“Nearly every line I have to say has about 4 or 5 different ways of being interpreted, which are all deliberately put there. It’s very skilfully-simply-tricksy sort of stuff.”
James talks about the surprising elements of humour throughout the play, and how these help with the more tragic moments, and the ambiguous nature of the Cardinal’s language.
Time: 10 minutes 29 seconds
Download (9.6MB, mp3 format)
To download, right click on the link and select 'Save link as'.
Transcript of Podcast
Phil Brooks: Welcome to the Adopt an Actor podcast series. My name is Phil Brooks and I’m talking to James Garnon who is playing the Cardinal in the upcoming production of The Duchess of Malfi.
So how familiar were you with the play?
James Garnon: Not. I’m sure I’ve read it, I definitely have never seen it I don’t think, I must have read it at university. I must have done. Probably twice. But I don’t really have strong memories about it per se.
PB: Have you read it through now the rehearsal period has started?
JG: Yeah yeah yeah. More or less!
PB: Have you performed any other Jacobean plays before, apart from Shakespeare obviously which you’ve done.
JG: I’ve done some Marlowe, I’ve done… what else have I done. Two plays by Marlowe. I’ve certainly done Johnson. But I did do, my degree was in English Literature at university, and I did study a huge amount when I specialised in theatre text so I read a great deal of plays of this period, so I’m not unfamiliar. I mean I pretend to be fairly naïve, but I’m not really. When I said I don’t remember reading Duchess of Malfi what I mean is I don’t remember it very intimately.
PB: How do you find it compared to Shakespeare?
JG: I haven’t really made any real decision at the moment. I mean it’s obviously different, it’s obviously very different. He’s a different writer, you can feel it, you can taste its sort of different. It’s funny someone said to me before we started ‘oh’ – when I was thinking about doing it someone said ‘oh he’s very dense, Webster’. And actually on the page I find it reads remarkably simply, much for easily than Shakespeare. And it’s only when you give it a closer look that, for me, the high levels of complexity start to sort of.. You start to think – nearly every line I have to say has about 4 or 5 different ways of being interpreted, which are all deliberately put there. So he is, it’s very skilfully-simply-tricksy sort of stuff. I mean obviously his imagery is much darker and more sort of, knarly than Shakey. But we don’t know that. I mean there aren’t that many Webster plays and there are loads of Shakespeare. And people always say ‘Oh Shakespeare’s like…’ But Shakespeare’s loads of different things. I mean he wrote over 30 years so he changes quite a lot too. So that’s a long waffely way of saying yes or no, I can’t remember what the question was!
PB: A bit of both!
JG: Yeah yeah.
PB: What were your initial impressions of the play? Obviously you’re getting more intimate with it now and starting to know it better.
JG: I don’t know, I would say that at the read through it struck me that it was much funnier than you would imagine it to be, which is good. Because, you think its… Having worked at the Globe a lot – and it’s interesting we are doing it in the new space and not the main space but you can see automatically, if one was to play it in the outdoor space then there would be a lot more humour in it than I think a lot of modern productions let there be. Which is interesting because as we know Shakespeare works wonderfully in the Globe. There’s more humour in the plays when played outdoor in front of 600 standing up people than people need there to be in a proscenium arch environment. It is actually very healthy in terms of keeping people engaged and also keeping their hearts up for tragedy. One of the main functions of comedy in Shakespeare – Shakespearean tragedies, is that it softens your heart up so that he can punch your heart more successfully. And it’s interesting that there is quite a lot of humour kicking around in this, you know, so that people can be off guard in order to be kicked more successfully in the nut!
PB: And what about your character as well of the Cardinal, what were your initial impressions of him?
JG: The funny thing – that’s another thing about the play and another initial impression and it’s certainly true of the cardinal, is that you know a lot of these character types are kind of, in danger of being quite stock. That they have been referenced by others or that that way of thinking about Jacobean revenge tragedy is quite well trod. And an evil cardinal is something we are all quite familiar with. He’s very Machiavellian, he’s very… You know it’s quite ambiguous as to what his feelings are, and he’s pretty damn evil. You know, the final analysis. But of course, what’s nice for an actor is to try and – not necessarily run straight down that route but try and find other things to do. Obviously the way he behaves ultimately in the play, rather like Edmund in Lear, there’s no questioning that he is a wrong-un. But his lines are so ambiguous; they’re so slight, so brilliantly done, that you don’t quite know what he means. And it’s quite a nice part of the process at the moment, going through the play and trying to - you know you do table work and you sit down and you try and work out what each line means. Which means you can either sit there and decide what it is you think the character means. Or, which I think I’m leaning more favourably and more towards this, is trying to find all the different things he could mean, and then keep them all alive on the… keep all those pans…
PB: More for the audience to decide…
JG: Yes. To see if you can allow the audience to pick theirs, or indeed sit there and go ‘what the, what does he actually mean?’ Which in itself conveys a sense of evil, a sense of disquiet. You don’t quite know what somebody is doing, its rather unsettling. And that seems to be how the cardinal plays, is not letting people know exactly what he thinks…
PB: What he’s actually thinking…
JG: Or means. Yeah.
