This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto.
After their triumphant farewell to the Toronto Fringe in August, Shakespeare Bash’d is back with a staged reading of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s Jacobean Tragi-Comedy The Changeling. This event takes place at The Imperial Pub on Sunday, November 13th at 8p.m. I recently got the chance to chat with director James Wallis and Erin Eldershaw and E.B. Smith who play Beatrice-Joanna and Des Flores.
Tori Carlisle: BASH’d have always been very mindful about starting from and maintaining the text, using costumes, set design, and casting instead to adapt the plays you stage. What is your reasoning or methodology for being so true the words of the text and why do you think it has worked so well?
James Wallis: I really espouse three things: clarity, intention, and pace. Those three things bring the text to life.
To me, the text is what makes these plays exciting and unique. When we think of what makes Hamlet the play that we know, it is not the plot (which is mostly lifted from an old play) but the words that Hamlet speaks. It’s the rich variety and stunning ambiguity of the text that draws me to these plays.
I think this approach has worked because actors are driven to these plays because of their ambiguities. They want to have options when playing these plays. The text gives them choices to work with. It opens up avenues for the story to come alive. If you learn the play, you get closer to the characters and their intentions. Actors want to make choices. They crave it. The text gives them those choices.
The Changeling is a gorgeous text and so dramatic. It’s been a joy to learn the text as a company and try to make it come alive.
Tori: You’ve consistently taken staged readings out of the realm of workshopping and have made them the ‘main event,’ what is it about staged readings that appeal to you the most?
James: The text becomes your only means of telling the story. It’s a very exciting way to enjoy a play. There’s something very intriguing about the text being the vital lifeline for the audience. It’s an almost completely oratory experience for the audience, which is something that Shakespeare’s audience would have been very used to. Essentially they are a way to go back to basics with the story, the text, and the actor. It’s very cool.
Tori: Last year you did a fantastic staged reading of Marlowe’s Edward II and this year you plan to take on Middleton and Rowley’s savage drama, The Changeling, what has motivated you to try tackling other early modern playwrights in this format?
James: The plays that we have chosen to do as staged readings recently are unknown to most audiences. It’s a great introduction to the contemporary works that surrounded Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. There are some gems out there that rarely get performed. I’m glad there’s been a resurgence with The Changeling recently because it is a grotesquely fun play. Plus, it’s always a fun experience to watch someone come see our show and not know how it ends! As a company that does Shakespeare, that is not always the experience.
Tori: The Changeling contains two distinct plots, do you plan to incorporate both into the reading?
James: They mirror each other in a great number of ways and I believe that Middleton & Rowley were working very intimately together. Therefore, I think the plots need to move from one to the other easily and with brevity, despite the plots being two different sides of the emotional coin. The main plot is very intriguing and sexy, but the subplot is full of madmen and fools! What both share is a fundamental distaste for conventional morality and the need to put on disguises to achieve their goals. The idea of a “Changeling” is multi-faceted and there are different examples of it throughout the play, in both plots.
Tori: While the play is one of the best examples of tragicomedy from the Jacobean period, it has the potential to be upsetting to modern audiences, how do you plan to tackle this uncomfortableness, or do you plan to embrace it?
James: I’ve no doubt it will turn some people off because of its interior grossness, but this is the play we chose to do and that’s what we are doing. I think we have to embrace it. My experience is that the moments of discomfort tend to manifest themselves in humour or absurdity more than anything. Plus, there is nothing a few beers can’t do to make the play more palatable.
Tori: Beatrice-Joanna is such a rich and morally complicated character. Is she a murderer, a temptress, a victim, or all of the above? Do you plan to address the gender issues/ politics of the play and if so how?
James: The gender politics are ugly to modern tastes and they are completely valid but Beatrice-Joanna is a character from the Jacobean period. Therefore we need to appreciate the roles in that society that she would have participated in.
I believe she wants to be married (though I don’t know she cares to whom.) At first, it’s Alonzo, then Alsemero, and…well who knows what would have happened if she and De Flores were never found out.
I think Beatrice-Joanna is a person without a real moral center. Her decision to request the murder of Alonzo is one she makes through some very reasonable logic within herself. She’s unaffected by the pangs of guilt, in my opinion. Besides, there is textual evidence that her relationship with De Flores has always been driven by a sexual attraction, even in the early part of the play when she hates him with contempt.
