This is Mark's first blog post for the 2004 production of Measure for Measure. This week he discusses how he came to play the Duke, his preparations for the role and his experience of working with Master of Play John Dove.
Transcript of Podcast
I thought he was such a mystery. I didn’t quite know how he could be played, so that intrigued me. He also reminds me of Prospero at times which is fascinating. In the early 1990’s, I did a weekend residential workshop with some friends at a farmhouse in Warwickshire: we worked on Saturday then went to an RSC production of Measure for Measure, and worked again on Sunday. I remember thinking that weekend ‘I’d love to play the Duke sometime’ - there's something very particular about him. Also it seemed to fit somehow; I’m Artistic Director and perhaps there is a certain perception of that role that would fit with the character of the Duke as a figure of authority. It would make sense to use that impression of me which may be in the shadow of the audience's acceptance of the character. Perhaps behind the Duke's character there’ll be a sense of recognition ‘Ah, that's the Artistic Director.’ So that's good to have me play a Duke or a Duchess or play someone with authority in the play.
In my case, the casting decision was made long after the plays were chosen. I haven’t picked a season because there are parts that I wanted to play. Last year was a good time to do Richard II – I told Tim I wouldn’t mind playing that, but I didn’t pick the play for the role. I think The Golden Ass was the last time there was a project that was there because I particularly wanted to play a part but even then, if it would have been better for someone else to play that part, it would have fine.
After I’ve chosen the plays, I place myself in the best place that I can be: if John Dove had wanted me to play Angelo then that's what would have happened. At one point we were talking with Derek Jacobi about whether he would come. If he had agreed to come, then he probably would have taken the part of the Duke. Casting a company is a bit like picking players for sports team where you want to make the best of their individual strengths within the context of a collective group. That's what we’re thinking about in the auditioning process and the same principles govern my roles.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I’ve writing down a lot of things Vincentio says – his lines and the things people say about him. I’ve been watching different films that I thought might give me some clues; for instance, I watched North by Northwest [dir. Alfred Hitchcock] because there's something exquisitely romantic about the story in Measure for Measure that reminds me of a quality in Cary Grant's early films – those ones with love affairs involving an obstacle that prevents two people being together. The love scenes in Cary Grant films are also intriguing. They’re so understated, very proper and reserved, and his characters combine enormous class and bearing with a kind of wit and speed.
I’ve gone along to some AA meetings as well – the Duke has been played as an alcoholic [Robert Glenister in Michael Boyd's 1999 RSC production] and that idea interested me. When I first read the play, I was a little curious about whether Vincentio was dying and if so, whether he knew that he was dying; I wanted to explain why he suddenly embarks on this plan to go and find out what's happening in his kingdom. But lately I’ve been feeling his actions don’t need that kind of justification; there's enough for him to discover without something like that which would clearly be an addition. In a way, I feel that it is his soul rather than his physical body which is dying. He's reached a place where he's not contented with his life.
A matter of life and death
Having said that the idea of death doesn’t have to be in terms of the physical body, that's another possibility that I explored more fully after I watched a film called Living (Ikiru) by Akira Kurosawa. It's a beautiful film about Mr. Wakasi, a civil servant who finds out that he is dying and goes out to explore the world in a very positive and curious way. Mr. Wakasi reminded me of him, the way at a certain point when he is dying, he decides to go out and do something about the world. That reminded me a bit of the Duke: why does he need to test Angelo? Does he need a replacement? It's all about testing Angelo and Escalus because he knows he's only got six months; he must satisfy himself that it will be okay to hand over his power to these men. That would mean at the end he is giving Isabella not himself, but his dowry – his kingdom. Perhaps she would become the Duchess because she deserves it. But that's not really in the text, so I would worry about imposing something like that. I might just take it on secretly. Another guy I know has a debilitating disease at the moment, which requires him to use a stick. I wondered about that. I wrote, ‘Perhaps everybody dies and is reborn somewhere in the play. How alone/lonely is he? How much does he want to know about himself by knowing his society?’ He talks about the law as ‘being like an overgrown lion in a cave that goes not out to prey.’ Is that an animal analogous to him and his debilitated state? Could he impose the law if he wanted to or is he stuck in his cave?
