“The Duchess is so good under pressure. When she’s under pressure, that’s when she really flourishes and sharpens.”
Gemma discusses the satisfaction of getting off-book, the way the Duchess carries herself and moves, and the warmth of the new Playhouse.
Time: 13 minutes 46 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
Phil Brooks: Welcome to the Adopt an Actor podcast series. This is the second interview with Gemma Arterton, who is playing the title role in the upcoming production of The Duchess of Malfi.
So what have you been doing in rehearsals so far?
Gemma Arterton: So I think the last time I spoke to you we had just got one scene up on its feet, so we’ve been plotting through the play and now we are the point where we are starting to – we are all off book pretty much and we are just embedding it. The first couple of weeks was very wordy, us working our way around the language and what it means and all of that. And now it’s sort of go go go and ploughing through. It’s quite exhausting, I have to say! Its great fun and there are so many different colours to this piece, but you catch me on a day where it’s been particularly gruelling. We’ve been doing the fifth act, which is when she [the Duchess] dies. It’s always quite tricky at this point in rehearsal because you’re sort of midway through getting it into your body, and it starts in your head and it trickles into your bones, and we’re in that place now – we’re trying to get into our bodies.
PB: Is there anything you have noticed about the language your character uses?
GA: Yeah, she speaks very – in the first half, before anything bad happens, she’s quite measured. She chooses her words carefully. She’s very pointed with her language, quite cheeky. And then the rest of the play is just her behaving very momentarily, so the language is very very much in the moment. And she’s not – unless she is really considering, you know there’s a scene where she curses her brothers, and that’s very very deliberate, and very strong. But because she’s being – the character of the Duchess is someone that’s constantly adjusting to being abused – so she’s always on the move, she’s always taking blows or giving them back or, it’s not a character that… I think if she’s wasn’t being attacked she would speak very very beautifully, because there are a few moments in the play where she talks about nature, and birds and being free. And I think that’s her. The rest of the time she’s defending herself, so she speaks in that way.
PB: Obviously, you mentioned you were working on the scene where she dies – are there any other scenes or moments that are particularly significant to your interpretation of the Duchess?
GA: Yeah, there’s a scene – I never remember the numbers – but there’s a scene that starts with her being very very happy and free with Antonio and Cariola, and is probably one of the happier moments in the play. And then within 6 or 8 pages – maybe more than that – within the act, and it’s literally in the moment, sort of real time, she goes through 5 different things but having to deal with them in the moment, she finds her brother who threatens to kill her. Then she realises she has to send her husband away, lie about all this stuff, re-gather herself. It’s just brilliant. And it’s so much fun to do even though it’s very exhausting and hard but that’s the Duchess I think. She’s so good under pressure. When she’s under pressure that’s when she really flourishes and sharpens. And I think it’s a crucial scene for us to see how wonderful she is, how excellent and why it is that these brothers are not going to ever destroy her dignity because she’s much much cleverer and brilliant than they are. So I think it’s a scene where you see that, and it’s also a scene where she grows up very quickly.
PB: What relationships in the play are important to your character and why?
GA: I think the most important relationship is with Ferdinand because its blood and they’re twins, and it’s very complicated. And the second is Antonio, but at this point in the rehearsal I think that the Ferdinand is more important, it’s bizarre. She obviously loves Antonio and has risked her whole life and fame and reputation to be with him because she loves him. But there’s this relationship with her brother that’s something that I think gives the whole play a depth and darkness, because there is a love between them that is inexplicable. And when I think about siblings, I would throw myself in front of a bus for my sister so that’s I think the most important relationship. And Cariola as well, the relationship to Cariola because she’s sort of like her adopted sister in a way and is always there for her as someone to sound off, someone to be there for support. I think when she dismisses Cariola at the end just before she dies, it’s sort of like a weight is lifted off her. She can really die now, you know. So yeah it’s weird, for me they are the three most important; Antonio and Ferdinand and Cariola. And Bosola, there’s a very strange relationship with Bosola that I think is actually very key but is something that I don’t want to discuss too much because I think it has to remain ambiguous to the audience. But I think it’s very key to the Duchess’ life. He’s very very key.
PB: Have you started much specific character work yet, looking at voice or movement?
