Women and Shakespeare

S1:E5: Kathryn Pogson on Portia, Ophelia, Lady Anne

August 23, 2020 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 1 Episode 5
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E5: Kathryn Pogson on Portia, Ophelia, Lady Anne
Chapters
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E5: Kathryn Pogson on Portia, Ophelia, Lady Anne
Aug 23, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Dr Varsha Panjwani

In this episode, we discuss Shakespeare's young women - Portia, Ophelia, and Lady Anne and the way in which they navigate a patriarchal world. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Kathryn Pogson
Producer: Ms Karen Jessica Stewart
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Shakespeare's young women - Portia, Ophelia, and Lady Anne and the way in which they navigate a patriarchal world. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Kathryn Pogson
Producer: Ms Karen Jessica Stewart
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Varsha:

Hello, and welcome to another brand new episode of Women and Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani and today I want to talk about young women. Whether one thinks of Nobel prize winning activist, Malala Yousafzai, actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, or environmental activist, Gretta Thunberg, they are changing the image of what it means to be a young woman. In the media, Greta Gerwig's new interpretation of 'Little Women' and stage spinoffs of Shakespeare's plays, such as '& Juliet' and 'Teenage Dick' have recently explored the ways in which young women navigate the restrictions that the world imposes on their desires and ambitions. The timing seems right to reinvestigate the portrayal and interpretation of Shakespeare's young women who are often sidelined in classrooms and rehearsal rooms. This is why our focus in this episode is on Shakespeare's little women, who, in their different ways, try to defeat the intense misogyny of their environments and sometimes succeed, but more often than not are crushed under the weight of systemic sexism.

Varsha:

It therefore gives me immense pleasure to welcome acclaimed actor, Kathryn Pogson, who has played many of Shakespeare's young heroines numerous times on stages, including Shakespeare's Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has challenged the prevailing orthodox interpretations of the roles through her bold performance choices. She was also the head of the London Dramatic Academy, or the LDA, a conservatoire program, which her students described to me as, "Life altering" and "eye opening." The program was still running when this episode was recorded, so you can hear about how exciting it was. Unfortunately it fell prey to the all too common and disheartening phenomenon of universities undervaluing the arts and had to come to an abrupt halt despite its tremendous impact. We recorded this episode at the LDA and I have not edited out the soundscape of the place. So, I hope these sounds transport you to the activity and excitement of that space.

Varsha:

Kathy, I am so thrilled that we're doing this because even very rushed coffee chats with you have been eye-openers for me over the years. Welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare'.

Kathryn:

Thank you for asking me.

Varsha:

I'm really interested in people's first memories or first encounters of Shakespeare. So, when was your first encounter with Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Kathryn:

When I was 14 and had already decided that I wanted to be an actress, a stage actress, but I'd never been inside a theater, but I had an idea that I ought to do something about it. So, I found a woman who lived in Halifax in Yorkshire, where I'm from, who had been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in her day. She was exceedingly beautiful, had been a lead player at the Royal Shakespeare Company. So, she must have been well in her 70s, so her day in the RSC must have been in the '20s, I would think. So, I went off to have some lessons with her and she gave me a piece from 'Romeo and Juliet', which has remained still my very favorite Shakespeare play. And I fell in love with her and her beauty and her pictures of the RSC when she was playing Juliet and what she had to say about the character.

Kathryn:

And then when I was 16, a company opened run by an incredible socialist from Oxford who was working in a comprehensive school and she wanted to help young people at the comprehensive school who weren't really even perhaps very good readers, so it was very tough. So, she ran this amateur company from an 18th century farmhouse on the middle of the moors in Yorkshire and I ditched up with my friend Sandra one day to see all these young people digging out a car park and clearing a barn of two and a half tons of cow dung, of which we joined in, and we turned it into the Barn Theater and we opened with the production of 'Hamlet'.

Varsha:

Fantastic.

Kathryn:

And then every year we'd do three productions and one of them was always a Shakespeare and then we'd load up a Land Rover and put a horse box on the back of it and pack it with the costumes that we'd made touring around the Dales. So, I played Juliet around the Dales with the boy who I first fell in love with who was my Romeo.

Varsha:

How lovely is that. That is such an amazing story.

Kathryn:

Yeah, I was really lucky.

Varsha:

And yes, very lucky as well.

Kathryn:

I really did get lucky considering I've never been inside a theater, was not from a theater family, not really from a theater town; though, it had its day of theaters, but there weren't many left.

