“He wanted to do something strange and melancholic, but also very joyful.” Zoë Waites was speaking about Michael Attenborough and his choice of As You Like It, which he directed at Shakespeare Theatre Company. When I interviewed STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the time he announced his season, he indicated to me that Attenborough could have pretty much had his pick among the plays in the canon and that the celebrated British director, who recently left London’s prominent Almeida Theatre, which he led for more than ten years, had made a somewhat surprising choice.
“I wasn’t part of the process,” Waites qualified when I asked her what had drawn Attenborough to the play. But then she pointed out that he had never directed it before. Referring to the play’s heroine, the part she is playing, she added, “I think he was drawn to Rosalind and to who that young woman is. He’s directed a lot of the great tragedies, and I think he wanted to have a go at a quite different kind of piece. It’s quite interesting to me, having worked with him on three of the great tragedies. This is quite different in tone.”
Many if not most in the audience at STC’s Lansburgh Theatre (Kahn also told me that Attenborough preferred the smaller venue over STC’s Harman Hall) will have seen the play before, so I asked Waites what would be different about this new production. “That’s a great question, and one that we always need to be asking about any play we do again and again and again. He’s taken, and re-taken, the play very seriously. The play is often hilarious, smile-inducing, skittish, light-hearted, and a little bit slapstick-y, I suppose. Mike has looked to make it a real experience in that world.
“Even the smaller characters are taken very seriously. They are still excruciatingly funny, but they are three dimensional. The world that is conjured up for Arden is very beautiful, but it’s a simple, economical staging that brings the actors into relief, that puts the emphasis on the story and the truthfulness of the people as it plays out. People are very struck seeing something real and involving and fresh. It’s a quite pared-down way for the audience to experience it.”
Waites told me that she has never done the play before, in this part or any other, although she has seen it a lot of times. “Other plays I knew much, much better than this. I was pretty open to it, I hadn’t decided by any means who I thought that this person was, and I was very curious about who she was going to be.”
Waites’ emphasis on her character’s transformation throughout the play is one I found fascinating. Considering the question of “how much of who she is is determined before things begin,” she drew a comparison between her approach and one in which it’s a “foregone conclusion that she’s already all these things — witty, overly in control, commandeering. My experience of playing her is that she has very little voice at court. Celia is more talkative at court. We get glimpses of who [Rosalind] will become, but little ones. As the story unravels, she falls back on her resources and discovers that they are incredible.” She’s not an overbearing “head girl,” Waites argued, but someone “trying to cope from moment to moment. She’s vulnerable, but she’s finding strength in her resourcefulness and her wit.”
“I hadn’t realized how important the relationship with Orlando is,” Waites observed. “Falling in love is a moment of absolute astonishment for her. Playing those scenes has been a complete revelation, how varied, how much fun, how intimate they are, in an odd way, even when she is pretending to be a different gender. Often people think, ‘She seems so capable, how can he keep up?’ But he’s a great match; he opens up new bits of her to herself. As the play goes on, she reveals more and more about her hopes and aspirations for marriage. Through her Ganymede disguise, she gives voice to all the things she hopes for. [Orlando] will take her as a flawed human being, take her for what she is and not what he imagines she might be. I had not really understood that about the play before. I hadn’t known that beforehand.”
I knew that Waites had worked with Attenborough frequently before this. Before the Almeida gig, Attenborough had been Principal Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is the son of the recently deceased Richard Attenborough, the Oscar-winning film director who is, I believe, along with Lord Olivier, the only thespian ever elevated to the peerage. Waites was Goneril in the younger Attenborough’s 2012 King Lear at the Almeida (that production, featuring Jonathan Pryce in the title role, was filmed) and Desdemona in his 2000 RSC Othello. But what, I wondered, was the third great tragedy she had done for him?
It was the lead in Romeo and Juliet “at RSC when I was 22. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. I have learned so much from him.” When I asked what keeps them coming back to each other, she laughed and said that she couldn’t speak for him, but for her, working with him is enormous fun. “That is not unique to me. Anyone who has worked with him knows that, as well as being brilliant and incredibly gifted and so insightful, he is enormous good fun. He always casts actors who are really generous and open and that makes for a very, very happy rehearsal process, one that is happy and free and honest. He is wonderful at making that happen. We have a great time together.”
