During rehearsals for James Wallace’s The Dolphin’s Back production of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon (Shakespeare’s Globe, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) back in August 2017, we had time to catch up with a few of the cast members and ask them how it felt to play gods, Nature, men, and women on the Sam Wanamaker stage in pre-1590s drama. [Read about the play and its recent staging—as well as programme notes—here.]
Some of the cast have acted across a variety of plays in the Before Shakespeare canon since our first workshop on The Three Ladies of London in Mile End in January 2017 and our Read Not Dead season at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer. Some are new to non-Shakespearean Elizabethan plays. It’s been fascinating to hear their various thoughts on character, verse, and narrative and to learn about their experiences embodying these extraordinary figures so long absent from the London stage.
Below is a selection of responses from our Q&A, which have been transcribed from audio recordings…
A question for the planets in The Woman in the Moon: Your speaking time in the play is bunched into particular sections—the beginning and end of the play, and your “ascendant” scene. Yet during your respective scenes, you spend a lot of time present but silent on stage. How does it feel to play something like an “onstage director” of Pandora?
AMMAR DUFFUS (Mercury): I think it’s important that you don’t pull focus. So you’re very much in the scene and you watch it. And obviously because [Mercury’s] just come in and caused loads of mischief, so he’s just watching it all unfold and how it affects Pandora’s work. . . . You’re stood on a higher point, watching that happen. As a planet, looking down on the earth, so to speak.
LEO WAN (Sol): The idea is that where all the Gods have their scene, they’re the ones who have got all the influence over Pandora. So, after my little bit of speaking, then I do just stand there doing… not much. But what I’m trying to do is focus very much on Pandora . . . where you’re looking at Pandora you’re having the influence on her. It’s about trying to make sure the focus is on her and what’s happening to her, and almost disappearing into the scenery. Obviously you can’t get away from the fact that you’re standing on stage, but the other characters generally can’t see you, Pandora can’t see you: standing there, giving all of your energy to Pandora.
JOY CRUICKSHANK (Venus): It’s bizarre—you’ve got to come on very definitely, and present that idea, and then constantly be present in the scene, and feel like you are having an influence over that person. It was great to watch it in its entirety [during the dress rehearsal] and feel where you come in and actually change this person [Pandora]. It’s a bit like being a semi-director in the play, because you do come on and move this person about. As an actor, you feel slightly powerless, because you’re just watching, but as a god, you have to feel like it’s you in control of that person.
TIM FRANCES (Jupiter): It feels to me like the direction is done early in the scene and very directly—that’s it, and then we watch what she does with it. It’s entertainment. [. . .] From seeing it as Jupiter, I think it’s entertainment: let’s see what they do with it.
DAVID MEYER (Saturn): I love watching and being onstage—no lines, yes, it’s my favourite bit really! Cast the spell or set the scene, and then you watch!
TIM: It’s very in-keeping with the legends as well, especially the Greek legends, where gods are putting obstacles in the way of humankind and then watching what they do with it. And sometimes they do something rather wonderful with it, which is either a joy or a disappointment.
DAVID: You’re eavesdropping on mortal folly.
TIM: [. . .] All these playwrights loved staging invisibility of one sort of another, whether it’s supposedly actual invisibility or whether it’s an arras —it’s a device that they love. So when you’re in the situation where you’re visible to audiences only, it’s a delightful conceit, that these audiences clearly loved.
It’s not the first time in 1580s and 90s plays that we see an assembly of disgruntled gods onstage. Do you enjoying playing a part in such a divine colloquium?
LEO: It’s definitely fun. It feels . . . it’s quite difficult, because the characters are quite unnatural. They’re very extreme distillations of human characteristics, which could be a bit one-note, and its difficult to keep up. But then it’s also quite fun, because it does make it more extreme, in some ways, you don’t have to make quite such an attempt to be naturalistic in terms of the human interactions. They are almost cartoonishly broad characters.
We asked Tim and David about their various roles across the Read Not Dead season, where they’ve played a series of supposedly strong patriarchal authority figures who are subject to on-stage challenges—often from younger female characters. David played Ottaviano, the father to Virginia, in Fidele and Fortunio and the King of Valencia (in the later additions) in Mucedorus. Tim played Androstus the King of Aragon in Mucedorus and Phyzantius, the royal father of Fidelia and Armenio in The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune.
