In her third blog post Sophie discusses the differences between playing prose and verse, her thoughts on the Prison scene, and the difficulties of presenting a perspective that's very alien to modern audience.
Transcript of Podcast
This last week we’ve broached Act V for the first time. That is really helpful. Getting towards the end somehow makes you want to go back to the beginning again and take the journey through from start to finish. You have to go back over things at the beginning in order to find out where you are at the end. In rehearsals you often focus in on one scene here and another scene there, so it can help to go back to the start and see the whole journey through, because it gives you a better idea of the shape of the play. At first, I thought Act V was impossible because it's one of those typical last acts in Shakespeare where all the ingredients come together, and separate stories collide and reach their conclusion. That's very exciting, but it can be also a bit overwhelming because you think ‘How do I respond to that without chatting?’ [laughs] Claudio suddenly appears alive when I thought he had been executed… that's something I haven’t got to grips with at all. One doesn’t want to generalise anything, you endeavour to be so specific about all these moments. It's been lovely to broach Act V, but it still remains a mystery at this juncture.
I like that Isabella doesn’t say anything at the end when the Duke offer her his hand [V.1.489-99]. I think that's good. The Duke keeps saying ‘Give me your hand’, and there's not really any opportunity to do that. You also wonder whether she goes with him – well, I think she does go with him, actually, but it's beautifully unresolved.
I had some great sessions with Giles [Block, Master of the Words]. We talk about the rhythms in poetry and prose and how that connects to the human breath. I find that really helpful, more helpful than I would have thought. I’ll do work on my own and write little things down for Giles, where I’ve got stuck or have questions. For instance, Isabella doesn’t really speak much prose. The only scene with prose that she has is when she meets the Duke (as the Friar) for the first time in the prison [III.1]. Little things like that are like treasure along the way – it's as though you’re on a paper chase. You find a bit of paper at one point, and you say to yourself ‘Ok, I don’t know where I am, but I might find another piece of paper to show me the way in a minute.’ I find it fascinating that when she meets the Duke, she suddenly starts talking in prose. In my opinion, Isabella in this scene is so thrown and doesn’t know where she is that she speaks in a different way, but when I talked with Giles about prose and verse, we didn’t work on any specific lines from Measure for Measure. What we did instead was work on a piece of prose from As You Like It – Orlando's lines that open the play. Giles has a theory that verse is spoken from the heart whilst prose is more to do with the intellect. We looked at Orlando's speech and suddenly thought, ‘Why isn’t he talking in verse? He's talking about something that is very close to his heart’ and Giles felt it was to do with the fact that Orlando doesn’t quite know where he is or who he is at that point; he hasn’t found his own voice yet. That's helpful for me at this point. I think Isabella's problems are a bit different, but at the same time this [III.1] is a point in the play where she's really lost and is desperately trying to find a way out. Then the Friar appears and comes up with the most extraordinary idea and she goes with him, which is amazing and very spirited under the circumstances.
Prison scene: Act three, scene one
At the end of Act two, scene four, Isabella thinks 'Right, I’m going to have to go and tell my brother.' I don’t think she's resolved in her heart at all, but is resolved somewhere in her head, in terms of her ideas about honour, the structures that she's lived her life by – or at least tried to – and the reasons that she's entered the nunnery. She thinks ‘Okay, I’m going to go and tell Claudio the situation. I know he's fantastically honourable, and that’ll solve it: he’ll die honourably, and I’ll keep my chastity.’ Although this is quite a shocking equation, having thought it through from where Isabella is at this point in the play, I think I’m beginning to grasp that that is a feasible alternative, for them both actually. To die honourably in those times was actually rather marvellous. I think that she feels, or at least persuades herself, that will actually be a very positive thing. Claudio is going to die honourably because he's committed a sin after all, and she's going to maintain her chastity, which is paramount. She's worked that all out in her head, but I don’t think things are so clear in her heart. She is faced with her brother in the prison and she has to tell him that he must die. That comes as an awful shock to him, because, as we learnt from Ruth [Goodman, Tudor Group], being clapped into irons for a while and thinking that you might die was actually fairly common, but more often than not people got off without such severe punishment. The way Alex [Hassell, Claudio] is playing his journey at the moment, Claudio feels quite hopeful that he’ll avoid the death penalty, but when I do come in and say to him “No, you really have got to die,” that's a hideous shock to his system. As I’m playing it at the moment, the realisation that he is going to die is also a shock to my system as well. It's all very well having theories, but carrying them out is painful. You know, it's easy to have a certain theory or philosophy in the comfort of your cloister, but to carry it through and face the implications of that theory can be very disturbing.
In the Folio, the line where Isabella expresses that she's actually going to carry that out is in inverted commas, as a quote:
“More than our brother is our chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo's request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest. [II.4.185-7]
I think perhaps at St. Clare's [the nunnery Isabella is about to enter, I.4] a similar saying was one of the things written in their handbook – one of those things that you say to yourself to firm your resolve. Of course, faced with the real flesh-and-blood brother, the scene becomes very painful. He starts to really think about what it means to die; not just in terms of something that's written on emblems when you’re a gentleman and all that, but how frightening that is ‘to die, and go we know not where’ [III.1.117]. So in the prison scene, you see them both really struggling: he struggles to face death in a gentlemanlike way, and she sees Angelo in her mind's eye and thinks ‘My brother has got to die because of this devilish wicked fellow.’ It's not at all clear-cut and she's really struggling with that. The first few times we went through the scene, it ended up in a brother-sister scrap, almost. I don’t think it is that anymore. I think there's a sense that they are both being confounded by the circumstance. Isabella is still desperately holding on to the fact that she must be doing the right thing, and then the Friar pops up from behind the pillar like Rumpelstiltskin.
It's really tricky for people in our day and age to make that leap and say ‘Actually it makes more sense that your brother dies.’ That's really tricky for the modern ear. So I’m hoping to find a way of making it true, because I think it's rather unhelpful for Isabel to be viewed as a monstrous woman at that moment. She's trying to adhere to a moral structure which runs through the characters very deeply; that's another thing that might be hard for us to understand, the reality of that struggle. It's so wonderful that, in Measure for Measure, the human flipside of the fish comes up at so many points. You see a person struggling with a religious notion or a belief, realising that actually it's almost impossible and very painful to put into practice, and that we’re all fantastically flawed. Claudio saying ‘I don’t want to die honourably; I’m scared,’ and Isabella going ‘Well, I don’t want to sleep with that monster, I don’t want to be forever damned’ – it's all just terribly human. Everyone's trying to hold on to something. Claudio, of course, is desperately trying to hold on to life itself, and I think Isabella feels that she’d be completely damned, so she's doing almost the same thing, but on a different track. They’re completely confounded, at which point Rumpelstiltskin goes ‘Hello, I’ve overheard your plight and I’ve got a few suggestions.’
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.