Is she forced into this role of a murderer because a society is forcing gender roles on her? I don’t think so. I believe that Beatrice-Joanna is a person bent on personal gain and has the capability of achieving what she desires. She understands how to manipulate people, and sometimes surprises herself how well she can. De Flores is a similar person. While other people are seeing the world the way it is, De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna see the world as it could be.
Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores are kindred spirits to a certain extent. They experience a genuine connection, romantic or not. We have moral problems with it and so did the Jacobean’s. But this play gives them strength, understanding, intelligence, and will. They are the most imaginative two in the play. Beatrice-Joanna is arguably more imaginative than De Flores.
Tori: The class struggles and two distinct plots and settings of the play are an interesting and essential part of not just this play, but many of Middleton’s plays, how have you tried to balance the class elements without neglecting the upsetting gender/ mental health issues in your reading?
James: We will try to give the whole perspective of the play but it may be difficult because of the boundaries of our reading. We’re looking to tell a simple story that reflects the play in the most encompassing way.
We have spoken about class, as that conflict defines some of the relationships in the play. De Flores himself is somewhat driven by his class struggle but it’s not overt. Middleton is essentially a satirist, and his great city comedies reflect his desires to spoof the social order he saw around him. That being said, this play seems to be a very human and moral story; one that is tempered by Rowley’s brilliant (and underrated critically) subplot. Yes, the subplot’s depiction of madness is nasty but it’s very exaggerated. And very Jacobean.
Tori: What are you most excited about for this production? What do you want the audience to take away?
James: I want the audience to take away anything they care to. It’s up to them what they see and like.
I’m excited for this amazing group of actors to get a chance to do this play as an ensemble. We have been blessed as a company with one of our strongest and most exciting company of actors. I can’t wait to hear it all.
Tori: What has been the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in taking on the role of Beatrice-Joanna?
Erin Eldershaw: The biggest challenge for me is playing the truth in all of Beatrice-Joanna’s manipulations. Beatrice-Joanna seems to be able to rationalize every choice / action she makes, keeping her virtue and ‘honesty’ righteous within her own morale, while demonizing all the people around her. She is able to change her worldview to suit her own needs. It’s quite easy to play this as a demonic person, or as my director said this afternoon, a “cartoon” character (à la Dr. Drakken from Kim Possible). But she’s not. She truly believes her actions are pure right up until her final moments. So the difficulty for me lies between allowing the audience to see her cognitive, manipulative side, but not so much as to lead them down the ‘villain’ finger-pointing road. Nor drawing back far enough that she seems completely innocent of all wrong-doing. I guess pulling this off would be a reward in and of itself. My biggest reward, however, in taking on Beatrice-Joanna is simply being able to examine a role of such size with the incredible people that I’m currently surrounded by. James Wallis & Julia Nish-Lapidus have created a family within this company, and I am blessed to be a part of it. Every person brings this intense creative energy to the table, which allows for a rehearsal process that is truly unique and allows the story to build into what it is now.
Tori: Do you think the audience should feel any sympathy for her or empathy for the position she has been forced into by her father?
Erin: That’s a tough question. Beatrice-Joanna is living in a time when women are seen as property and ruled over by men. So to her, it is simply the way of the world, and she may even see it as an honorable duty to fulfill. It can be argued that she is actually quite content with her father’s choice, and agrees to marry Alonzo de Piracquo with satisfaction and fulfillment. That is until she sees Alsemero and changes her mind on a dime. But! If you were to set this play in 2016, I can only imagine that certain members of the audience would sympathize with Beatrice, and rail against the idea that women are not able to love and marry who they please. I think some members of the audience would feel she is forced to make these blood-thirsty decisions because she would be shamed and not accepted for her true heart’s desires. I leave that reaction in their capable hands and am very enthralled to see what might come of it.
Tori: You’ve been a part of a number of indie Shakespeare productions in the city, what do you enjoy most about performing Shakespeare in Toronto, and in particular, with Shakespeare BASH’d?