Varsha:

From the Barn to the Shakespeare's Globe. I recently saw a video recording of your production of 'Merchant of Venice' in 1998 and you played Portia and Mark Rylance was your Bassanio. When I saw that production, I was really glad because it reminded me how much the play is Portia's play, so thank you for that. But, before we talk about your conception of Portia, can you tell us what the challenges are or opportunities are of working on the Globe stage?

Kathryn:

'Merchant of Venice' was one of its opening production, with Norbert Kenthrup playing Shylock. And it was very much an untried space, the lighting then was only the lighting that turned it back into daylight. So you really did step out onto the boards and you did meet the wooden O, you really realized very quickly that, as Norbert Kenthrup said one day when he came off staggering into the wings or backstage, he'd say, "This theater, she is vampire." And it's and it's true, I have never seen actors come off any stage as psyched as you come off the Globe stage. When you're in that contact with the audience, that close and you're playing off them so well, and it's intimate in that way and huge and demanding technically, the energy that the actors come off with.

Kathryn:

And also to see an actor going on, there's no wandering onto the Globe. It's like an athlete, you have to be absolutely up to speed, absolutely on power and on point. And you have to go out there hitting it, you can't sneak in and out of the Globe. And that was it, completely exciting, completely exciting. And to suddenly find references in the play that you know well and suddenly realize, "Oh, this was written for this space. This reference is absolutely to do with the fact that I can see the stars. That's what I'm talking about." So, parts of the text just popped open in a way that I hadn't imagined until you saw he's writing for this space, it was really exciting. I loved it, I loved playing the Globe

Varsha:

And I loved seeing your performance. And the audience was so with you.

Kathryn:

They were.

Varsha:

By the end, you just have to do a gesture and they would cheer or feel sorry. I loved seeing that liveness of the theater. And lots of people have talked about that performance and amongst others, Richard Proudfoot discusses your performance in great detail, and he writes about that moment when Portia dones a male disguise in Act IV, and he says that it was uncommonly persuasive in your case. And I agree, but-

Kathryn:

Do you think I'm very butch then? I don't think I am.

Varsha:

I don't think you are butch at all.

Kathryn:

No, I'm not.

Varsha:

Which is why it was so convincing. The disguise worked, I mean we did not feel that Portia was uncomfortable donning a male disguise. Do you think all of these cross dressing heroines of Shakespeare, such as Innogen, such as Portia, such as Viola, Rosalind, do you think they are enjoying their male disguises?

Kathryn:

Well, I think it varies, but I think, certainly for Portia and Viola, it's a means to an end. Viola dones a disguise as a man to be safe, there are lots of women through history who wanted to achieve certain things, but the only way they could achieve them is by being disguised as men. So, if there's an enjoyment in that, because you're achieving the objective that you want to achieve, then that's enjoyable. Whether they enjoy actually putting on male clothes, that's a different sort of enjoyment, that's quite a different thing. But I do not think that Portia was enjoying being dressed up as a man or even enjoying the deceit of it, but I think she was very much enjoying achieving the objective that she had in mind. If that answers your question...

Varsha:

Absolutely. So, it's either access to power or having people listen to them or [crosstalk 00:09:24].

Kathryn:

Yeah. Portia, she's able to really sit within the confidence of her own intelligence. And an intelligence that doesn't have to be defended because it's going to be listened to because it's a male, ergo it must be intelligent to a certain degree, educated male. So, there is a thorough enjoyment in that and of her compassion, of her temperance, so, yes, she's enjoying that. And she doesn't have to fight for that, it's given over to her and, like all women, you find yourself fighting to be heard. It tends to undermine us a bit because of the fight when you actually are just going to be heard, then you can really say what you really want to say.

Varsha:

Absolutely. Rather than investing energy in just getting to the point. Yes, absolutely. You also played another character who's not so independent. So, Portia is fairly independent, but you also played Ophelia in 'Hamlet' and she's bullied by all the men in her life, Laertes, Hamlet, Polonius. I was reading about your performance of Ophelia and you played her in 1982 production directed by Jonathan Miller and critics were describing your performance as, "Graphic", "Terrifying to behold", "Accurate in medical detail." So clearly you steered clear of the romanticized madness or the sexualized madness of Ophelia that I have seen on stage way too often when Ophelia is concerned. So, how did you come up with this conception of Ophelia?