PB: The uncertainty there, gives him a bit of an edge.
PB: Obviously you’ve performed in the Globe space, what challenges do you see moving into such a smaller and more intimate space? If any.
JG: I don’t know really, because we haven’t really seen the space. There’s so many things that one thinks without really – you know one of the dangers of it would be to completely discard everything that one has learnt from the other space., if you see what I mean. Because the actors that were playing in the Globe were the actors who played in this space. Now obviously the Globe requires a size of playing, but I’ve always thought the Globe requires a huge amount of subtlety. You know people who play the Globe best are actors that are able to be very very large but also very subtle at the same time. One of [Mark] Rylance’s great tricks at the Globe was… Mark when you watch him was terribly, pulls people into him, you know not performs in front of them, but drags people up on stage with him. [He] can be very very subtle whilst also filling the space. And I’m sure that’s going to be the case I this. Just standing there initially, you know you notice its very very tall, and you’re wrapped round very tightly by the audience. And the audience are very low below you, very high above you, very close at the side, very high up at the side. Which means you are quite, you know you still have… every single member of the audience has a completely different perspective of the stage, by virtue of that size and space. Which means you’ve got to do quite a lot of work to keep them all in view, you know. In the same way you do at the Globe, you’ve got to keep the room warm by keeping your gaze moving and keeping, you know. But at the same time it wants quite a lot of subtlety in play because you can’t be doing large things. It’s keeping those, keeping the pans on a hob, keeping everything warm. And trying to… but I don’t think it would… It’s interesting that one still needs a lot of volume in there initially. It’s hard to tell because there aren’t seats and there aren’t people, but because of the height of it you still need to give it a bit of voice, but your not going to wanting to…
PB: Project like in the…
JG: Project. But that’s the same as the Globe. The Globe is a remarkably good acoustic space and you can talk incredibly quietly if you so choose to. The thing I’ve always loved at the Globe is the fact you can shout and whisper. And neither seems to much if you’re doing them right, and I’m sure it’s going to be the same in this space. This play will have shouting in it, you know, one would imagine. But it won’t overawe the space. But I think one can be also very very small in there. So I mean they’re good, they’re spaces that are architecturally made for acting, you know. And people knew how to make things out of wood then. It’s the old ones [theatres] that are good!
PB: What preparation have you done for this role before the rehearsal period started?
JG: None! Well unfortunately I just finished doing something else, I was concentrating on that, and I only heard about this very… Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director & Director of Duchess of Malfi] only offered me [it] a short while ago. You know, phoned me up, offered it, and I read it, do you know what I mean? So I haven’t had a chance to do a great deal of thinking. And in any event I’m not, I don’t really um… You know I’ve read various things about the play, read various reviews of other productions, poked a bit around on the internet… so its always…. I don’t say I haven’t don’t anything but I’ve done plenty, you know I have done quite a bit of reading around, and thinking around. I mean I looked at different reviews, really just to see how its done, more to think of things to avoid rather than things to do. And to get a general idea of what people might expect when they come, because if you start going through it and start deciding on something, you should also know what it is that other people are expecting you to do as you merrily run down, you know. Run to the left, people might expect you to go right. It’s good to know that they would be expecting you to do the other. It’s always something that I like to vaguely keep an eye on. And then reading around a bit, but with a fairly open mind ready to sort of disregard as and when you… You know the funny thing about working at the Globe, and the funny thing about most of these classical plays is so often you come to them and start reading them and discover they are not remotely the thing people say they are. And not remotely the thing that they can be. You know, that’s the game. Make yourself aware of what other people expect but not let yourself be hampered by it, not doing what you think is right…
PB: Break those expectations.
JG: Yeah but not crassly and not just for the sake of it, but because you’ve got to respond to it obviously. And especially in a new space that we don’t know. This is a play that is often overloaded with lots of dark sort of imagery and stuff, now we’re going to have all that, a lot of that created for us by candlelight. That’s going to… the space and the way insulating dynamics work will inform what this looks like almost more than – you know that is the… one doesn’t want to use the word obstruction except in this sort of Lars von Trier type way, you know the obstructions kind of… The obstruction here is not a design we’re going to place on it but there already is a sort of aesthetic that’s going to be there and we’re playing within that. I mean obstruction in the positive sense rather than the negative sense.