“The more I get into I’m realising how bold the Duchess is, much stronger than any other character I've played. It’s beautifully written.”
In her first interview, Gemma discusses the character of the Duchess, the more conversational nature of the text compared to Shakespeare, and all the different - and unexpected - elements of the play.
Time: 9 minutes 1 second
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Transcript of Podcast
Phil Brooks: Welcome to the Adopt an Actor podcast series. My name is Phil Brooks and I’m talking to Gemma Arterton, who is playing the title role in the upcoming production of The Duchess of Malfi.
How familiar were you with the play?
Gemma Arterton: Not very familiar I have to say. When I was at RADA, we did a Jacobean term, and I didn’t do duchess of Malfi – I can’t even remember the one I did but it wasn’t a very good one, but there were some people in my year who did it and I remember being very jealous that I wasn’t get to play the Duchess! Anyway it’s always been something… I’m not… I’m only now becoming very very familiar with the play. It something that I knew about and I always knew I wanted, would love to have played her at some point. So there’s been a couple of opportunities but this is the one where I’ve really gone ‘this is perfect’.
PB: Have you performed other Jacobean plays apart from Shakespeare before or is this your first foray into…
GA: This will be my first foray yeah.
PB: Have you read the whole thing through before you started rehearsals?
GA: Yeah of course! I’m too scared to be so nonchalant like that. Yeah, it’s funny though because I – it’s one of those things like any classical piece of writing you really have to hear it to really get an idea of what it’s about. You can read it dry, and you can read it to yourself and it’s not the same thing. It wasn’t really until we were in the read through on the first day that it really came to life for me, because when I was reading it in preparation I would read it to myself. Everyone brings their own flavour to each role and it’s so perfectly cast everything just popped. And I think that’s something that’s very – actually it’s so beautifully written in that sense. It’s much more sort of popping than…it’s not as lyrical as Shakespeare. It feels much more conversational.
PB: Do you find that makes it easier to learn the lines or just a slightly different way to work through the text?
GA: It’s always difficult to learn lines! But in a way you’re right because the thoughts are very sharp. That’s the thing about Jacobean writing anyway, it’s that its very passionate, so its very clear and to the point. There are moments of course where you sort of go off on big tangents, but its not a play filled with imagery and metaphor, its much more sort of on the line thought. So that’s actually quite easy to learn, that sort of stuff.
PB: What were your initial impressions of the play now that you’ve read through it and gone through it?
GA: Now my initial impressions are, I just think it’s absolutely magnificent. There is so much going on with – when you hear the language you just think it’s sort of situational and it’s just happening now. But there’s so much going on within it, and it’s very bold. And the Duchess herself, the more I get into it, I’m realising how bold she is, much stronger than any other character I’ve played I think. Ever. Which is kind of, it’s very forward thinking I think for the time, but its beautifully written and there’s so much contrast within the play. There’s romance and beauty as well as the kind of horror that happens. And there’s fun as well. I think when you originally think of Jacobean theatre you just think of bloodshed and death – which is very prevalent obviously in the Duchess of Malfi – but there’s also so much joy and [a] lightness of touch and intelligence within it as well.
PB: Surprisingly fun.
GA: Yeah surprisingly yeah.
PB: So you mentioned that you found the Duchess to be quite a bold character, have you started to discover more about her as you’ve gone through the process?
GA: Yeah. Actually yesterday was the first day we got it up on its feet, and we were working through the marriage scene where I basically get Antonio to marry me on the spot. And I found it quite – I had to keep up with the Duchess, even me whose very very forthright and quite, sort of, feisty I guess – I was shocked by her strength and how quick she is. So that’s something that I think must have been so shocking to audiences of the time, how she’s very very like a bloke at time. But always with grace and wit. But very very strong. I look up to her, I think she’s really quite someone.
PB: An interesting character then as you go through…
GA: Yeah and as we continue we get deeper into the play, and deeper into the second act, and becoming sort of like a bloodfest, and me thinking my children are dead and all those things. That’s when she really pulls all of her – everything she has, and she becomes the most wondrous thing ever. So we only just worked on the first scene where I was bowled over by her, so oh god! It’s gonna be something!
PB: I’ll ask you again in a few weeks and see how much it’s all changed!
PB: So you’ve performed at the Globe on the stage, have you looked in the new space yet? Have you managed to work your way around and figure out how you’re gonna move?
GA: Well, the Globe is totally different actually, and I remember when I was here, a long time ago now I was 20 – but I remember you have to be so very very outward and really present. And move with such purpose. And your voice has to be so sharp. And you do need that in that space. I went to see something in the new space, I went to see something – like a little arrangement of music and poetry and all sorts – and its very warm, its very allowing and I don’t think you need to push as much. You need to be clear and crisp obviously, but its very – you don’t need to push it, it’s much more intimate which is lovely. But you can’t be sloppy in there I don’t think. So it will be interesting. And the space is much smaller and obviously – and often with classical- especially this piece for me, the physicality of the Duchess is so important as she’s so flighty and breezy and graceful. But I have to streamline it. I think its about being very simple and clear which is really hard. So we’ll see though, its always nice once you’re in the space to feel how it does affect the way – even if you’re not acting and you go into a space you change the way you move and speak. And obviously because we have candlelight as well, and the space is very high and surrounding, it’s kind of like, I dunno. It’s quite nice for this play as its all about being watched this play, and being spied on. So it’s a nice oppressive feeling. I hope that we can get in there soon ‘cause I’d like to test it out!
PB: I guess it should allow you to be more subtle with facial expressions and…
GA: Absolutely, you can really relate to the audience as well, because they are right on you. And a little glance of the eye will be seen, which is lovely.
PB: Finally what preparation did you do for the role before rehearsals started?
GA: I didn’t really do much, I just read it a lot. Did a lot of historical research because the Duchess is actually based on a real Duchess. Its very very close to what actually happened, this story – obviously its been elaborated on a little with the brother that’s very bizarre. But the real Duchess did live, the real Duchess of Malfi, and so I did a lot of research into that. Went to see some art of the period, things like that. Yeah I didn’t do too much. I don’t know, I like to get in there and not have too many ideas before I come in. That’s my personal way but…
PB: I guess that means once you’re in a group then you can start to develop things together
GA: Yeah exactly. And I think it’s so about the language that you don’t need to invent things around it. You are on the language, that is your framework so it’s that that gives you your everything.
PB: Brilliant, thank you very much.
GA: You’re welcome.