I tend to carry the play around with me always and watch out for connections. For instance I watched a program about very wealthy young Americans called ‘The Hamptons’. One of the young people had made a film about his friends - they were all people who led protected lives and something of their situation reminded me of the Duke. I think it was the combination of enormous luxury and a very solitary and difficult existence. They try to really feel connected - particularly the young man who was making the film, who tried to find out about the world by asking people their opinions – but they find it terribly hard. I thought there was something of that in the Duke's desire to go out and discover a connection with the world. I’ve also been reading and thinking a little bit about King James, and just the whole idea that the author might be trying to say something to this new king about the correct behaviour for a ruler in his play. Critics have suggested several possible points of contact between King James and Vincentio – I’m not sure how far I’ll pursue that.
I’ve been the Master of Voice for the Red Company [performing Romeo and Juliet], so I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about my voice. In my role as Artistic Director, I’ve been talking to a few directors about next season, and it's been interesting to notice how modern directors in other theatres talk about needing to fill the whole space. What they mean is to fill the theatre with scenery and so on. Then I realised that you do want to fill this whole theatre, but you need to fill it with sound, not with matter. The space is marvellous for sound, and our culture wants to take anything that's empty and fill it. Fill it with food, fill it with sensation – it's very difficult to let an undeveloped plot stay undeveloped, or a moment of time to remain free from the pressures of a timetable or an activity. So I’ve been thinking of experimenting with character detail through my vocal work rather than through the sort of physical alteration after Olivier, say. I’ve been thinking ‘How much can I alter my voice?’ The Duke is a very difficult part in that sense: I’ve thought of all kinds of things I might do, different dialects and things. But it feels such a very human part too. Here is someone who wants to try and get to his centre by going out into his kingdom, to find out about himself as well his land and his people. I also think there's something kind of ambiguous and neutral to him. He always pretends – he's hiding and shy. How do you inflect your voice with those nuances?
Lack and opposition
John Dove said of Measure for Measure that ‘Everyone is miscast for the task that they face in the story, and everyone lacks something at the beginning of the story.’ I said, rather stupidly, ‘Well, what does that Duke lack?’ and he said, ‘Well, a partner.’ Of course, the final, inconclusive moment of the play pivots on his offer to Isabel: he asks if she will be his wife and we don’t know what she says or does. It's one of those endings that Shakespeare leaves marvellously open and enigmatic. The idea of a lack made me think perhaps I should start off as lonely and solitary, and isolated and shy, or like those rich young people from ‘The Hamptons’ – someone who has enough money that everything can be controlled. He can have the best shoes, the best clothes. He can absolutely have exactly the right food at exactly the right time at exactly the right temperature. Everything can be perfect, yet he's unsatisfied. He finds that it's all at odds.
Vincentio loves to bring up the oddness of things. He has a wonderful speech that begins:
Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter [III.1.5-6]
He elaborates on the theme of oppositions:
[…] Merely thou art death's fool
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun,
Yet thou run’st toward him still. [III.1.11-3]
Later on in the same speech he says ‘If thou art rich, thou’rt poor.’ So there is a kind of double perspective, and at the end he says ‘Yet death we fear, / That makes these odds all even.’ Even as he tries to grapple with some kind of balance, he sees oppositions and contradictions.
Even with Isabella, he’ll say things like ‘The hand that hath made you fair, hath made you good.’ He recognises that the very thing which made her beautiful enough to awake Angelo's lust has also made her good enough to withstand that lust. How curious that those two things were given to you. It's something I feel he wonders at. At another point he’ll say, ‘Provost a word with you,’ and the Provost will say, ‘What's your will?’ He’ll say, ‘Now you are come, you will be gone.’ He has a funny mind – he loves to see the opposition in things and how nature puts those things together, not unlike Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, who remarks how a little poison-flower also has a seed of good in it. Shakespeare seems to like to cure or balance things by putting them next to their opposite.