Kathryn:

Well, I was directed by Jonathan Miller, who was a doctor, a great mind. And I put a lot of thought into Ophelia and one day in rehearsal, I said to Jonathan, "Why does Hamlet love Ophelia?" And Jonathan said, "Because she's very beautiful." And so I pointed at my visage and said, "So, what are we going to do?" And he smiled, and I said, "I can put the long, fluffy wig on, the long, long wig and I can be pretty enough, I can do that," I said, "But I really don't think that's enough in this day and age. And it sort of undermines Hamlet, it's demeaning to Hamlet to think, "Oh, because she's pretty.'" And he said, "Well, why do you think Hamlet loves Ophelia?"

Kathryn:

So, I knew I had one shot of my idea because Jonathan's brain is very quick and he processes very quickly and if he says it's about idea, then you can pretty much guarantee it's a bad idea. But I had it worked on it and I said, "Well, if you look at the text," because I do believe that everything you take has to come from the text, you don't slap things on top of a really good play. If you want to do that, go write your own. Otherwise, look at the text and work out what's in the text. So Ophelia makes reference "of late." So the relationship with Hamlet is "of late," it's recent. I think that the other thing that's changed of late with Hamlet is he has become bereaved, he's lost his father, so he's in grief.

Kathryn:

So, I think from this young girl, who's always been around a court, Polonius has been there forever, who has lost her mother, who as you say, is in a patriarchal society, which absolutely inhibits her. So, has been there perhaps figure at the back slightly trying to find a way in this court, so already damaged, not this healthy, beautiful, wonderful girl that Hamlet falls in love with, but this slightly damaged creature, this motherless creature, finding a way in this patriarchy. So, that when Hamlet then enters into his grief and he looks around the court and sees the people that he used to see, but he doesn't see them the same because he's grieving, but what he does see is Ophelia who's saying, "Hello, me too. I've suffered. I understand grief." And they start a relationship "of late", recently. And that gives her the confidence in that relationship, I believe and I think it's in the text, to step away from the rules and boundaries that her brother and her father have been putting on her, "Do not do the do with Hamlet. Do not have sex with Hamlet. Do not have sex with Hamlet. Do not have sex with Hamlet."

Kathryn:

And yet she sees in Hamlet, a sympathetic nature with hers and she's drawn towards him. She falls in love with him and it makes her step away from what she's known. And I think when a vulnerable person steps from one bank and tries to make their way through the river to the next bank that they're saying, "Well, they've loved me in a sort of patriarchal way. He loves me, I'm going to make a journey towards him." And she believes him and she is vulnerable and he does love her. So, she's making her way across the stream to get to him and right at that point, he suddenly says, "I loved you not."

Varsha:

I didn't, yes.

Kathryn:

And for her, as already fragile, not that strong, that's the snap, that's when her mental health breaks down. Because she is literally left having left one bank, having left the security of doing everything the patriarchal family have told her to do, she cuts herself loose from that, she reached out to somebody who was saying, "I love you. I see you. I see you."

Varsha:

"I understand you, get you. I will listen to you."

Kathryn:

Yeah. And then he cuts it mid stream. And when he cuts it mid stream, she drowns. And when I put that to Jonathan, he stood there and I thought, "Oh, here we go." And he thought for a moment, "Yes, let's go with that." And he just changed, he absolutely went for that. So, I was thrilled because then I really started to blossom. And then he said to me, "Have you seen the person at the tube station who is standing twiddling her hair and rocking?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "That is madness." And I said, "Yes, and it's not pretty. It's not pretty, it's not fanciful, it's not lyrical, it's not attractive, it's not, whimsy, it's scary and it's ugly and it's unnerving." And so I took that one gesture that he gave me and that was the starting point of a true sense, I think, that Jonathan wanted and that I wanted, that madness is not attractive, it's not attractive. And if you bind young women into a patriarchy, then the result is death. The result is a breakdown of mental health and it is not of their doing, it is not of the weak nature of women, it is simply the crushing of a patriarchy.

Varsha:

Speaking of Ophelia's mad or grieving scenes, what I'm really interested in is the relationship of songs and Shakespeare. Why do you think she starts singing in her madness?

Kathryn:

I don't know exactly, but I know that when emotion becomes really extreme, rather like opera, it turns to song. We go to opera because of these high emotions, the stylized high emotion. Now, Ophelia is not going to suddenly burst into opera, but there is something we let go of in terms of straight speech when we sing, when we lose ourself, if you'd like, in song. It's a different part of the human spirit comes out, we sing when we're joyful, we can sing when we're sad. And I think it's to do with the memory, to do with not wanting to engage in conversation, but to want to express yourself vocally. And we've all got haunting songs from our childhood that are such sense memories, such audio memories for us that take us there. And I think she slips in and out of that when it's so painful, I'll sing it. It's sort of what we do.