GA: Yeah, movement very much so because for me it’s very important to have a lot of grace and status without being haughty because I want her to be warm. And I want her to be the hostess with the mostess. And even when she’s under pressure she doesn’t crumble, she still spine without being stiff. So it’s something I’ve been working on with Gylnn [McDonald] to open up my hands and not make it look very English – you know, pointy. Often with classical text we do that because we’re freaking out, and I’ve got to try and keep it very relaxed and Italian, and not English and hoity-toity. Yeah! Voice wise the same thing, don’t let it get all posh and hoity-toity because it’s not. She’s sexy Italian rather than – there’s definitely something about that she’s got this sensuality about her naturally that’s, she’s got this husk and a warmth to her and I think that’s something that I think is so key actually, generally playing this play, is that it is so not English, but we are all British actors so we’ve been working on imagining warmth and sunshine and aridness and smells and those kind of gorgeous Amalfi landscapes. Fruit and all of that and it really is so important because it is a totally different exotic kind of landscape.
PB: Have you gone inside the playhouse yet and play around with the space, because you hadn’t last time.
GA: Yeah, no actually we’ve been in there I think a couple of times now. I actually love it in there, I prefer it to the rehearsal room because – and usually it’s a bit daunting when you get on stage the first time but I really like it there because it’s very warm and it allows you to – it drinks your voice in, so it’s not as echoey. So you can be really really specific and quiet and it allows that. Also I quite like it because it’s high and around so it’s just nice to play out.
PB: I suppose that helps to trying to be open with the audience…
GA: Yeah exactly and for it to be very, you have to have this grace in there and that’s something we have also been playing with, darkness. In rehearsals sometimes we turn the lights out and just have candles, and that’s incredible what happens because you lose a sense, the audience lose a sense, they can’t see you. So you have to be so specific, and you can’t mumble, and you’ve got to be crisp and clear but not shouty. And it’s great because it sort of localises on the language, that’s all you have. You can’t sell it with your facial expressions, it’s really really interesting. And I think it’s something that will really challenge us once we’re teching because not only are we in charge of our lighting but also of, I don’t know, we have to change the audiences way of understanding the play. They have to understand it in a different way.
PB: James [Garnon, playing the Cardinal] mentioned that there isn’t a jig as such in the Globe, there is a ‘movement piece’, how is that going? Have you started working on that yet?
GA: Yeah it’s actually really beautiful. Because everybody dies in this play apart from maybe two people, it’s sort of a resurrection. And it’s very very taught. Because the jigs are usually sort of ‘hooray! The plays finished and it’s all great’ and it still has that element to it but it’s much more deliberate and measured. So we’ve been sort of, it’s beautiful actually I think, and perfect for this particular piece because it does end so gruesomely. It has a grace to it and an elegance to it. Yeah she’s very talented Sian [Williams, Choreographer]. So yeah, but we still have quite a way to go on it I think.
PB: Finally, what have been the highs and lows of the first few weeks of rehearsals?
GA: Learning lines was…[sighs]. It’s really hard actually because we don’t actually have that much time. And it’s been one of those things where every day you have to go home and sit for three hours and learn them. Which is just like detention every day you know. But once, like for me I got off book yesterday and its like ‘oh my god!’ It really means that you can fly and start acting it and start embodying it and not being so like ‘oh what’s my line what is it what is it’. I think that’s been quite hard. But apart from that I’ve just adored it. Also for me, lows it that when we rehearse everything and usually, the way Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director and Director of The Duchess of Malfi] rehearses is he sort of repeats, just repeats and repeats. Which is how you have to do it on order to get it into your body. But for me that’s been very draining because so for example today we probably did my death 5 times and then before that the scene where I think my children are dead 6 times, and it’s just so draining. But that’s ok. Usually when you do the play you do it once, but in rehearsals often you’re trying to find things as well so you’re kind of throwing yourself out there much more so than when you are doing the play. So that’s been quite exhausting! And I go for lunch and people look at me like I’ve been beaten up or something because my eyes are all puffy and horrid, make up running down my face! They turn around, ’Are you alright?’ Someone asked me the other day if I was ok, I was like ‘yeah I’m working at the Globe doing a tragedy.’ But yeah it’s great, it’s just work you know.
PB: Thank you very much.
GA: Thank you.