As part of our Read Not Dead run, you’ve each played two strong patriarchal authority figures. In those plays, all four characters’ daughters challenge their authority. In The Woman in the Moon, you’re playing two of the most powerful Gods in classical mythology [Jupiter and Saturn], and while demonstrating your power you also ultimately fail to get your own way. What is your experience of playing these ostensibly strong male characters in early plays?
TIM: It’s lovely to play someone who feels like they know what’s going on, and then they realise that they really, really don’t… [. . .] Especially if you’re a king, you think, oh well you’re sorted because you’re the king. And then when your child, or your wife, or the boy you don’t know is your long lost son, screws it up, then it’s extremely enjoyable to see how that unravels…
DAVID: In these sort of plays, youth is a great fetish; there’s a great delight in youth—youth always has the most fun and the old people are running around and trying to catch up, or patching things up [. . .].
TIM: I think these are guys—John Lyly’s certainly one—who are discovering how to shape stories and characters. And Lyly writes very humanly; he doesn’t write ciphers . . . certainly from [this] play. And the lovely thing in this is that the gods are created in man’s image, and the foibles and frailties of these guys are absolutely there…it’s there to be coloured in.
Enter Nature . . . You’re reprising your role as Nature, Lyly’s female creator figure. The character has some very powerful speeches at the beginning and end of the play. What do you make of her use of language?
JULIA SANDIFORD (Nature): What I’ve loved about working on this play in terms of language, is it’s been so new to me. In my training my focus was on Shakespeare, all the classical work I’ve done has been Shakespeare, and the majority of the classical theatre I’ve seen as an audience member has been Shakespeare, so you get used to his canon and his language. So it’s been really exciting for me to come to a play that’s of the same period, and that is “scary, old classical language” and find how simple it is. And there’s a simplicity to the language that makes it so direct and powerful, and there’s also a richness to his vocabulary. . . I was surprised that something I thought would be very alien was actually easier to digest in my body than some of Shakespeare. Surprised also because my character is dealing with the elements, like in later Shakespeare where there are so many complicated ideas and complicated uses of language, whereas here I feel that the writing is really assured, confident, and adept, and so direct. It is not so much being clever with language, making witty points, playing with language to make your point —it’s just a very robust use of language to make your point, yet very rich. And that’s what I love—the simplicity, but also the richness of it.
There is a big gap in the middle of the play where Nature is absent. Do you see Nature as something of a prologue or epilogue figure, or as a character with ultimate power over the play’s narrative?
JULIA: She completely has complete power! I don’t think she’s controlling; she’s the ultimate creator and the ultimate destroyer. I’ve found that it’s such a thrill to come back to this play, because I feel that three years ago I was wrestling with the character of Nature and the language,. This time, I feel like I’m coming back and really making new discoveries about something. So the way I’ve seen it is, I thought Nature was before very benevolent, and that’s what she says—“the boon were great that Nature would not grant”—so she gives and creates and is fertile. But I think what I missed last time, which I knew academically but I don’t think I owned in my performance, is that she can also destroy.
When she says “I can destroy you planets, if you cross me” it made me think of natural disasters. I was in my garden learning my lines, because my garden is so full of nature, and it was really inspiring, and then I thought of floods and tsunamis, and you think how Nature has no compunction about destroying, and sometimes it’s not even a moral judgement. And I thought that this time, when she turned Gunophilus into a hawthorn [bush—at the end of the play]. I don’t think he really deserved to be a hawthorn, but it’s just one of those things like *snaps fingers* I’m doing that—and I don’t think his punishment really fits his perceived crime… So this time I’ve really thought about how Nature is as dangerous as she is generous.
But, coming back to where does she fit in the play. So she has the power to create and destroy, but I think in this narrative, she’s having a good frolic, she’s having a good surveying period—here I come to survey this, this, and this. So I don’t think she’s making anyone do things—it’s the planets acting on Pandora, and Nature sits back and has a look. I think she sits and watches what happens with the planets—and it was really helpful that workshop we did on the planets and their movement, because watching it I suddenly saw all their different qualities, and they felt like my toys. And before I thought how powerful the planets were, and it’s hard for me as an actor to see how I can top a planet; I thought, right, it’s really hard for me to imagine being bigger than that. But then when I saw the movement work we did, I just saw how stuck they were in their orbits, and I found them quite foolish and loveable and silly, and so they’re no danger to me. So I really enjoyed watching them. And I found it quite light-hearted this time coming back at the end of the play and finding that some of the planets have fallen in love with Pandora, and I feel quite benevolent, and I feel like Pandora’s my child— and if you have a child isn’t that the most wonderful thing ever. And then throughout the story you see Pandora being wonderful [. . .].
