Shakespeare's Globe

RSS Production Notes 3

This is Chu's fifth and final blog entry for the 2003 production of Richar II in which he talks about moving on from Richard II to begin work on Edward II.

Transcript of Podcast


Isabella is one of the most challenging roles I’ve played yet. She's emotionally strung up throughout the whole play; I’ve come a long way from my first impression of her as a character who moans a lot. She's distraught because she knows at the beginning of the play that her position is being usurped. Edward is in love with Gaveston, so much so that he almost wants to share the crown with him, so it's not just a question of love: power and status are also at stake. This would have a devastating effect on Isabella. She is very much in love with Edward. Also, her power as Queen is very much dependent on others – King Edward and later Mortimer Junior. The lords force Gaveston's exile and that removes a threat to Isabella, but then Edward makes her security dependent on Gaveston's repeal. It's a real catch-22 situation and she has to come to a massive compromise; she manages the repeal skilfully and there's a single point here when everything seems perfect. Edward is elated at Gaveston's return and literally appreciates his queen's hand in this as he proclaims a second marriage:

Once more receive my hand and let this be
A second marriage ‘twixt thyself and me.

They’re close but this togetherness is entirely dependent on Gaveston, which Isabella conveniently pushes to the back of her mind. And things become worse than ever very quickly: the lords are up in arms about Gaveston's increased influence and Isabella compromises and compromises until she can compromise no more. I think the real clincher is when Spenser Junior and Baldock come into the equation – there's an obvious attraction between Edward and Spencer, actually, there's Isabella's lines in scene four:

In saying this, thou wrong’st me, Gaveston.
Ist not enough that thou corrupt’st my lord,
And art a bawd to his affections,
But thou must call mine honour thus into question.

When Spencer Junior arrives, it's as though a whole new clique is developing and this marginalises Isabella even further. Her next appeal to Edward draws a blank and basically I feel that this pushes her into the arms of Mortimer Junior who's leading the faction of disaffected lords. She is alone and abandoned to a hopeless mission in France, so she meets Mortimer Junior at what is pretty much her lowest point. He has just escaped from prison after Edward defeated the opposition party and understandably has grievances against the King; to unite with Isabella is as much about political sense as affection. She goes some way to legitimatising his cause and when the Lords amass a second army, she's the figurehead. Prince Edward is duly installed under the protectorship of Mortimer Junior; basically he intends to be a puppet-master. On her return to England, Isabella is in a truly powerful position – just before and after the battle – but none of this power belongs to her alone, it's tied up in her position as Queen and Mortimer Junior soon emerges as the driving force behind the new regime. Where Shakespeare stresses the divine right of kings in Richard II, Marlowe doesn’t mention it in Edward II. This play is political and personal whereas Richard II has an additional spiritual, ideological aspect. I think Edward II is more sensual or sexual and Isabella is part of that.

Playing a Female Role

In terms of playing a woman, you get given a costume but the process works from inside out rather than outside in, for me at least. I avoided wearing the corset during rehearsal because first and foremost I’m playing a character and that character is a woman. Of course it's significant – I’ve found that the way I’m treated in rehearsals, that is, the way other characters react to me, is different because it takes into account my character's sex and status. I’m not just playing a woman. I’m playing a mother who happens to be a queen. All these headings only make up a fraction of the person. I’m just treating it as other parts – asking things like how does this person react to a given circumstance? It's what we do in workshops, asking ‘Who are you? Where are you? How do you do this?’ All these questions have to be asked. How I walk or manage to breathe in a corset comes later! In a way, the closer you come to realising a character, the more restrictions you place on yourself for things like how they might walk and so on. I suppose I’ve processed Isabella as I would any other role and things like the way I walk will only be convincing if the big things are convincing too – if it's believable that Isabella loves Edward and an audience can see how I feel as a mother about my son. There are some things I wouldn’t do as Isabella that I might do with another role though. I can make my voice very big and Isabella won’t be loud in that sort of forceful way. Her power is more to do with persuasion, in the sphere of influence rather than force. I guess it's a lot to do with charm and a certain amount of manipulation.

Aumerle in the parliament scene (, 4.1) is all bluff. Isabella on the other hand spends scene four working out where she stands… who her allies are, and who will respond well to her persuasion. There are several different lords and that's the great thing about working with good actors – the differences between the lords are made clear very quickly, so you can make sense of Isabella's varied approaches. There's Mortimer Senior, Mortimer Junior, Lancaster, Pembroke, and Northumberland; well, I find out that my charm will have no effect on three out of five. You pick the person with the most power who is likely to be most receptive – Mortimer Junior fits the bill, and my terms of address reflect that ‘Sweet, sweet Mortimer’ and so on. I’m also quite nice to Lancaster – ‘Gentle Lancaster’ – but less so to Northumberland because he's an obstacle. That's how I navigate a scene; it's done for you in a way. I’m not thinking ‘A woman would do this.’ Instead I think ‘this is what I have to do in order to achieve my objective’. While I am walking differently and my voice is slightly softer than normal, I’m not speaking in a voice pitched any higher than normal. Cosmetics and the other finishing touches to appearance will come later. At the moment I wear a skirt for rehearsals and that automatically changes the way I walk and how people relate to me – what I have to concentrate on is reaching an understanding the play, cerebrally and intellectually, and then I’ll begin to get a real feeling for the part. I know it's had a massive effect on me when I have understood on this level. I’ve never had a role effect me to this extent outside the rehearsal room and this isn’t necessarily because I’m playing a woman; it's an extremely emotional role and for a lot of the play I’m extremely isolated and abused. It's playing this woman, not just playing a woman that's having a big effect. I get frightened about generalisations and saying ‘playing a woman is like this’ so there's also the added pressure of intense specificity. I’m avoiding ‘feminine’ stereotypes like the plague.

