“When learning the text you need to know why has Shakespeare written that sentence in that order. And it’s not just because it sounds beautiful, but it’s the way that that character expresses them self. And I think that’s what makes it really exciting.”
In her first interview Indira discusses the language in Titus Andronicus, her first impressions of her character Tamora, and the embracing nature of the Globe’s space.
Time: 9 minutes 8 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
Phil Brooks: Welcome to the Adopt an Actor Podcast series. This is the first interview with Indira Varma who is playing Tamora in Titus Andronicus.
How familiar were you with the play? Did you read it you started?
Indira Varma: Funnily enough, well I wasn’t familiar with the play – but when I first left drama school I auditioned for Titus the film. Who was in it? It was Anthony Hopkins I think.
PB: I think so yeah.
IV: Yeah. I didn’t get it! And I think I vaguely read it but didn’t really understand it and just was impressed by the whole cutting off of the hands and tongue of Lavinia. It seemed really gruesome. But no I didn’t really know the play.
PB: What are your impressions of it now you’ve gone through it and you’ve actually started the rehearsals?
IV: Gosh its… because it’s also got a bit of a reputation. You know when you hear that ‘oh they’re gonna do it at the Globe or they’ve done it’ and that you might be in the running for it or whatever, you’re meeting for it. You sort of ask a few mates, don’t you, what do you think? What do you think? And some people hate it and think ‘oh god it’s one of the early ones’, ‘wasn’t even written by Shakespeare’ – all these kind of rumours. And then other people say ‘I loved it’. I've got a couple of friends who were in the RSC’s one last year and then other friend who was in the original Lucy Bailey production. So little by little you hear the good sides and the bad sides of what it means. And everyone says great language – some beautiful language. And one thing that I've found is that it’s actually really funny, in a very black way. But yeah it’s rather wonderful.
PB: What about your character of Tamora as well, what are your initial impressions of her?
IV: I thought what a great part I have to say. It’s great to play someone so nasty. But actually I think I pull myself up on that because she has every reason to do what she does I think. And I think if we can get – we being the Goths – if we can get the audience as it were on side, to empathise with their situation; they are prisoners, they’re in a minority, they’ve just slaughtered my son, my eldest son, sacrificed him. And apparently human wasn’t the norm after battle. They might have abused, used them as slaves, that kind of thing. But to actually sacrifice a person was not the done thing. So therefore I’m really angry about this. Really devastated. And she really does plea for her son in her first scene to Titus, and he’s cold, he’s heartless. And I think hopefully the audience will sort of empathise with her, and I think Titus is as bit of an idiot to begin with. He’s sort of, there’s something about the way he’s behaving – I don’t know the ins and outs of it I've been concentrating on Tamora, but he behaves strangely. He kills one of his sons, he banishes them. He’s not such a great guy. And just by chance the fact that Saturninus makes her the empress, because he fancies her, then she starts I think to become a little bit head of herself, and heady. She sees the opportunity for revenge. Because when her son is killed she says “O cruel, irreligious piety.” And I think what they have done is worse than anything that the Goths would do. So they’ve set the ball in motion and now she is, she’s lost her child she’s gonna do anything
PB: It is interesting at the beginning because it’s almost like well who am I meant to be siding with?
IV: Yeah, and I think that makes it a really good play, because the Goths were thought to be barbaric or whatever. And I think what Shakespeare is probably saying is that the Roman’s were equally barbaric. Who is the bad person in this war? And I was wondering today actually I wonder is Shakespeare promoting pacifism in a funny sort of way? Because all this eye for an eye and brutality and revenge, where does it get them? It gets them nowhere. Apart from Lucius who ends up being the emperor but it’s…
PB: On the whole it’s almost… And have you done much work looking at the text and the language of the piece?
IV: Well yeah, I mean you have to I think in order to learn lines you have to really understand what you’re saying. But that’s part of the thing I find tricky about Shakespeare, because I haven’t done that many, my first theatre job actually was As You Like It, playing Phoebe. So it was a really small part but really fun, and then…
PB: Quite different to Tamora.
IV: Very different yeah! Comic and all. And then playing Bianca in Othello, I hadn’t really handled it. And then I did Olivia in Twelfth Night and that was the first time I thought hmm this is really interesting. Shakespeare really uses words in such a condensed way, that there’s nothing spare. And I've done quite a bit of Pinter, who is also a very spare writer, every work often has a double meaning or, you know he leaves a lot of ambiguity, in Pinter’s work there’s a lot of ambiguity where actually it could be played both ways. It could be read in more ways than one, and I think something about Shakespeare is that he also has that sparseness in his writing. Even though it’s very verbose, and we think of it as, not overly written but verbose. But he’s just supremely articulate and chooses the right word in the right place. And that’s one thing I find really interesting about starting to really sort of be forensically like a detective on the text. Because sometimes you can paraphrase what he’s saying, and you sort of generally know the gist. But then learning it you need to know why has he said that sentence in that order. And it’s not just because it sounds beautiful and then you’ve got the noun or the name at the end of the sentence or the phrase, but it’s more than that. And I think that, it’s the way that person expresses them self. And I think that’s what makes it really exciting. And then, once you understand it, it really serves you.
PB: Finding out what’s actually not written down…
IV: Yeah, but I think it’s really important, we’ve, now we’re only at the end of week two and initially we were doing quite a bit of improvisation around things and after the initial reading and understanding of what is being said. But now I think we need to know why it’s being said, and I think that’s about understanding the intentions of each character and each moment. And that’s when I think we’re becoming more detailed in understanding who we are.
PB: Did you do a lot of preparation for this role…
IV: No I only had it a week before, so I felt a bit behind actually.
PB: This is your first time performing at the Globe as well, have you managed to be out in the space, have a look at the stage…
IV: No not, I mean just briefly with the wonderful Gylnn [Macdonald, Globe Associate, Movement]. I’ve been on the stage once before, I can’t remember why, I mean just to stand and enjoy the space I think as a visit. Someone was showing it to me. Just standing on the stage was quite, oddly it was quite emotional, I did, I was quite moved being in that space. And I think it’s probably all the history that comes with it, and the legacy of these hundreds of years of what this person has written and that it’s so timeless. And really expresses humanity in so many ways and I know that’s not the building, but it’s a metaphor for it in a way I think. It’s also a beautiful space because it embraces you, it feels like its embracing you. Who knows what it’s going to be like to play, but loads of people say it’s lovely. But I’m daunted; I’m daunted with the size of it. You know, I've played 1000, 2000 seaters before, not for ages but to do it in that 270 degree round as it were, is frightening. Especially with the open roof, because you think about vocally how strong and energetic we’re gonna have to be. And also having done quite a bit of tele and plays at the Donmar or Royal Court, where you can be naturalistic and very small in studio spaces and stuff like that. I love that naturalism, I love that all that detail that the audience can catch things that you’re not necessarily signposting. And my fear is doing huge generalised acting which I can’t bear, I hate watching that kind of thing. I’m not a fan. So I’m really scared to know whether or not its achievable, something subtle – obviously I've seen amazing performances at the Globe where people, you know Mark Rylance is the obvious, commanding the stage and whispering in it, and just giving you the subtlest things and its delightful. So we’ll see.
PB: Fantastic thank you very much.
IV: Thank you.