On the Boards with the Bard
By Adam Green, Public Affairs
Francesa Faridany as Rosalind and John Behlmann as Orlando in the Shakespeare Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Shakespeare Theatre
Last fall, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, presented a stylized version of William Shakespeare's As You Like It set on a movie set in Hollywood's Golden Age. Francesca Faridany did the honors as Rosalind, Shakespeare's feisty, gender-bending heroine. To help us celebrate the Bard's birthday, Faridany spoke with the NEA about, among other things, her predictions for the play's four happy couples.
NEA: What is it about Shakespeare's plays that continue to make them appealing to audiences?
FRANCESCA FARIDANY: Shakespeare writes about people and the dilemmas of people and he does it vividly, with extraordinarily beautiful language. But he also does it with real language. What I mean by that is that much of it is of the street. He knew his people, he knew about their crafts and livelihoods and the specifics of their very real lives. Whether he is telling of kings and duchesses or tradesmen and fairies, he writes about real people's experiences: the pride a joiner takes in his work, the loss of a child, the savagery that nurtured and unbridled jealousy inflicts, the effects of battle on war-torn men, how long it takes to smother a woman with a pillow. It took well-honed specifics of the human condition to keep those groundlings watching a play when they could have been watching bear-baiting, visiting brothels or drinking in the pub instead. That specificity is what continues to appeal today. We like to recognize ourselves, even if it is uncomfortable. It makes us feel accounted for.
NEA: How do you approach Shakespeare?s language? Is there any order of special work you do when studying the text and your lines?
FARIDANY: I tend to simply dive in and read the play over and over first. The more I read it, the more information becomes available; it is all there in the text with his work, truly. Then there comes a time when I may need to make certain words make sense to me more fully---what some people call "owning" the words. There are various exercises you can do to feel these words on your body, so that they feel like words you might really use. Getting up and moving around helps me. I don't mean getting to the blocking of a scene necessarily, but just speaking the language out loud and, again, feeling how the language moves in me physically. What rhythms he uses, to what purpose, the difference between prose and verse, you can begin to feel this very viscerally in your bones, and there is much information there about character and intention. It is a mining game, and for me the body is key---getting out of my head. I don't like being stuck around a table, talking about language for too long.
NEA: It?s often difficult for actors to translate some of Shakespeare?s obscure humor segments; often they center around archaic idioms or obscure references. How did you approach these potential obstacles as a comic heroine?
FARIDANY: Well, decisions have to be made early on, usually by the director and/or dramaturg, if there is one, about whether or not to use the more arcane idioms. Some comedic actors can get meaning across very well, and there is the old ?I'll mime it out for you as I say it? routine which can work. More often than not obscure references are cut, because the audience will spend time thinking about how they don't know what was just said, and then they are taken out of the play.
Sometimes I am attached to a sentence and will try to justify its remaining in the play simply because I love the idea and the language, but it doesn't make it because it is just too obscure. For instance, in As You Like It Rosalind says the following: ?I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras' time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.? She is talking to Celia about the letters that she has found on trees all over the forest of Arden, that seem to be all about her. I love this idea, pulling in Pythagoras and his idea of the transmigration of souls and mixing it with a de rigeur stab at the Irish while conjuring up the idea that she was once a rat... It is very witty, but it is a little much to try to elucidate on the fly! I never got to say it in the run.
NEA: As You Like It is one of the few Shakespeare plays that centers around a female character. After all, you did get the epilogue, usually reserved for the Pucks and Prosperos. Is there a difference, do you think, in the plays that Shakespeare focuses on women, such as All?s Well that Ends Well and As You Like It?
FARIDANY: Well, the difference is predominantly exactly that---the central character is female, and therefore has a completely different set of realities that she has to work with in order to get what she wants. Women did not get to go off and have adventures ordinarily in Renaissance England---testing their heart and their mettle---and certainly not women of noble birth. This adventure is sprung from dire necessity and, like Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind steps into a male persona for survival. What she then is able to find out about herself, because of the freedom this male prerogative gives her, is central to the story and her testing of Orlando and his proclaimed love.
NEA: In order to create a proper lover, Rosalind dresses up like a boy and teaches Orlando how to court a lady. Is all that really necessary?
FARIDANY: Well, this is partly covered in the last question really. She has already taken on the role of the boy Ganymede by the time she meets Orlando in the forest. She thinks pretty quickly on her feet and comes up with this courting lesson idea initially in order to be around him as much as possible. What is interesting though, is that she does not reveal herself to him. There's your ?is that really necessary?? question. Why not just tell him who she is and fall into his arms? Well, she sees the possibility of testing him and finding out what he is made of. She is able to try and shape this man into someone whom she might spend the rest of her life with. She can also air some of her concerns about her behaviour and personality and work on bursting any bubble he may have about women, herself in particular. She paints a pretty blunt picture of herself, or rather the woman he has ?married,? in the mock wedding scene. She wants no pedestal to crash down off of later on.
NEA: In the romantic, untamed Forest of Arden in As You Like It, four couples end up together in various degrees of happiness and certainty. Do you think any of them stand a chance?
FARIDANY: I would say that Rosalind and Orlando stand the best chance I can think of. It is mightily evolved for its time, their relationship. Of course they have to go back to court and the ?tame? world and she would be a woman again (once the revelation happens at the end of the play neither of the girls, Rosalind nor Celia, say anything---apart from the epilogue---which is fairly telling), but considering what they've already been through I like to think they've got it made.
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