. This being my first major speaking part, I think up til now I have just been trying to take it all on board – the lines, the many rehearsals, the lines, the backstory, the lines, the responsibility of actually having to carry a scene here and there rather than flit on, say your two lines, and march proudly off. As I’ve settled more into the rehearsal process however, I have now started to detect a new voice, coming in just here for a moment, just there for another. At first I was too busy focusing on what I was actually trying to say on those lines to give it much thought, give her much thought, but now I’m starting not only to sense her but to actually feel her. Sometimes she’s peeking over my shoulder at the script, as I sit there on my bed desperately trying to learn lines, other times, and these are of course the most magical, she’s there with me, inside, waiting to take the reins, to have her moment – sometimes patiently, sometimes not so much.

Of course, she’s a part of me, not just some independent being roaming the corridors of my day-to-day life. Let’s call her an offshoot – she is born of my life, my blood, my being, but as each rehearsal comes and goes she becomes a little more independent, she starts to develop her own way of walking, her own way of talking. Her voice gets a little louder. Now, unlike an actual offshoot, she will never exist independently from me, not unless she is captured on film to survive beyond my little window of time here. But I like to think of her as apart from me, all the same. It means when she comes to me, when it is her who is speaking, and her that is laughing and loving, crying and rejoicing, for that little time I’m not me, and I am free.