How about the play’s ending and its treatment of gender and sexuality?
JULIA: I was thinking about how all the planets are my toys, but that I’m so pleased she chooses Luna. . . Some might ask, “is Lyly sexist?” Is it a sexist thing that woman’s actual, natural, default setting is “lunacy,” and “demanding toys”. Actually, for me, I feel like Nature, or as I see it Lyly, is saying, ‘women—be yourselves, be every crazy thing you are, and then you’re free’. And I think I’ve actually found that going into society, because we’re so busy trying to be the right kind of woman, and if we could just admit ‘hey, we have periods, and we’re in a bad mood, and the moon has done this to us,’ but we’ve got so many talents [. . .] Pandora’s got all the talents of the planets! And if she’s just allowed to be bonkers with it, she would be her most free self. And I feel such a care towards Pandora from Nature, and I want her to be free in her particular brand of lunacy, and I don’t think that’s a sexist, female thing, I think that’s a release. Because once you’re free in all your complexities and your lunacy, maybe you can just get on with being brilliant and ruling the world.
There are a few things that Gunophilus says, where I think ‘that’s a little bit annoying as a feminist what you’re saying’, but it’s also playfully done… I was running lines with a friend, and the last line of the play is “I charge thee follow her, but hurt her not,” and my friend [. . .] he just went “oh yes!”—he just thought of all the ways women have been mistreated, and how historically men have had power [. . .] And I just think, I don’t mind if you call us lunatics, but just let us be ourselves and don’t hurt us.
Emma Denly has also played a series of powerful female roles in Before Shakespeare plays in 2017, including Lucre in The Three Ladies of London, Victoria in Fidele and Fortunio, and now Discord and Juno in The Woman in the Moon [and, subsequent to the recording of this interview, she also played Sapho in Lyly’s Sapho and Phao at the final Before Shakespeare Read Not Dead].
How do you find playing characters in these early plays who hold great power not only in the world of the play but who also dominate, command, and direct the stage: you have played Lucre, Victoria, and now Juno? Characters who not only hold great power in the world but on the stage, in terms of dominating and directing what goes on.
EMMA: It’s refreshing, I think, because quite a lot of the early parts that I’ve played before, that I’ve been cast in, tend to be like Rosalind, or Viola, or Portia, who play men and therefore can dictate what’s going on. So here it’s great to dictate what’s going on but not “dressed up”. That’s been novel and interesting. Obviously this play [The Woman in the Moon] is quite problematic about what it says about women generally, at points, and it’s quite difficult to hear it, but even just in the stage time and in the fact that not only the main character but some of the subsidiary characters are women, also makes it quite satisfying.
Fidele and Fortunio was interesting, because Rachel [Winters] (Concord and Luna in The Woman in the Moon) was in that too and she was playing Virginia, and so there was more than one of us, and it’s not just that we were love interests, really (although it does appear like that if you read the cast list); they actually have a huge influence over what happens. So it’s quite nice not to be a character that’s in relation to somebody else. It’s not like someone’s husband, or someone’s lover, or someone’s daughter—they’re just people.
We’ve been talking about this backstage just now: the final speech at the end, when Pandora chooses to be in Luna’s sphere, and Jamie [Askill] (Iphicles in The Woman in the Moon) might have said something similar to this, if you dissect it, it’s that she wants to be everything: she wants to be all of the planets, and she can’t assign herself to each of them, as she risks offending their partners. You can interpret it that Lyly is saying, ‘women are all mad’: but also you can say, well she wants to be a little bit of everything—like a person! [. . .] She experiences everything; she has a whole wealth of experiences under her belt, and she says ‘I don’t want to pick one of them, I want all of them’ and to be part of that dialogue is exciting.
At drama school, because I was a bit older than the others and because I’m tall, I got cast as lots of older women who tend to have a little bit more gumption, perhaps—particularly widows, who have a special set of circumstances that means that they can act in their own way —and although that was very irritating in terms of casting and exposure to the industry and things like that, it meant that I got to play fully formed women. And so this seems to be another continuation of that, except I’m playing strong women my own age.