Working on lines

I’ve just got back from a session with Giles [Block, Master of Verse]. We’ve been having weekly group sessions with the Masters of Verse and Voice [Stewart Pearce] which last for about an hour but you can ask for solo sessions if you want to do some individual work on your character. Today Giles and I went through the play from start to finish, looking at my lines. He read in for me, suggesting different meanings and subtext behind the verse – it really helps me to decide where emphasis should fall in order to convey the sense. Listening to a fresh voice read Isabella drew my attention to pressure-points in her speeches. Though the verse here is less complicated than in Richard II and it's written in quite a user-friendly way that often highlights emphasis, there are certainly parts that benefit from some extra attention to detail. One of the lines I looked closely at comes at the end of my soliloquy in act two, scene four. Isabella has decided to appeal to Edward one last time:

So well hast thou deserv’d, sweet Mortimer,
As Isabel could live with thee for ever.
In vain I look for love at Edward's hand,
Whose eyes are fixed on none but Gaveston.
Yet once more I’ll importune him with prayers…

We unpacked that last line ‘Yet once more I’ll importune him.’ Obviously it's an important point in the play and I’d been stressing the first syllable ‘yet’. Isabella's argument is inclining her towards Mortimer, but with l.63 she almost forcibly turns her thoughts back to Edward and ‘Yet’ sort of feels like a pivot or a point where you could make that separation clear. Giles also mentioned before that this stress pattern is natural, however there are some other possibilities. We tried putting the stress in different places and heard how that altered the meaning… if you put more emphasis on ‘once’, the line makes Isabella sound as though she's reaching the end of her tether with Edward, and this is really his last chance. She can sound quite angry which lends a twist to her ‘prayers’. There was a debate – Giles changed his mind three times! He's fantastic about aligning the meaning with the verse. I feel I’m much more aware of the choices inherent in Isabella's speeches. I’m certainly much more comfortable speaking verse in Edward II as a result of my experiences during Richard II. Also Tim Carroll [Master of Play] has been Master of Verse himself, so he's worked rigorously on that side of things.

Instead of working on my ‘female’ physicality with Glynn [Master of Movement], I’m hoping that this side of things will grow out of my work on character. I think there's a lot that the play tells you about Isabella and her manner and movement is part of that. I think if I approach as a physical exercise then I might impose things on her which are out of keeping with her character. Isabella and Aumerle won’t walk in the same way, of course. Even without the costume I found that. As I said, I want to avoid thinking about Isabella as a character who is primarily a woman.


Now is the most intense period of the season and it's going to continue like this for the next three weeks: we’re working hard at Edward II whilst Richard II continues to run at the Globe. I’m trying not to think too far ahead though because I prefer to take things as they come to me. I’ll concentrate on the character and the scenes; we can work on how these fit into the context of a final production later, especially during tech week, but because we’ve been playing Richard II since we started work on Edward II that experience informs our rehearsals. You don’t feel the insecurity of not knowing the people or the space; we’ve had chance to become familiar with the format and requirements of the stage. I don’t see any reason not to speak up and use the dimensions of the stage during rehearsals – there's any area taped out on the rehearsal room floor and pillars placed in equivalent positions so we can do just that. The play's grown in that stage space so tech weeks shouldn’t prove too problematic. Hopefully Edward II will hit the ground running.

After my work with Giles, I’ve become very aware that Isabella has a lot of soliloquies. They’re mostly in the first half of the play when she's extremely isolated: there's no one she can confide in and her status is an additional barrier that prevents anyone getting close enough to be a confidant. It's lonely at the top. While she appeals to the lords and does get their support to some extent, I feel she wants a more intimate connection and ideally this would be with her husband, but he's clearly rejected her in favour of Gaveston. She uses soliloquy to appeal to and confide in the audience because she hasn’t got anyone else, and there's definitely a transition towards the end of the play as she becomes more involved in dialogue, drawn into the action. It's not that she changes from a removed saint into a villainess. I think she can justify her actions and I’m sympathetic to her but it's not really for me to judge whether she's a sympathetic figure – what I do believe is that she's trapped in a situation where she can do nothing but react and a string of these reactions lead to her final position. Although love is not her only motivation, her relationship with Edward definitely provides fuel for her actions; there are different stages in Edward's rejection and Isabella's speeches reflect that: frustration, anger, retribution, guilt. Every speech that she makes seems to be coming from this well of anger and injustice. There's also the feeling that she never loves Mortimer Junior the way she loves Edward. That's my choice and I’m sticking to it! She needs Mortimer and so their relationship has a different kind of intensity – it's rooted in the predicament rather than a person. It’ll be interesting to see how the audience react.

These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.

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