Erin:I enjoy that at the end of a run, on the last show, a certain line will catch me by surprise and I finally understand its meaning. It could be my line or another character’s line, but there’s always something changing. There’s no end to what you can discover by diving into these grotesque and beautiful examinations of the human experience. Jacobean and Elizabethan plays depict these tragic yet oddly hilarious sequences of events in an erotic and absurd manner that tantalizes the mind. It’s like putting together a really big, exciting puzzle. And the puzzle breathes while you work on it, then disappears. It’s poetic. And kind of maniacal. Maybe because of its proximity to the Stratford Festival, or because it contains many classically-oriented training programs, but Toronto has a large support for independent Shakespeare companies at the moment. Most of the graduates I know from said programs have either worked for, collaborated with, or formed their own company that’s dedicated to investigating heightened text and exploring stories in new ways. Shakespeare BASH’d caught my attention some years ago when A) they continually sold out their shows and no one could scam a ticket (me), and B) when I finally saw Merry Wives and laughed so much that I couldn’t finish my beer (savage). The pure energy blasting from the stage kept my undivided attention the whole way through. At last years’ Comedy, I had the stranger beside me exhale, “It’s Shakespeare for people who don’t understand Shakespeare! I get it now!” This kind of response which BASH’d elicits could not make me a happier artist.
Tori: What are you most excited about in this production?
Erin: Oh, jeez! I’m excited about the dance, I’m excited about the stage combat, I’m excited about the audience, I’m excited about all the beer they will consume …I’m honestly just excited to see how the whole thing will come together. It’s a staged reading, not a full production, so plot lines such as bodily dismemberment, ghosts appearing, and large house fires will be difficult to pull off. I have all faith James has some epic devices in his back pocket, and I can’t wait to experience the full effect on the night of. I’ve probably said too much (spoilers), but it will happily be an outrageous night. One I cannot wait to share with everyone.
Tori: What has been the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in taking on the role of DeFlores?
E.B. Smith: When James first asked me to take a shot at this role for the staged reading, I think what drew me to it first was the challenge of finding within the character something beyond the seeming villainy that he embodies. It is easy to imagine that he and Beatrice-Joanna are driven by some psychopathy or desire to cause harm, but it is a challenge to figure out what characters like these actually love. DeFlores seems to have a haunted conscience by the end, despite being a good actor and playing it down, and the nature of that seeming remorse is intriguing. As for rewards, the opportunity to play with this cast and company is extraordinary. I’ve not worked much in Toronto previously, and I am so excited to work with this supremely talented bunch of actors. So thanks to James and Julia for bringing me on!
Tori: Do you think the audience should feel any sympathy for him?
E.B.: I’m not sure that I can answer that question objectively… I believe that it was the intention to write a character who is human and thus struggles with the things that motivate all of us: social status, lust, love, desire for belonging as well as money. But he does some pretty awful things to people who clearly don’t deserve it. So, I think it’s up to an audience to find empathy for De Flores if they will. Sympathy may be a bit too much to ask, but it’s my job not to judge his behavior too harshly through the work. I have to have compassion for him for the audience to have a prayer of identifying something in him to empathize with.
Tori: You have played in extremely large spaces with complicated staging, how has it been stripping all that away and working on a staged reading?
E.B.: It’s always great to get back to basics and tell a story as simply as is possible. That is, after all, the fundamental job of a theatre artist. No matter what the production value or venue, our primary task is to impart plot, character, and thought to an audience of thousands or dozens. Sometimes big stages and sets can compete with the purity of that goal, but not always. Either way, this format is a treat to remember that even unadorned, we can still have an experience with an audience that can enrich, entertain, and thrill.
Tori: What are you most excited about this production?
E.B.: I’m excited for the element of the unknown that a performance in a bar affords! I think it’s fantastic that Shakespeare BASH’d brings this work to such unconventional spaces to get not only the audience shook up but artists as well. This play lends itself well to a bit of chaos, I think, so the energy on that night with this material will definitely be worth it!
Tori: Thanks for these amazing responses! I’m sure I’m not alone in being enormously excited about what you all have in store!
Shakespeare BASH’d presents a staged reading of The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton & William Rowley
Sunday, November 13, 8pm
at The Imperial Pub (54 Dundas St E)
Advance sales are sold-out.
A limited number of PWYC tickets will be available at the door. Come early to secure your seat, they will go fast!
De Flores: E.B. Smith
Beatrice-Joanna: Erin Eldershaw
Alsemero: Jordin Hall
Vermandero/Pedro: Tom McGee
Alonzo de Piracquo: Jeff Dingle
Tomazo de Piracquo: Megan Miles
Alibius: Tim MacLean
Lollio: Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Isabella: Eliza Martin
Jasperino/Antonio: Kwaku Okyere
Diaphanta/Francisca: Kate MacArthur
Directed by James Wallis
Associate Director/Producer: Julia Nish-Lapidus
Choreography: Jade Douris