It’s really exciting, this whole thing for me, because I came to see Read Not Deads when I was at University, where there was quite a sway on early modern stuff when I was there, so I was like ‘this is amazing— it’s like combining two of my favourite things in one place!’, and I really wanted to be involved. So I came to see a couple, and I met James [Wallace] there a few times, and then cut to about three years later, he saw me act on the Globe stage in the Wanamaker Festival with RADA, and I’ve been doing Read Not Dead and Globe Education stuff ever since, and also stuff for The Dolphin’s Back, James’s production company. So it’s great to have seen it go from readings and workshops to now a fully-fledged production: it’s quite exciting—especially as it’s under candlelight!
Some of the cast are Read Not Dead old hands, used to staging these early plays with limited rehearsal. Ammar was coming at Woman in the Moon fresh, so to speak, and with a different set of experiences. We asked him how it felt to work on a less well- known Elizabethan play (that some might think of as unusual or bizarre).
AMMAR: It’s a first for me. I’ve only done, say, Shakespeare, but I’ve never done other Elizabethan plays or John Lyly. Which was interesting, when I read the script, because I thought, ‘Oh this is different, but still very similar in some ways to Shakespeare.’ And working with everybody [in the cast], who already know each other, they’ve made me feel really at home!
Venus is such a powerful character, not only here but across early commercial plays. She remains something of an icon today. We asked Joy how she approached taking on such a culturally dominant figure—especially in a play in which she is one among a number of sparring deities?
JOY: Yes [it’s different]—especially with Nature being the creator of us all, because we’re not the crème de la crème [. . .] . What’s interesting for me is that [. . .] in my mind I had Venus like the painting of her— barefoot, not wearing as much clothing, but about sensuality and the sexuality of her being there. But because [in The Woman in the Moon] there is Nature, she has to be definitive—[so in this production we are] seeing her as a bawd or prostitute, someone who knows sex; it was interesting for me to come at it from that way, as a very modern Venus: she’s not like the classical paintings. I guess in a way it’s a question of what is a modern woman; what is sexuality today as opposed to then or in these paintings? It was interesting to me to play her as something not so timeless but of this time.
At the beginning of rehearsals, director James Wallace ran a workshop on embodying the planets using sixteenth-century prose fiction, cosmology, and physical exercises. Did that change the way you thought about Venus?
JOY: Definitely. I’m very cerebral and think about things a lot, and it helped get me into her body. James asked me to direct everybody to move like Venus, and I was getting such glee from seeing everybody descending into chaos and becoming very sensual.
The workshop was fantastic in creating clear psychical definitions of each of the planets – in body and personality. We read these amazing essays where the planets would argue about which one was the best so early on we had this idea of one upmanship. The cosmology side was interesting, learning that each of the planets/gods has their own signifying colours, moods, body parts and so on. Venus is led by her reproductive organs, her breasts, and also her neck – this gave me so much physically! We had the chance to inhabit each of the other planets in turn, so we were all also learning how to be different from each other in body, movement and tempo. Unlike some of the other gods, I found that Venus isn’t a quick mover — instead she luxuriates in her own motion.
How do you get on with the change in rhythm, from the heavily metrical plays Three Ladies and Fidele to the blank verse of Woman in the Moon?
EMMA: I’m a bit of a verse nerd, so it’s something I do notice. I don’t say very much in The Woman in the Moon, and what I do say is in blank verse. I really enjoyed playing Victoria [in Fidele and Fortunio], because it’s written in couplets, which in the past I’ve done and found really restrictive (I played Luciana in Comedy of Errors and she speaks in couplets, and it’s infuriating, as it seems to be pulling against your natural instinct), whereas in Fidele and Fortunio, they were fine. So it’s interesting to play around with different forms and styles. For this play [The Woman in the Moon] [. . .] Lyly is quite good at . . . getting as close as it sounds to how people speak, but also at using poetry at moments where it’s needed—where there’s no other way to say something but ‘I must put alliteration through the whole of this line.’ Juno does have a few of those: there’s one where she says, “but as for thee, thy shameless counterfeit, thy pride shall quickly lose thy painted plumes,” and I was doing this yesterday and I was just spitting everywhere. It just works for Juno’s wrath in that moment.