Varsha:

Absolutely. A very different way of articulating, yes. A much more primal one.

Kathryn:

Yes. And it's not because she's loony tunes. No, it's not loony tunes, it's a solace in song.

Varsha:

And that links her even to Desdemona, who does a similar thing as well.

Kathryn:

Which I've never played.

Varsha:

Why not?

Kathryn:

I don't know, nobody has ever offered me. Too late now.

Varsha:

What a shame, what a shame. Of course, you've played another character who's rather circumscribed, Lady Anne in 'Richard the Third'. In Act I, scene two, she has to go from hating Richard, really kind of finding him loathsome to marrying him, saying yes to the marriage. And they are in the company of her father-in-law's dead body. So, what's going on here?

Kathryn:

So, here you are walking in the night with a bodyguard, with your father-in-law's corpse, taking it to Chertsey, you're on a journey, the man who you're pretty certain has murdered your father-in-law appears. The first thing he does is he gets rid of your bodyguard, so now you're with a corpse with the man who murdered him, who you know is pretty dodgy character, with no bodyguard at all and you're a young girl. It does not seem a very difficult stretch the imagination that when he says to her, "I could have my way with you now at any point," that she, as it goes on, says yes to that and yes to that and yes to that. And I think it's one of the reasons why we have rape cases in the court where the perpetrator of the rape will say, "She agreed," and the victim will be saying, "Well, I said yes, but it's because that's the only thing I could do. I acquiesced to the rape because I didn't want to be murdered." And yet in courts that can be seen as an agreement to rape because we should all be, saying, "No means no."

Kathryn:

Well, sometimes yes means no. Sometimes yes means, "Yes to that because I might live." I was quite strong, I had very strong feelings, about that. But if I was on a hill with a corpse with a man that murdered that person, it's the middle of the night and I have no bodyguard and he says, "I could rape you or I could murder you unless you bend to my will," I'm going to say, "Yes, I bend to your will." And I'm not just going to say it in a way that I don't mean it, I'm going to play that action so strongly to make sure that Richard the Third absolutely believes me, really, truly believes me without indicating out to the audience that, "I don't really mean this," but actually believes me. Because he does and he lets her go. He lets her go, she survives that.

Kathryn:

Now, if you analyze it and say, "Oh, well, she courted it, she said..." She survives a very dodgy meeting. And so, I would play that right through to the very end. And then as Richard the Third turned away to turn to the audience to say, "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd," I would take one last look at him and in that last look I'd be saying, "I hate you. You are a criminal. You have molested me. You violated me, but I am free." And the audience would see that split second. And Richard the Third did not see it, otherwise she would never have given that look because that would have put her back in danger again. The audience had a split second of seeing it and I really had to fight for it in the production. I really, really had to fight for it.

Kathryn:

And once it was clocked that's what I was doing, there was some reactions as to whether it could stay in. But I was very clear before I accepted the part, "I will not play Lady Anne," and they said, "But what's Richard going to do? He needs to believe..." I said, "Oh, he'll believe."

Varsha:

He will believe it.

Kathryn:

"He'll believe it," he's a man for a start, "And I will make him believe that I absolutely think he's the most charming, I will do that." And ultimately she wants to derail his objective and marrying him is part of that. But it still shows in the bigger picture, if women are under that sort of pressure and we acquiesce to these relationships, which are suppressive, which ultimately she does by getting married, it leads to our death. People say, "It leads to her marrying him." No, ultimately it leads to her death and that's what Shakespeare is putting out there. You keep treating women like this, you condense them in a patriarchy, you tell them lies, they commit suicide. You put these women in a situation where they have to do vile things in order to survive, they die. Is that what you want to continue happening? That's that story of putting... So, I think Shakespeare absolutely held a mirror up to nature, as far as women were, you didn't make out that they all come out strong and on top and win and beat. They don't, they die under those conditions, those conditions need to be looked at and changed.

Varsha:

Absolutely. And again, very kind of mirror up to nature that such a person, as you mentioned, in the middle of the night, dismisses her bodyguard and tells her to marry him. She says, yes, because what else is she going to do? And he thinks that's because he's attractive, he's a charmer.

Kathryn:

Perfect reading.

Varsha:

Absolutely.

Kathryn:

Perfect reading. And you do have to look at that and say, "Come on, look at how he described it?" It's just the other reading is just not acceptable and indeed that was picked up by the critics and I did get some good feedback for that interpretation. But I would not have done the part had I did not have been allowed. I voiced it very clearly at the interview for the job, "This is how I see it." And a lot of women, it's not acceptable anymore to put her out there and just say, "Oh, she just comes around because that is what is going on in courtrooms."