Shakespeare certainly makes Claudio stand face to face with his death [III.1], even when it's not necessary – a bit like when they pretended to execute Dostoevsky and then didn’t. He seems to feel that it would be good for the person to have a closeness with death. From what little I know of indigenous societies, this seems to be common. Young men, if they’re not going to be involved in an actual war, need the Jimmy Dean factor. They need the race to the cliff and experience some closeness with death, to get a sense of proportion about life. It can seem very cruel. There's also the feeling that the Duke's treatment of Isabella is unnecessarily cruel: there's no need for him to let her reside in a belief that her brother has been executed, but he brings her that way in order to see if she can give mercy to Angelo, even whilst she stands in the belief that he has killed her brother. The Duke is like a chess player; he's a few moves ahead of everyone and he seems to be involved in a solitary game. What I’m going to find interesting is seeking out his vulnerability or his particular shadow, because I don’t want him to appear just like a teacher. He needs to be going through something himself… actually I think he's very, very close to the author. Isabella's very close to the author, too. They all are in some ways, but this technique of using illusion in order to bring out the truth is very familiar as Shakespeare.
At the moment, one of the things I’m doing is asking questions ‘What's the objective? What's the need of this person?’ And I wrote in my notes ‘To bring people to a place where they can know the truth without blocking it … truth is like love, it needs to be felt to be known.’ It's no good to just tell people the truth. They have to be in just the right place for them to really hear it. Do you ever have that sensation where you feel like you’ve told someone something five or ten times, and then suddenly you tell them and they go ‘That's brilliant! Why did you never say that before?’ It's just that they didn’t feel it before. So the Duke has realised that it's very important that people feel the truth and the truth is that the world is held, I think, in a kind of love – a great, primal energy that moves things forward. That emotion leads thought; thought doesn’t lead emotion. The Duke is trying to work on the emotional life of the people. We’ve linked with Samaritans, and that's been my initiative, so I’ve been reading a lot about the present society in England and I’m thinking that the Duke could be concerned about a similar situation.
Other little notes I’ve made to myself – none of these are necessarily true, by the way. I just write things down. ‘Everything he says is about himself, his own dilemma. So even when he's advising someone else – ‘Be absolute for death’ –it's slightly easier to understand if he's seen to be taking on their problem and connecting with it. He's not advising so much as thinking ‘If I were you I would be absolute for death.’ Or maybe ‘We should all be absolute for death.’ I’ve been trying to wrap the lines in that kind of idea rather than delivering them like a lecture. I also think he is parentless and an only child. Though there's one thing he says in that ‘Be absolute for death’ speech about how even your children curse you, or rather they curse ‘the serpico, doubt, and rheum for ending you no sooner.’ [III.1] I don’t know if he has children and whether that is something he has actually experienced or just observed, but he does seem pretty much isolated in the play. If he's based a bit on King James, did he experience the kind of violence King James did? King James had a very, very violent youth – comparable to being high up in a mafia family or something. The amount of killing that was going on around him was extraordinary. You just get a sense of this incredible mind that is very isolated and I’m trying to think about the reasons why this might be.
Is he angry that his duty to maintain royal appearances prevents him from falling in love? Is this why he hates ‘seemers’?
[…] Hence we shall see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be [I.3.53-4]
I was thinking a bit of Prince Charles, too, and the pressure of having to seem to do the right thing. Vincentio seems to be so angry with people who are not what they appear to be. I have a friend who at one time was one of the top ten most powerful industrialists in America. He said it was a nightmare – it was impossible, absolutely impossible to get the truth of what was happening around you because, he said, ‘I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t overwhelmed by the possibilities of my supporting their agenda. I had so much power in a room that it was very difficult to get the truth.’ Obviously, seeming becomes a very important concern for people who have power. One forgets how it all balances – a very powerful position can sometimes mean that you’re more vulnerable because you can’t get an impartial view that will protect you and your interests.
Working with John Dove
John [Dove, Master of Play] and I have been working quite closely together. He's a very, very experienced director of new plays but this is his first time doing Shakespeare so we’ve been talking a lot about the play and I was present at casting, though that's totally John's decision. I wanted him to be aware of the former players and I was keen to share what I’ve learnt about their qualities as I know them: I helped provide some information. We also met with a good friend and advisor of mine, Peter Dawkins, and had a very good day talking through the issues of justice and mercy in the play, and why the characters are named as they’re named and those kind of things. I’ve done that kind of work. There's a lot still to do but all in all, I’m pleased with the way things are going.
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.
- Kieran Taylor-Ford, WC1
This is amazing, thank you so much. I never knew the globe did such things and supplied such information. I am currently preparing to play Duke Vincentio in my school production and this has been extremely beneficial. Also because I am a great admirer of Mark's work. Please continue with this project!!!