“Anybody would say,” she continued, explaining the advantages of long-term collaboration, that frequent colleagues will be “easy with each other, will have a short-hand and an easy way of communicating with each other. That’s key with these plays. You need to be very vulnerable, you can lose time [getting to know each other.] It’s great to have some people who already have an easy working relationship, when the work isn’t impeded by having to negotiate a new relationship. It’s very direct and easy. He knows he can say anything to me and I’ll be fine with that.”
We talked about trends in audience attention span and expectations, and how people want, as she put it, a play that lasts “an hour and ten minutes with no interval and then they are off to a restaurant. You’ll be happy to know that that isn’t only an American trend, we have the same problem at home.”
Against that trend, though, she spoke about her own experience, on stage and off, with theatre of epic length. “I did a show once that was six-and-a-half hours [a revival of Nicholas Nickleby] and had been cut down from nine hours. People adored spending that long at the theatre! The days when we did it all in one day were so much more popular. It becomes an event.” She described seeing Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, which are often bundled along with Richard III into The War of the Roses. “We’d be in the theatre from ten in the morning until midnight. Those were the most amazing days!”
Waites cautioned that, although audiences can be “keen on long events,” at the same time, you have to be careful and “very conscious that you are taking a big chunk out of people’s lives.” Even if it’s Shakespeare and longer than your average contemporary play, it needs to be “truly captivating for all of that time. That’s the responsibility which we have to shoulder.” She spoke admiringly of how “assiduous” STC had been to ensure that As You Like It won’t be, or feel, over-long. (She told me that it runs two hours, forty-five minutes, with one “interval.”)
I pointed out that, while Waites has done contemporary plays and some film and television, the bulk of her career has been in classical theatre. But she balked at being referred to as primarily a classical actor, saying that she “just happens to have done a lot of classical theatre. I’m proud of the classics I’ve done. I love the classical theatre. I think it’s vital for the generations to learn so much from these incredible plays. There’s a treasure trove of material that I’m passionate about being a part of.” That said, about the label “classical actor,” she said, “I never know about that term.” As with actors who don’t want to be thought of only as film actors, she said, “I want to have a go at everything. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, or put into a box and to have the door shut on that box. I’m not wild about that.” But she went to a school (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) famous for training in the classics “and I’m always coming back to that. I’m proud and humbled to be a part of that culture.”
I had to ask her, though, about one particular contemporary role she had done: playing Girl in Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby. I figured, seeing the credit in her bio, that it had been the first London production. What I hadn’t realized, but should have, is that it was the world premiere of the play, Albee’s first since his Three Tall Women brought him a third Pulitzer Prize and a career resurgence.
Waites gave a hearty laugh and said, “Yes, of course he was!” when I asked if Albee, notorious for being involved in productions, even revivals, of his plays in this country, had been as involved in that London production. She told me, though, that he and Howard Davies, the director, had a “gentleman’s agreement” that Albee would be around at the beginning of the process, but then would leave the company on its own.
“He directs his own work, too,” Waites continued. “He’s extraordinary. What a talent. I was completely amazed to be in a world premiere of a play by him. I was fascinated by him. He’s amazing. What’s so brilliant — one of the things he absolutely refuses to do is explain his work in any way, including to the actors. And people asked him constantly what the play means, what happens in the play. His answer was that ‘the play happens, what happens in the play is what happens. How else can I answer you?’”
AS YOU LIKE IT
Closes December 14, 2014
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
When asked how, on her first visit, she found Washington and its audiences, Waites said that they had had so few shows (we spoke a couple of days after the opening) but went on to effuse over the audiences she had experienced, calling them “incredibly positive and respectful and charmingly attentive, terribly warm and supportive, terribly sweet — so far, we’ve had no heckling!” She went on to say that she was enjoying being in a new city and one that is so important to the world and so gorgeous. She then made an interesting point. The audiences she had met had been, up till then, mostly patrons, supporters, and subscribers of STC, and she said that meeting such “engaged patrons is a new thing for me, in a way. It’s so different here, the way subscribers take such a vast interest in a theatre. It’s quite a new thing for me. It was the same in Toronto. We [in London] get more subsidies from the government, and it’s not quite like that” back home for her.
Waites ended with an invitation to our readers to “please come. It’s a wonderful evening. The cast is amazing and the production is interesting and sincere and delightful” and on the Lansburgh stage until December 14th.