Varsha:

Yes, yes. Way too much

Kathryn:

Too far. Yeah.

Varsha:

We could talk about your performances forever. I'm loving hearing your insights on them, but I do also want to ask about your role as Director of London Dramatic Academy, because that's another hat you wear. What does this role entail?

Kathryn:

Well, I run a conservatoire course, a 14 week course, for American theater majors who are coming through Fordham University, and other universities through the States, but they come through Fordham. And they're usually in their second year of a three year intensive, like a drama school course, but in the States they have very few conservatoires. They're liberal arts programs and so they take other courses and those students, who most are student actors, they want to have an opportunity to work in a conservatoire. So, they're focusing on theater and all different aspects of theater all day, every day. So, it isn't for British students, there are plenty of excellent drama schools in London, but Americans don't have.... There are only something like three or four conservatoires in the States. And yet there are some very good university courses. So they come for that conservatoire experience.

Kathryn:

And I believe in actor's training and I started doing some acting, teaching, coaching quite some time ago and somehow, along the course of that journey, I got cast as a director. So, it's a role I play, but I actually find that I do believe in training and I think it's a good cross cultural thing. I think Americans to get out of America and to come and really experience something in different places is a good thing. And I get to talk about acting, pass on the good things that I've learned, pass on the warnings to the bad things that have been exposed to, have those conversations, work with incredible other teachers, all are working professionals, all are actors, some sort of bring in master classes. So, it's really enriching for me in terms of the conversations I've been able to have, to be part of that whole scene, still creating some form of education, which I do believe theater can change the world, in its small way. I do think people should be trained for that and understand and respect the opportunity they have.

Varsha:

Yeah. Both their craft and their responsibility.

Kathryn:

Yeah. We're also working with under sourced youth groups from outer London. So, those groups come to the center, they have workshops with our students. So, our professional faculty train the LDA students, the LDA students then work with these youth groups, and the youth groups are incorporated into a piece, the movement or it might be monologues, or period dance, or stage combat, they're incorporated into that with the LDA students. And then the LDA students with their buddy from the youth group goes and performs Pop-Up Takeover Day at the Tower of London, and sometimes that's involved. So, some of the speeches that some of the LDA students will do will be Shakespeare speeches that they'd been working on with their audition teachers all semester. To see our students, going, "Now, we have taught you some things, now you teach them." To teach us to learn, it's one of the reasons why, as a working actor, I enjoy teaching because I carried on learning.

Varsha:

Same. I'm not a performer, but I do think that teaching is to learning. Absolutely.

Kathryn:

That's right. And it's a two way thing. And to see that with these young people and the LDA students is a great thing. And then they go to the Tower and scare themselves silly and try and take on the Tower of London, which, of course, not many people have.

Varsha:

You are both a performer and an educator, so I want to ask you this question. Although the gulf is not as wide as it used to be, there often seems to be a sort of distance between Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare performers. As an academic, when I teach Shakespeare, I always encourage my students to see multiple performances of each role because I definitely think that actors are great interpreters of Shakespeare. So, I already know what Shakespeare performers can do for Shakespeare scholars; however, in what ways do you think a Shakespeare academic can be most helpful to a Shakespeare performer?

Kathryn:

For an actor preparing, sometimes it's not always the answers you come up with as an actor, it's to do with how many questions you're asking yourself all the time, of the character, of the play of, of everything else. So, you're looking at the context that the play is in, and academics really love context, whereas actors can just tend sometimes to just focus on their part, "How many lines have I got," and all this stuff, they don't really, but there is an idea. But if actors in the search for a wider understanding of the context of Shakespeare, and turning that understanding and that knowledge to stop it just being an intellectual idea, but to actually then imaginatively put their characters into context, then the questions that you start asking of your character become richer, broader, more particular, more specific, more informed, and that can only result in better work.

Varsha:

Great. So, for all our academic scholars out there, they know what to do next.

Kathryn:

Yes, context please.

Varsha:

Thank you so much.

Kathryn:

Thank you very much, Varsha.

Varsha:

That was Kathryn Pogson talking about Portia, Lady Anne, Ophelia, and the relationship between academics and performers. Next month, we have the doyenne and the darling of Shakespearean stage, she is...

Janet:

Hello, I'm Janet Suzman and you are listening to 'Women & Shakespeare'.

Varsha:

So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and www.womenandshakespeare.com. You can also find the full transcripts of every episode on the website. Until then keep shattering those glass ceilings.